Monthly Archives: November 2009

Watching Too Much Crime TV Skews Views for the Worse

If you watch prime-time television, chances are you watch at least one crime drama. Most of us do. Year in and year out, the most consistently popular shows on television are about crime: CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, The Closer, and all of the other spin-offs and ad nauseum syndications.

Regrettably for the viewing audience, a recent study from Purdue University suggests that the more we feed this craving for crime drama, the more distorted are our views of the criminal justice system and crime rates overall.

Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies mass media effects, and Susan Huelsing Sarapin, a doctoral student in communication, conducted 103 surveys with jury-eligible adults about their crime-television show viewing and their perceptions of crime and the judicial system. Their research was presented in October at the International Crime, Media, and Popular Culture Studies Conference: A Cross Disciplinary Exploration at Indiana State University.

“Many people die as a result of being murdered in these types of shows, and we found the heavy TV-crime viewers estimated two and a half times more real-world deaths due to murder than non-viewers,” Sarapin says. “People’s perceptions also were distorted in regards to a number of other serious crimes. Heavy TV-crime viewers consistently overestimated the frequency of crime in the real world.”

Viewers of crime shows also misjudged the number of police officers and attorneys in the total work force. Lawyers and police officers each make up less than 1 percent of the work force, but those surveyed estimated it at more than 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

The study also linked heavy viewership of these shows with “mean world syndrome” — the belief that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Previous research by media scholar George Gerbner associates this syndrome with paranoia about imminent victimization. Quoting Gerbner:

Our studies have shown that growing up from infancy with this unprecedented diet of [TV] violence has three consequences, which, in combination, I call the “mean world syndrome.” What this means is that if you are growing up in a home where there is more than say three hours of television per day, for all practical purposes you live in a meaner world – and act accordingly – than your next-door neighbor who lives in the same world but watches less television. The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people.

The present study is especially interesting in light of recent Gallup stats on public perception of crime as discussed on the blog Neuroworld, here. Crime decreased all through the 1990s, and for the last decade crime rates have remained steady. Yet, between 52% and 89% of Americans every year since 1990 have thought that crime is on the rise.



Filed under About Perception, About Research

Delving Deep into Human Emotion

As we move farther away from rational /emotional dualism–a tough habit to break–psychobiological research is increasingly focusing on the development and role of emotion in the brain.  

The first of three videos below features neuroscientist Antonio Damasio contending that even though we view emotion as a human trait, it is probably one of the earliest evolutionary advancements, significantly predating human evolution. He explains that emotions are “a way to live for as long as possible”, asking “if you were a gene, what would you do?”

In the  second video social psychologist Dacher Keltner discussess the evolution of emotion with a focus on Darwin’s principle of antithesis, which attempts to illuminate the role of body langauge in the matrix of human emotion.

Both of those videos are short (less than 10 minutes total), but the last one is a full-scale lecture from neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, called: “Ancestral Memories: Brain Affective Systems, Ancient Emotional Vocalizations, and the Sources of Our Communicative Urges.” Panksepp’s book, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions, is the definitive textbook for the field of affective neuroscience. Settle in with a beer or two for this one.


Filed under About Neuroscience, Videos

The Words You Choose in an Argument Can Literally Break Your Heart

arguingIn the middle of a fight with your significant other, word choice is usually not foremost on your mind. But it should be, particularly if you’re a man, according to a new study in the journal Health Psychology – and not just to save your partner’s feelings.

In the heat of stressful conflict, your brain is commanding the release of a stress-chemical cocktail comprised of proteins called cytokines–produced by cells in the immune system to help the body mount an immune response during infection.

Abnormally high levels of these proteins are linked to cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.  This study suggests that how rational or emotional your communication is directly corresponds with the levels of those chemicals in your body and the damage they can do. 

Forty-two couples made two separate overnight visits to the study lab over two weeks. During their first visit, couples had a neutral discussion. During the second visit, couples focused on the topic of greatest contention between them. Research interviewers figured out ahead of time what made the man and woman most upset in terms of their relationship and gave each person a turn to talk about that issue, thus igniting the conflict.

During an argument, people tend to use two categories of words: emotionally charged and cognitive.  Emotionally charged words come easily when angry and many of them have just four letters.  Cognitive words such as “think,” “because,” “reason,” and “why” indicate that the participants of the conflict aren’t lost in rage. They can still make sense of the issues and are more likely to arrive at a resolution. 

Researchers measured the levels of cytokines before and after the two visits and used linguistic software to determine the percentage of certain types of words from a transcript of the conversation.  The results suggest that people who used more cognitive words during the fight showed a smaller increase in cytokines. Cognitive words used during the neutral discussion had no effect on the cytokines.

When researchers averaged the couples’ cognitive words during the fight, they found a low average translated into a greater increase in the husbands’ cytokines over time, but not an increase in wives’ levels. Researchers speculate that the reason for the discrepancy is that women may be more adept at communication, and perhaps their cognitive word use had a bigger impact on their husbands. Women in the study were also more likely than the men to use cognitive words.

The big takeaway: choose your words carefully and keep the emotion in control when arguing. Over time (fellow men especially) we pay the price for losing ourselves in the fog of fury.
Graham JE, Glaser R, Loving TJ, Malarkey WB, Stowell JR, & Kiecolt-Glaser JK (2009). Cognitive word use during marital conflict and increases in proinflammatory cytokines. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 28 (5), 621-30 PMID: 19751089

hat tip: EurekElert


Filed under About Research

Thinking You’re in Control Can Lead to an Impulsive Demise

temptationFor six months you’ve worked really hard to stick to a diet, and it’s paying off.  Not only have you lost weight, but now more than ever you’re better able to restrain your impulse to eat fattening foods. Your friends are telling you how impressed they are with your resolve, and truth be told you’re feeling pretty damn good about yourself as well.

Which is why, around month seven, you decide that your impulse control is sufficiently strengthened that avoiding being around ice cream, nachos, chicken wings, soda—and all the other things you used to eat out with your friends—is no longer necessary.  You’ve spent half a year changing the way you think about food and it worked. Maintenance won’t be difficult with a new mindset. Time to live again.

I probably don’t have to end this story for you to know how it turns out. It’s a classic tragedy with which many of us are already too familiar.  Pride comes before a fall, but even more often it’s our sense of inflated self-restraint that precedes a tumble into relapse. 

A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated the dynamics underlying why we repeatedly convince ourselves that we’ve overcome impulsiveness and can stop avoiding our worst temptations.  This particular tendency toward self-deception is called restraint bias, and four experiments were conducted under this study to test the hypothesis that it’s rampant in our bias-prone species.

In one of the experiments, people walking in and out of a cafeteria were approached with seven snacks of varying fattiness, and asked to rank the snacks from least to most favorite. Once they finished ranking, participants were told to pick one snack, and further told that they could eat it at anytime they liked, but if they returned the snack to the same location in one week they’d receive $5 and could also keep the snack.  After choosing the snack, participants indicated if they would return it for the money, and then filled out a questionnaire which assessed their hunger level and impulse-control beliefs. 

Participants who were walking into the cafeteria said they were hungry, and those leaving said they were full; so the first evaluation was whether those leaving with full stomachs would indicate stronger impulse-control beliefs – and they did.  The next evaluation was whether the not-hungry participants claiming the most impulse-control would choose the most tempting (and most fatty) snacks.  They did.  Finally, would those who selected the most tempting snacks be least likely to return them a week later?  Indeed, they were.

In another experiment, heavy smokers were asked to take a test to assess their level of impulse-control.  The test was bogus, designed only to label roughly half of the participants as having a high capacity for self-control, and half as having a low capacity.  Being told which label they earned seeded participants with a self-perception in either direction.

Participants were then asked to play a game that pitted the temptation to smoke against an opportunity to win money. The goal of the game was to watch a film called “Coffee and Cigarettes” without having a cigarette.  They could select among four levels of temptation, each with a corresponding dollar value: (1) keep a cigarette in another room: $5; (2) keep a cigarette on a nearby desk: $10; (3) hold an unlit cigarette in their hand throughout the film: $15; (4) or hold an unlit cigarette in their mouth throughout the film: $20.  Participants earned the money only if they avoided smoking the cigarette for the entire movie.

As predicted, smokers told they had high self-control exposed themselves to significantly more temptation than those told they had low self-control. On average, low self-control participants opted to watch the movie with a cigarette on the table; high self-controllers opted to watch with a cig in their hand. 

The result: the failure rate for those told they had high self-control was massively higher than for the low self-control group, to the tune of 33% vs. 11%.  Those who thought themselves most able to resist temptation had to light up three times as much as those who suspected they’d fail.

One way to view these results is as reinforcement of a very old cliché: we’re our own worst enemies. Restraint bias has a place high on the list of biases we trip on routinely, and tripping on it once is no guarantee of not doing so again, and again…and maybe again.  Dieters relapse, smokers relapse, anyone with anything approaching a compulsion or addiction relapses—usually more than once. This study suggests that part of this repetition is due to thinking we can handle more than we can.

Another takeaway is that an entire industry is based on bolstering impulse control.  Self help books and motivational speakers aplenty play on a dubious concept, that there’s a “gold ring” of restraint we all can reach—just follow X system to get there.  But what this study suggests is that even if you think you’ve arrived “there,” you’ll eventually find out that “there” never existed. You were sold a mirage in the form of an inflated self-perception of restraint.  No refunds.

Reality is, psychological bias–restraint bias included–is a lot like conflict. You can’t avoid it. You just manage it.
This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

Nordgren, L., van Harreveld, F., & van der Pligt, J. (2009). The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02468.x

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Filed under About Perception, About Research

The Dynamics of Human Tribes

At TEDxUSC, business professor David Logan talks about the five kinds of tribes that humans naturally form — in schools, workplaces, even the driver’s license bureau. Initially, Logan’s discussion may come across as a how-to for ascending ‘tribal stages’ and a bit reductionistic, but around 11:00 the message gels, and it’s a good one. 

Below that is a video, also from TED, with author Seth Godin discussing how the Internet has revived the human social need for tribes and people to lead them.  If you’re interested, you can download a free PDF “Tribes Case Book” from Godin right here.

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Filed under Videos