Monthly Archives: December 2008

Happy New Year – Meet Your Future Self

sandy_clock_mirror_webAs the New Year dawns, we’re awash as usual with media chatter about resolutions.  And, as usual, all of this flutter and hype is exactly wrong (to say nothing of boring).  No need to go on and on about why resolutions almost always fail – there’s enough material on this topic to keep us all busy reading until 2010. 

That said, results from a new Harris Interactive survey were just released that suggest women are experts at making resolutions, but men are better at keeping them.  Here’s the skinny:

More likely to make a New Year’s resolution:   Women 74%    Men 58%

More likely to keep a New Year’s resolution:     Women 14%    Men 22%

A couple of things to notice right off the bat. First, this is a self-reporting survey (they spoke to 2256 adults, ages 18+, in the U.S., 1495 of whom claimed to have ever made a New Year’s resolution) – so the second part of the results could easily be interpreted as “Men are more likely to say they keep their New Year’s resolutions.”  (I haven’t reviewed the survey methodology so I’ll leave that alone for now.)  

The other thing to notice is that, assuming these results are accurate, both women and men are truly bad at keeping resolutions.  The percentage drop (failure rate) is 60% for women and 36% for men.  I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that men over-reported their success rate a tad, so the drops are probably even closer.   The macro result from the survey was:  

66% of adults have ever made a New Year’s resolution but only 17% always or often keep them

Further validation that making a New Year’s resoution is an exercise in hopeful denial. Better, I think, to make a date with your future self, as this article suggests, and have a looksee a few years up the road — it’s one solution for getting around our tendency for immediacy myopia.

And on that note …. Happy New Year!


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Annals of Ironic Gullibility

annals-of-gull2Stephen Greenspan is a psychologist and professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Colorado, and author of the soon-to-be-released book, Annals of Gullibility: How We Get Duped and How to Avoid It

Here’s a snippet from the publisher’s description:



The first book to provide a comprehensive look at the problem of gullibility, this groundbreaking work covers how and why we are fooled in areas that range from religion, politics, science, and medicine, to personal finance and relationships. First laying the groundwork by showing gullibility at play in the writings of historic authors we all know, developmental psychologist Stephen Greenspan follows with chapters that describe social duping across the gamut of human conduct. From people who pour bucks into investment scams, to those who follow the “faith” of scientologists, believe in fortunetellers, or champion unfounded “medicine” akin to snake oil, we all know someone who has been duped.

Writing the definitive book on how not to be duped is a notable distinction, but unfortunately for Greenspan it’s not the only one that will be tagged to his name for posterity — because Greenspan is himself one of the victims of the biggest investment scam in history, the Madoff Ponzi scheme.  Greenspan lost several hundred thousand in the scam, which devoured $50 billion of defrauded investor cash, so he’s certainly not alone; but if there had been a competition for the greatest irony award of 2008, he’d no doubt be a finalist.

To his credit, Greenspan isn’t shying away from owning his personal loss (not a month before his book is to be released) and discusses it in the latest Skeptic online edition.  The piece is well worth reading. The big takeaway:  almost anyone with the money to invest could have fallen for Madoff’s sophisticated scam, and indeed–from massive corporations to well-regarded charities and everything in between–many did.  From the article:

I suspect that one reason why psychologists and other social scientists have avoided studying gullibility is because it is affected by so many factors, and is so micro-context dependent that it is impossible to predict whether and under what circumstances a person will behave gullibly. A related problem is that the most catastrophic examples of gullibility (such as losing one’s life savings in a scam) are low frequency behaviors that may only happen once or twice in one’s lifetime. While as a rule I tend to be a skeptic about claims that seem too good to be true, the chance to invest in a Madoff-run fund was one case where a host of factors — situational, cognitive, personality and emotional — came together to cause me to put my critical faculties on the shelf.

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The Laws of Emotion: An Interview with Dr. Nico Frijda

frij004_p01Professor Nico Frijda, psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, is regarded as a founding father of contemporary emotion research.  With the publication of his magnum opus, The Emotions, his work set a major benchmark for future research on both the substance and structure of human emotion.  The Laws of Emotion (2006) further pushed the boundaries of this research by describing general rules of emotion that not only enhance understanding, but also establish a vocabulary with which to discuss one of the most consistently elusive topics in the history of psychology. 

Dr. Frijda recently spent some time with Neuronarrative discussing the difference between feeling and emotion, the complex linkage between emotions and sex, and the emotional undertones of our economic crisis.


Your work on the psychological dynamics of emotions has set the standard for study in this area. What originally made you gravitate toward studying emotions?

Originally it was my amazement as a young man about being able to “see” the emotions of the girl I was in love with, whereas emotions are supposed to be things one feels inside. I marveled at this and was puzzled. And at that time I sought in vain in my psychology books for meaningful answers–even in psychoanalysis that brimmed with intriguing speculations about them. Later, the questions grew deeper.

Even now, an understanding of emotions is caught between the biological and the cognitive perspectives in psychology. Biological sources are evident: many of our most elementary emotions we share with many of our remote kin, from birds to kittens to primates. Cognitive sources are evident: from cultural and individual differences in what rouses our emotions and in the way they are–or are not– expressed; and in the fact that many of the most potent emotions–indignation, hatred, being moved by what is different–are themselves culturally shaped.


In your writing, you’re careful to differentiate emotions from feelings, while most people speak of these as if they are synonymous. How is an emotion different than a feeling? 

One sees emotions in other individuals: they transpire from their actions, in affection, desire, interest, watchfulness, avoidance and submission. What one sees is not just behavior: it is behavior with intent expressed in interactions with objects and other individuals. Some of these individuals–human individuals–report feelings that may or may not parallel their behavior. All other animals cannot report in this way, but the presence of feelings is still plausible. So the distinction between emotions and feelings is important: “emotion” includes the processes that give rise to behavior, other bodily phenomena, as well as feelings. In contrast, what one “feels” may be at variance with what one does or is inclined to do. 


In your book, The Laws of Emotion, you discuss the complexity of moving from experiencing an event (good or bad) and the subsequent emotional reaction. I think we’re generally accustomed to think that this is a simple point (a) to point (b) instantaneous movement. What does the actual progression look like and why are we seemingly blind to it?

laws-of-emotionThere are some very simple emotional reactions such as being startled upon hearing a sudden loud noise or experiencing disgust upon seeing a bloody, mutilated face. There is a fairly direct link between the event, its perceived meaning, and one’s reaction to it. Yet, the reaction depends on one’s history and the present context. The disgust one feels is shaped by one’s own bodily response to an offense against bodily integrity, as evidenced by the fact that one “feels” the other’s wounds in one’s own face, and may grasp one’s own nose in reaction.

However, simple reactions like these are exceptions. Most emotions emerge because events promise satisfaction or are offensive at a personal level. When angry with your intimate partner, the anger arises from the awareness that he or she is your partner, and that what he or she said or did conflicts with your wishes for consideration or sympathy or intimacy or independence. Your response, moreover, depends on the nature of your bond: the frequency of frustrations like this, etc. Your anger may flare up, or you may withdraw into silence, or make a mild and sad reproach: after all, he or she is your partner and you cherish your bond (or you do not).

All this goes on automatically, and you may not be aware of it. The path from his/her angering action to your response is complex, touching upon your interests, your joint history, and the context of the event. Even if the angry response to frustration is rooted in evolution, that root is in turn embedded in the brain representations of your personal history, your cultural values, and emotional dispositions of the moment. 


Another area you discuss is sex and the series of emotions it involves. Since few other things consume so much of our collective attention, I’m curious to know from the standpoint of studying emotion what effect you think the nonstop barrage of sexual messages via media of every form is having on society? 

Emotional events usually have multiple impacts, which depend on the multiple expectations and values in which the events are embedded. Sex can be delightful, and it can be disgusting (as unasked-for imposition of intimacy and power-inequality). It can be both at the same time, because everybody has multiple sensitivities and multiple aims. The nonstop barrage of sexual messages is diverting and gives color to existence. But it also blunts sensitivity and takes away the challenges of the unpredictable.

Moreover, much in the surplus of sexual messages is divorced from the links that can exist between sex and interpersonal intimacy that add delight by feeding the latter. Perceiving sexual stimuli, by consequence, may feed into consumerist attitudes that orient towards consumption rather than enlarging the interpersonal emotional context. The extent to which this is actually the case is as yet unclear. Many people simply get bored by excessive emotional attention and may seek more varied and interesting experience.


Research has recently been published in the British Medical Journal that suggests “happiness” is contagious and spreads like a virus through social groups, even up to three degrees of separation.  Is happiness in your opinion an emotion or a feeling? And do the results of this research surprise you, or is this what you would expect?

“Happiness” is an almost empty word in the American-English language, as in the questions, “Is everybody happy? Does everybody have enough food?” etc. Usually (and, presumably, in the research you mentioned) it means no more than being in a state of reasonable contentment, and one is automatically ready to say “yes” to questions like those.

In that sense, “happiness” indeed tends to spread, not as a virus, but as a social environment that is easy to occupy and move within, and which entices the person to go along with it. But many are the circumstances in which discontented and angry moods spread just as easily. I expect that under slightly unfavorable circumstances, socially, economically, or politically, discontented and hostile moods spread as easily; historical as well as experimental evidence supports this expectation.


Finally, a question about the ever-present dualistic divide between emotion and reason (or at least the one most people think exists). Is there really any sort of division between the two, or are we just prone to compartmentalize our ’emotional selves’ and ‘reasonable selves’?

feelings-and-emotionsThere is no true distinction between emotion and reason. Reason is an instrument for detecting emotional as well as instrumental problems, in addition to being an instrument for solving problems of both types.

The current economic crisis provides ample examples. Economic theory has sought rational solutions for particular problems–such as increasing economic gain–without recognizing that the solutions were rational only with a remote eye on the emotional satisfactions provided by such gain, and without giving appropriate attention to emotional repercussions. It is not for nothing that a psychologist–Daniel Kahneman–received the Nobel Prize for economics for pointing out how weaknesses of reason are determined by prior assumptions that have emotional undertones. In other words: emotional selves and reasonable selves are not compartmentalized but, on the contrary, are connected much more than they seem.

Link to a discussion of the Laws of Emotion on Psyblog


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Weekly Noggin Raisers #3

intelligenza_test1Channel N features a video of a lecture by surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland, who describes his experience undergoing ECT for depression

Neurocritic provides an intriguing, to say nothing of unusual, glimpse into the psychodynamics of sneezing

My Mind on Books has a worthwhile review of the book, My Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

The Situationist has a good piece about the recent replication of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment

NeuroSkeptic tells us seven things we don’t know about Stanley Milgram (read it, you’ll want to know even more when you do)

The Frontal Cortex draws an insightful, if unexpected line between Hanukkah and Colonoscopies

Psyblog provides a path to discovering your top five character strengths via a 15-minute survey

Neurophilosophy discusses a recent PloS study about altering the human sense of body ownership

Mind Hacks discusses a fascinating study about triggering the ‘dreamy state’ , and also introduces us to Elektro, the original robotic sex machine

And The New Atlantis asks, is digital literacy really literacy at all?

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Dan Gilbert: Exploring the Frontiers of Happiness

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, delivered a presentation at TED about his research on the ever indefinable topic of happiness. Gilbert contends that our beliefs about what will make us happy are frequently wrong, and in this lecture he explains why with entertaining and challenging examples.

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The Noble Lineage of Indecision

james2I’m presently reading The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, a fascinating, Pulitzer Prize winning book about the development and influence of pragmatism–the only true homegrown American philosophy–beginning with the Civil War through to the Supreme Court decision that laid the foundation for modern free speech law.

During a crucial few months in this period, three influential minds met informally in a discussion group: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. They kept no records, but the ideas they forged became integral to the development of American thought in the twentieth century.

Of these thinkers, William James, polymath and godfather of modern psychology, was known far and wide as fanatically indecisive.  Knowing this about himself, yet valuing what he called “risk assuming decisiveness” as a mark of true character, he came up with a solution, which he called “self conscious impulsivity”.  He would act decisively, and then just as decisively, change his mind.

An example of this given in the book was his career path.  He spent 15 years trying to settle on an occupation, switching from science to painting, back to science, then back to painting, than anatomy, natural history and finally medicine (which is the only course of study he finished – though he never practiced medicine a day in his life).  He began teaching physiology at Harvard in 1872, then switched to psychology, then to philosophy.  In 1903 he began the process of trying to decide if he should retire. His diary for the fall of 1905 reads:

October 26: “Resign!”

October 28: “Resign!!!”

November 4: “Resign?”

November 7: “Resign!”

November 8: “Don’t resign”

November 9: “Resign!”

November 16: “Don’t resign!”

November 23: “Resign”

December 7: “Don’t resign”

December 9: “Teach here next year”

He retired in 1907.

So the next time someone calls you indecisive, you can tell them you’re in good company.


Link to the William James page at Emory University

Link to Powell’s page on The Metaphysical Club

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Tis’ the Season for Merry Obsessions

christmasstory001I listened to a story on NPR about the 25th anniversary of the movie A Christmas Story, which has summarily displaced It’s a Wonderful Life as America’s favorite holiday movie (you can catch it somewhere on cable TV at every hour of every day the week of Christmas, no exaggeration). 

During part of the story, NPR replayed an interview with the writer of A Christmas Story, famed radio personality Jean Shepherd, who also narrated the film.  He said something that struck me as peculiar, but oddly comforting. Paraphrasing from the interview: 

A Christmas Story is all about obsession. It’s about a boy’s obsession with an air rifle, but it’s really all about obsession in general. I’ve always thought obsession is just about the funniest thing of all time.” 

Obsession, funny?  That’s not a typical point-of-view, but the more I thought about the movie’s storyline, the more I could see Shepherd’s ironic perspective coming through.  It’s not just Ralphie who’s obsessed with an air rifle, but his father is obsessed with being respected as someone important, his mother is obsessed with maintaining a respectable air in the community, his friends are obsessed with not being victimized by bullies, and everyone throughout the movie is obsessed with warning Ralphie that if he ever gets an air rifle, “it’ll put your eye out kid!”  It’s a virtual holiday obsession fest.

And it works.  The late great Mr. Shepherd had it right – obsession can indeed be very funny.  Whether it is by nature funny, as he implied in the interview, is another story. 

And now (as if it isn’t on TV enough), the flag pole scene…

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