Monthly Archives: April 2009

Bullies Beware, Girls Will Kick Your Heiny

girl-karate-chopA new study from the University of Florida indicates that girls are a schoolyard victim’s best protection against bullies.  Turns out that while boys are more likely to be bullies, girls are more likely to defend those being bullied, contrary to what parents, teachers and administrators generally believe.

Researcher Jim Porter, who did the study for his doctoral dissertation at UF, wanted to know whether bully protection programs implemented in schools across the country are developed with a complete perspective on bullying and school-related violence (very often the result of bullying).  So he went to the source and surveyed female and male students, ages 10-15, from middle schools in Florida.

Here’s what he discovered: 85% of girls surveyed said their best friend would expect them to defend or help a bullying victim, compared with only 66% of boys.  In contrast to this 19% gap, there was only a 1 to 3% difference in expectations for girls’ and boys’ behavior by teachers and parents.

Plus, the study showed that merely having more feminine traits, as measured by a gender identity scale, increased the likelihood that a student would defend against a bully.

So the takeaway is that peer pressure for girls, at least when it comes to stopping bullies, is a quite good thing.

Not incidentally, this works the other way around, too, but in favor of the bullies.  A study from a few years back indicated that peers are involved in about 85% of bullying episodes.



Filed under About Research

How a Checklist Can Postpone Your Bucket List

checklistFiled under the category “humans make bigtime mistakes” is a study that came out earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine about the results of using surgery safety checklists at major urban hospitals around the world.  The results, in a word, were lifesaving.   

234 million operations are performed yearly around the globe. It’s difficult to get a handle on the death rate percentage from post-surgery complications, but I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 1.5 to 5% within the first 30 days after surgery.  If we take the low end, that’s more than 3.5 million post-surgery deaths a year. Of that number, a significant percentage–perhaps as high as 50%–is attributable to infections and complications that could have been prevented if safety procedures had been followed.

This study included eight hospitals in eight cities, including Toronto, New Delhi, Manila, London and Seattle — a socioeconomic and cultural cross-section of hospitals that participated in the World Health Organization’s ‘Safe Surgery Saves Lives’ program.  As a benchmark, data was collected on 3,733 consecutively enrolled patients 16 years of age or older who were undergoing noncardiac surgery. 

After the surgical safety checklist was introduced, researchers collected data on 3,955 consecutively enrolled patients with the same criteria. Both the death rate and overall complications rate were analyzed for the first 30 days after the operation.

The results: the rate of death at the hospitals was 1.5% before the checklist was introduced and declined to 0.8% afterward. The rate of complications was 11% before the checklist, declining to 7% after.  In short, using the checklist cut the death and complications rates nearly in half.

Which underlines with a massive boldface line that humans are dangerously mistake-prone, typically well beyond what we’re willing to admit.  Simple tools like checklists are required equipment to counterbalance the foibles of the organs in our skulls.

Other studies of U.S. hospitals further underscore just how important use of safety tools and procedures are to saving lives.  Consider, for example, a study completed in 2007 that compared the top-performing U.S. hospitals with all the rest.  Top hospitals often enjoy larger budgets to attract top talent, so a certain allowance should be made for that — but, another major distinction is that top hospitals are more rigorous in enforcing safety procedures; that is, they do more to prevent human mistakes from manifesting horrible consequences.  The scary result of this study: if you’re admitted to a regular (not-top) hospital in the U.S., you have a 28% higher chance of dying while you’re there than if you had landed at a top-performing hospital. 

To put that another way, if the quality of care at all U.S. hospitals matched that of top-performing hospitals, about 160,000 more lives would have been saved and 12,000 more major complications prevented over a three-year period. If you were one of those 160,000, where the ambulance brought you (and/or where your insurance let you go) made all the difference in the world.

For more on humans and the mistakes we make, check out this interview with Joe Hallinan, who just wrote a book on the subject.

And if you want to scare yourself with more hospital stats, you can search U.S. hospital death rates here.


Filed under About Research

Eating, Emotions and Control…with Mom in the Middle

kids_narrowweb__300x3900A study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health suggests that mom is going to be blamed for something else when the kids get old enough to complain about their upbringing. In the first research project in the world to analyze children’s eating habits in combination with maternal psychological variables, researchers found that emotionally unstable mothers tend to give their kids more sweet and fatty foods, leading to more weight gain.

And this was no small study. Nearly 28,000 mothers were included in the analysis, which focused on psychological factors such as anxiety, sadness, low self-confidence and a generally negative view of the world. In combination, those factors are referred to as “negative affectivity,” and mothers who exhibit it typically have lower stress thresholds and give up quicker when faced with obstacles — when their kids are out of control, they’re more likely to give up and let the cretins have their way.

Strangely, though, researchers found no link between a mother’s personality and healthy eating habits.  Evidently, being a more confident and positive mom does not necesssarily equal more fruits and veggies on the kids’ plates.

The painful rub of all this is that earlier studies have found that being a more controlling parent (and that means mom and dad — because, no, dad doesn’t get a pass on this) also leads to more sugar in kids’ diets. Setting aside the negative emotion component from the Norwegian study, what’s an everyday parent to do? 

Two words: modeling and flexibility. The Framingham Children’s Study, conducted nearly nine years ago, yielded one of the most interesting results of any study on this topic before or since. Here it is: when parents exhibit “disinhibited eating” (lack of control), but preach “dietary restraint” (strict control) — their kids get fatter. 

What at first sounds paradoxical actually makes a lot of sense. Often, people who try the hardest (and talk the most) about controlling calories also have the hardest time actually doing it, and it’s a vicious cycle: increasing strictness eventually leads to losing more control, which leads to becoming even stricter, more loss of control, and on and on.  And kids, the sponges that they are, internalize the chaos and put on the pounds.

The remedy: break the cycle with a sensible dose of flexibility, and back it up with a helping of consistent modeling. Lighten up, literally. Easier said than done, no doubt, but it beats the alternatives.


Filed under About Research

Does Your TV Give You the Warm Fuzzies?

old-tvsDo you ever look forward to cuddling up with your television and spending a nice, quiet evening together – just the two of you?  Turns out, the relationships you have with characters in your favorite shows may be giving you a bigger emotional boost than you think.

Four new studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology test the ‘social surrogacy hypothesis,’ which holds that humans can use technologies, like television, to feel a sense of belonging that they’re lacking in their physical lives.  And not only TV, but movies, music and video games can fill this need as well, according to the theory.

The experiments measured different categories of emotional reaction, like self-esteem, belongingness, loneliness, rejection and exclusion, in response to descriptions of subjects’ favorite TV programs.  In one of the experiments, 222 undergraduate students were asked to write a 10-minute essay about their favorite TV shows, and then to write about TV programs they watch when nothing else is on, or about the experience of achieving something noteworthy in school.  Afterward, they were asked to verbally describe what they’d written in as much detail as possible.

The results: after writing about their favorite TV shows, participants verbally expressed fewer feelings of loneliness and exclusion than when describing the filler TV shows or the experience of academic achievement. The takeaway is that surrogate relationships with characters or personalities in TV programs can fill emotional needs.  Another of the experiments produced results suggesting that thinking about a favorite TV show buffers against drops in self-esteem and feelings of rejection that accompany the end of a relationship — an electronic vaccine for heartbreak.

These results buttress a concept that most people would admit scares them a little — ‘technology induced belongingness’.  That spending a half hour with our favorite imaginary personalities can turn on our love lights seems a bit strange, but may be truer than we’re willing to admit.


Filed under About Research

Riding the Self-Regulation See Saw


by David DiSalvo

The April issue of Psychological Science includes an interesting paradoxical study on moral self-regulation.  Building on previous research that examines why people act altruistically even when such action is costly, researchers wanted to take a closer look at the moral back-and-forth we all engage in when deciding how to act. 

In the spotlight are two polar opposite terms:  moral cleansing and moral licensing.  Moral cleansing is the tendency to engage in a moral behavior to offset negative feelings of self worth.  For example, if someone feels bad that they don’t regularly recycle, they might be strolling through a Home Depot one day and decide to buy a boxful of energy-efficient light bulbs to switch out all the less-efficient bulbs in their house.  The self-worth deficit of the first lack-of-action is offset by the self-worth boost of the second.

In the case of moral licensing, someone may be inclined to either act immorally, or (more likely) not act at all, if they already have a self-perception of being a moral person. For example, if someone just volunteered to work a charity event, they may be less likely to give blood during a blood drive the following week.  The first action produced a moral-currency surplus that boosted self-worth, and acted as a “pass” not to engage in the second action.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to write a self-relevant story using words that referred to either their positive or negative traits.  After finishing, they were told that the research lab was interested in supporting social awareness and usually asks participants if they would like to make a small donation to the charity of their choice. Participants were told they could write down the charity and the amount they wanted to donate (note, they were not aware of any link between the story they wrote and the charity donation).  The result: participants who used positive words about themselves in their stories donated one fifth as much money as those who used negative words.  A follow-up experiment verified these results.

In the final experiment, participants completed the same positive/negative-words story as in the first, but were then asked to take part in another study focused on the best way to reduce pollution at manufacturing plants.  They were given a scenario of being in charge of a plant that was under pressure from environmental lobbyists to run pollution filters on smokestacks, at a monetary cost, and presented with the cost of running the filters for varying percentages of time.  The standard, “legally agreed upon” amount of time was 60%, at a cost of $1.2 million.  Or, they were told they could deviate from this agreement and choose to run the filters for any 10% interval of time up to 100%, with each interval costing $0.2 million.  In effect, participants were being asked to make a decision between cost to the company or improving the environment.  They were also asked a number of follow-up questions, such as what they thought the responsibility of  a plant manager should be in this situation, and how likely they thought it was that they’d be caught if they decided not to adhere to the agreement.

The results: participants who used positive words in their self-relevant stories were significantly more likely to run the pollution filters less often than those who used negative words.  They were also more likely to say that plant managers should place profit ahead of environmental concerns, and were less likely to believe they’d be caught if they broke the agreement.

So this study suggests that our perceived level of self-worth effects our moral decisions.  More specifically, it suggests that feelings of negative self-worth can predispose us to acting morally in an effort to fill up the self-worth bank account.  If the account is already full, we might be predisposed to choosing not to act morally, or just not act at all. 

That being said, there are many caveats that make this study less than complete. For example, the last experiment doesn’t really tell us if moral licensing was going on because there was no way of gauging how much moral activity any of the participants had engaged in prior to the study — this would have been useful to know. Also, we don’t know if some participants believed that acting firmly in the interests of the company was the more moral decision, particularly since such a high cost might affect jobs, workers’ benefits, etc.   But, there’s enough here to be thought-provoking nonetheless.
Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. (2009). Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation Psychological Science, 20 (4), 523-528 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02326.x


Filed under About Morality, About Research

Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett

Book Review Intelligence And How To Get ItWhile the debate over intelligence rages on many fronts, the battle over the importance of heredity rages loudest. It’s easy to see why. If the camp that argues intelligence is 75 to 85 percent genetically determined is correct, then we’re faced with some tough questions about the role of education. If intelligence is improved very little by schools, and if the IQ of the majority of the population will remain relatively unchanged no matter how well schools perform, then should school reform really be a priority? 

More to the point, if our genes largely determine our IQ, which in turn underlies our performance throughout our lives, then what is the role of school? For some in this debate the answer to that question is simply, “to be the best you can be.”  But that seems little comfort for those who aspire to “be” more than what their IQ category predicts they will.

Those on the other side of this debate question whether heredity plays as big a role as the strong hereditarians claim.  And for the role it does play, they question whether hereditability implies immutability. Heredity of height, for example, is about 90 percent, and yet average height in several populations around the world has been steadily increasing due to non-genetic influences, like nutrition. If such a strong hereditary trait can be radically altered by environmental factors–and height is but one example of this–then why is intelligence different? 

It is not, argues the camp that might best be described as intelligence optimists.  For them, the pessimism that colors the strong hereditarian position isn’t only discouraging, it’s dangerous. Too much is hanging in the balance for pessimism about the potential of our children to prevail.

nisbett1Richard Nisbett is a champion of the intelligence optimist camp, and with his latest book, Intelligence and How to Get It, he has emerged as the most persuasive voice marshalling evidence to disprove the heredity-is-destiny argument.  Intellectual advancement, Nisbett argues, is not the result of hardwired genetic codes, but the province of controllable factors like schools and social environments–and as such, improving these factors is crucially important.  In the thick of controversy, he was gracious enough to spend a few minutes discussing his book with Neuronarrative.

In Intelligence and How to Get It, you counter the arguments of strong intelligence hereditarianism, but in a sense you’re countering heritability dogma overall. What led you to take on this challenge?

My only complaint was with the heritability of intelligence per se. I just had the strong intuition that intelligence, and certainly IQ scores, were heavily influenced by the environment and by gene-environment interactions. My research indicates that in fact heritability, especially for adult IQ, is substantially less than frequently assumed.

One of the topics you discuss in the book is that drawing inferences based on correlations often produces misleading results. What’s an example of this in the case of intelligence?   

The correlation between identical twins reared apart gives an overestimate of heritability because the environments of identical twins reared apart are often highly similar. But the main contradiction of heritability estimates lies in the fact that adoption produces a huge effect on IQ – much bigger than could be explained if you believed the conclusion of heritability estimates based on sibling correlations.

You discuss the importance of early childhood education and provide some compelling statistics on the IQ-boosting effects of preschool. Why in a nutshell is early education so essential?

This is speculative at this point, but here goes. It is beginning to look like the IQ deficits of poor minority kids begin extremely early and have to do with rearing techniques. Parents of such kids don’t talk to them much and don’t do things that would stimulate intelligence. At any rate, we know of several socialization practices that correlate substantially with IQ, and for all those practices parents of poor minority kids are on the low side.

If a child doesn’t receive quality early education, will he or she still be able to bridge the gap later on? 

We do know that interventions as late as early adulthood can have a big effect on IQ and academic achievement. College reduces the IQ gap between blacks and whites from one standard deviation (SD) to .4 SD. Just telling junior high school kids that their intelligence is under their control can produce a gain in GPA. You can put a great deal of educational effort in at middle school and junior high ages and produce marked IQ and academic achievement gains.

You mention that children with greater self-control tend to have higher intelligence.  How are these linked, and is it reasonable to conclude that increasing self-control raises intelligence? 

This is speculative. We know there is a correlation between self-control and intelligence, especially between self-control and both ACT achievement and SAT scores. What we don’t know is whether this relationship is causal. I don’t doubt that it is, but I can’t prove it.

We now know that the brain isn’t a static entity, but rather possesses remarkable plasticity – even, to a degree, well into adulthood.  In light of this, and your own research, is it possible for adults to still boost their IQs?  

We know that you can increase fluid intelligence even in adults by some kinds of computer-game-like programs. But that work is in its infancy. We know also that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers is 25 percent larger than normal – due to an increase in the spatial relations requirements of the job.

I took away the sense from reading the book that you’re a hopeful realist.  If we could begin making changes to our educational system today, what do you think are the most important things we can do to create a brighter future for our kids?

Really effective intervention with parents of low socioeconomic status infants to help them with socialization practices, really good pre-K, KIPP-type elementary and middle school.

I am hopeful, for sure. In principle you could have all these things for the bottom third of socioeconomic status  families for less per year than the bailout of AIG. But I hasten to say that we don’t really know how well any of the programs shown to be effective in demonstration projects would scale up.


Filed under About Intelligence, Interviews

Who Are Really the Loneliest People?

alone-in-a-crowd-1Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo recently gave a talk on the topic of loneliness for the Zócalo Public Square Lecture Series.  Cacioppo was interviewed here on Neuronarrative not long ago about his research and had several interesting things to say, especially about the physiological effects of loneliness.  In this lecture (a five-minute clip of which is provided below) Cacioppo discusses whether people in individualist or collectivist cultures are more prone to loneliness, why we feel lonelier during the holidays, and whether introverts are lonelier than extroverts.

On that last topic — Cacioppo says that during his research he expected to find physiological differences between introverts and extroverts, but he didn’t.  Rather, the big difference between them is how many social contacts they need.  An introvert may only need one, or a handful, to not feel lonely, while an extrovert may need many more.

His remarks on introversion-extroversion reminded me of a study, conducted a few years back, about the relative happiness of introverts and extroverts.  Extroverts reported higher levels of sociability than introverts, and sustained social relationships are generally considered a self-evident source of happiness. But, a substantial minority of the study subjects were classified as ‘happy introverts’ despite having fewer social contacts — and when the happy extroverts were compared with the happy introverts, no real differences could be found.  Quoting from the study:

In terms of preference for solitude, relations with friends, and taking part in potentially introspective activities, the behaviors of happy introverts and happy extroverts were virtually identical.

The conclusion: introversion and extroversion are not variables that predict levels of happiness, but rather “mediate the ways individuals choose to achieve their own happiness.”  Coming  back to Cacioppo’s research — introverts and extroverts differ in how they choose to make social connections, be they many or few, but at the end of the day they reach the same place with respect to how lonely they feel.  This is mainly a vindication of introversion, since many people (mostly extroverts) believe that it’s a beeline route to more loneliness and less happiness.  Not so.  



You can watch the complete 50-minute lecture here.

Here’s a link to a terrific and very funny article by Jonathan Rauch from The Atlantic a couple years ago entitled, “Caring for Your Introvert”.


Filed under About Neuroscience, Videos