How a Woman’s Touch Can Make You Risk it All

If you’re a man who has patronized Vegas casinos, this scenario might sound familiar to you.

You’re standing at the Craps table and have already rolled a couple of times, losing money each time. You throw another roll, this time thankfully making back the money you lost.

Just then, from the corner of your eye, you notice that an attractive woman seems to be interested in your game (and perhaps you). You throw another roll and win again. You’re debating whether to quit while you’re ahead and cash out, but your concentration is broken by the woman who is now smiling at you and says, “You’re really doing great” as she reaches out and touches you gently on your back.

Not only do you decide to keep playing, but you significantly increase your bet. You lose, but she encourages you again with another touch, and you bet again.

What’s going on here? Are you simply so caught up in trying to impress this woman that you keep betting even though you’re in the hole?  Perhaps.  But according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, the reason might go deeper than that.

Participants were tested to see if they would take risks, such as investing money or making a substantial gamble. Before taking the risk, they were greeted in one of three different ways: (1) by a female or male researcher with a light touch on the shoulder, (2) a handshake, or (3) no physical contact at all. At the end of the experiment, participants filled out surveys that assessed how secure they felt.

The researchers found that participants who were touched on the shoulder felt more secure and took bigger risks than those who weren’t—but only if they were touched by a woman. The effect was stronger for a touch than for a handshake, but disappeared entirely for participants who were touched by a man.

The interesting part about this is that the same finding was found for men and women who were touched by a woman, suggesting that this is not solely a sexual attraction effect.

The researchers draw a line between this finding to previous research on how a woman’s touch affects an infant, making the child feel more secure and comfortable. It’s entirely possible that a woman’s touch works the same on adults—making them feel more secure and willing to take risks.

Which brings us back to the casino scenario. What do you think are the chances that the woman in question works for the casino and is planted in the crowd to make sure guys like you keep playing?

Don’t feel bad, but they’re a lot higher than the chances you’ll keep winning.


Filed under About Research

Ask, Don’t Tell, and Get it Done

Are you the sort of person who routinely tells yourself that you probably can’t achieve whatever it is you’d like to achieve? Does the voice in your head say things like, “Be realistic, you can’t really do this.”  And perhaps, fed up with positive self-talk mumbo jumbo in the media, you think that the only self-talk worth listening to is the “realistic” kind—the kind that tells you how it is. 

Well, whatever your feelings about positive psychology and its many spin-offs, there is some decent research with something to say about all of this—and your little voice should be listening. Research by University of Illinois Professor Dolores Albarracin and her team has shown that those who ask themselves whether they will perform a task generally do better than those who tell themselves that they will.

But first, a slight digression. If you have young kids or even early teens (or just have the misfortune of watching children’s TV shows), you may be familiar with the show “Bob the Builder.”  Bob is a positive little man with serious intentions about building and fixing things.  Prior to taking on any given task, he loudly asks himself and his team, “Can we fix it?”  To which his team responds, “Yes we can!”   Now, compare this approach with that of the Little Engine Who Could, who’s oft repeated success phrase was, “I think I can, I think I can…”  In a nutshell, the research we’re about to discuss wanted to know which approach works best.

Researchers tested these two different motivational approaches first by telling study participants to either spend a minute wondering whether they would complete a task or telling themselves they would. The participants showed more success on an anagram task (rearranging words to create different words) when they asked themselves whether they would complete it than when they told themselves they would.

In another experiment, students were asked to write two seemingly unrelated sentences, starting with either “I Will” or “Will I,” and then work on the same anagram task. Participants did better when they wrote, “Will I” even though they had no idea that the word writing related to the anagram task.  A final experiment added the dimension of having participants complete a test designed to gauge motivation levels.  Again, the participants who asked themselves whether they would complete the task did better on the task, and scored significantly higher on the motivation test.

In other words, by asking themselves a question, people were more likely to build their own motivation than if they simply told themselves they’d get it done.

The takeaway for us: that little voice has a point, sort of.  Telling ourselves that we can achieve a goal may not get us very far. Asking ourselves, on the other hand, can bear significant fruit, indeed. Retool your self-talk to focus on the questions instead of presupposing answers, and allow your mind to build motivation around the questions.

A short-cut:  just remember the battle cry of Bob the Builder.


Filed under About Perception, About Research

Everything We Knew About Human Vision is Wrong: Author Mark Changizi Tells Us Why

For theoretical neurobiologist and author Mark Changizi, “why” has always been more interesting than “how.” While many scientists focus on the mechanics of how we do what we do, his research aims to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do.  Guided by this philosophy, he has made important discoveries on why we see in color, why we see illusions, why we have forward-facing eyes, why letters are shaped as they are, why the brain is organized as it is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, and why the dictionary is organized as it is.

His latest book, The Vision Revolution, is a trenchant and insightful investigation into why humans see and interact with the world as we do. His findings are challenging and often surprising, and his witty, engaging style is accessible to a broad range of readers . He was generous enough to spend a few minutes with me recently to discuss his book and other topics.

NN: What originally led you to write a book about human vision in particular, instead of any of the other human evolutionary adaptive traits?

MC: Indeed, I don’t consider myself solely a vision scientist. I call myself a theoretical neurobiologist, more generally, and I have had a number of non-vision research directions, including, for example, the shape and evolution of the brain, and why animals have as many limbs and digits as they do.  Some of these research directions were central parts of my first book, The Brain from 25,000 Feet.

I was led to a book on vision because that’s where my research led me, and so the question is, Why did I end up with quite a few research directions in vision?

As a theoretical neurobiologist, I try to find interesting phenomena that I can wrap my head around, with the hope of putting forth and testing rigorous and general explanatory hypotheses. That’s not easy, but there are a number of reasons why it’s easier for vision.

First, relative to other senses and/or behaviors, the amount of data we possess for vision is huge. There’s a century-sized pile of data, much of it not well explained, much less in a unifying manner.

Second, vision is theoretically approachable. You have a visual field, you see objects, and so on. We know how to at least begin thinking about the phenomenology. It’s more difficult for audition, and practically impossible for olfaction, where we have little idea how to even describe our perceptions. …forget about explaining anything!

And, third, for vision we have the best understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

My point is that, as a theorist struggles for phenomena he or she can crack, vision appears as a large attractive target compared with many other aspects of brain and behavior. One may end up attacking vision problems even if one isn’t excited by vision, merely because it’s juicy. (I am excited by it, though, especially to the extent that I can find exciting hypotheses.)

I was intrigued by the “mind reading” aspects of vision.  In a nutshell, how does this work, and how do humans benefit from this ability?

Our color vision fundamentally relies upon the cones in our retina, and I argue in my research that color vision evolved in us primates for the purpose of sensing the emotions and states of those around us. We primates have an unusual kind of color vision – our cones sample the visible spectrum in a peculiar fashion – and I have shown that one needs that kind of peculiar color sense in order to pick up the color modulations that occur on our skin when we blush, blanch, redden with anger, and so on. Our funny primate variety of color vision turns out to be optimized for seeing the physiological modulations in the blood in the skin that underlies our primate color signals.

So, we evolved special mechanisms designed for sensing the emotions and states of others around us. That sounds a lot like the evolution of a “mind-reading” mechanism, which is why I (only half in jest) describe it that way.

You mention in the book that reading and writing are relatively recent advances in human development, and yet we take for granted that we “see” and understand words, as if our brains were simply meant to see and understand them.  What’s really going on that allows us to make sense of symbols on a page—and why can we do this at all?

In talks I often show a drawing of a child reading a book titled “How to Somersault.” The “joke” is that most kids are able to read very early, often even before they can do stereotypical ape behaviors like somersaults and monkey bars. Sure, they comprehend speech much earlier, but they’re getting orders of magnitude more speech thrown at them than writing. Kids learn to read very early, and very well; and as adults we are ridiculously capable readers, and spend nearly all our day reading.

Aliens might be excused for thinking we evolved to read.

But the invention of writing is only thousands of years old. In addition, for most of us, our grandparents, great grandparents or great great grandparents didn’t read at all. Writing is much too recent for our brains to have evolved to have reading mechanisms.

How does our brain do it?

Is it because our visual system can become good at reading whatever we present to it? No. Kids would surely not be capable readers by around six if they were tasked to read bar codes or fractal patterns.

The solution is that culture made writing easy on the eye, by shaping letters to be what the eye likes. The idea that culture shapes our artifacts to be good for us is not new. What’s new here is a specific hypothesis for what writing should look like in order to be good for us.

To be easy on the eye, writing needs to “look like nature,” just what our illiterate visual systems are fantastically competent at processing. The trick of that research direction was making this “writing looks like nature” idea rigorous, and coming up with ways of testing it. I show that there are certain signature visual patterns found in nearly any natural environment with opaque objects strewn about, and that these signature patterns are found in human writing. In short, writing has evolved so that written words look like visual objects.

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Filed under Books and Ideas, Interviews

51 Pragmatic Suggestions: Mix, Match, Dismiss, Do!

1. Learn how to enter and exit the daily vortex (it will swallow you if you don’t)

2. Don’t give people the power to direct your life (because if you do, they will)

3. Beware those with an inflated sense of self (they’re always trying to expand their pyramid scheme)

4. Become a negotiator (it’s not a business term, it’s a life term)

5. Be nice (but not only nice)

6. Be tenacious (if you think you’re persistent enough, you probably aren’t)

7. Learn how to resolve into strategy (problem-solving must eventually rise to the top of consciousness even during the hardest times)

8. Stay grounded while you’re spiritualizing (and beware spiritual etherealites who aren’t)

9. Don’t become a sycophant, and don’t abide those who are

10. Don’t let a pursuit of your “purpose” short-circuit your passion (purpose isn’t verifiable, passion is)

11. Use mediocrity to find your edge (even doing poorly at something can be useful)

12. Know what you want (or at least try hard to figure it out)

13. Beware the mystification of entitlement (it’s a delusion that distorts reason)

14. Learn to enjoy competition (the race and the win)

15. Develop a love of “play” (it’s not kid stuff, it’s human stuff)

16. Beware the myth of predestination (and those who believe it)

17. Learn to use escapism, but don’t get lost in it

18. Learn to love culture, but don’t get drunk on it

19. Learn to appreciate business, but don’t deify it

20. Learn to manage expectations (yours and others’)

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Filed under About Perception, Books and Ideas, Noggin Raisers

What Makes Us Human?

I’ve posted below three videos that I think collectively do a nice job of addressing major issues underlying the perennial question: what makes us human? 

In the first video, the always engaging neurobiologist, primatologist and stress expert Robert Sapolsky talks about human-animal similarities and differences, at the 2009 Stanford commencement.  Skip to the 5:00 minute mark to go directly to Sapolsky’s talk. 

The second video, entitled “What Makes Us Human?”, was produced by The Leakey Foundation, and effectively summarizes several interesting findings from leading researchers on what distinguishes us from other primates.  The final and longest video (about 57 minutes) is a presentation by cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno that focuses on the origin of the human mind and why humans have significantly more cognitive power than other primates.


Filed under Videos

‘The Male Brain’ Shows the Problem with Many Pop Science Books–They Lack Science

A few years ago I read Louann Brizendine’s book, “The Female Brain”, and marveled at her ability to take weak correlations and turn them into impressively scientific-sounding “facts.”

This really is a talent, I think, though not one that has earned her many fans in the science community.  That Brizendine is a trained psychiatrist, and a member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, has not helped her credibility in science circles—in fact, many feel it only makes her more culpable, since she really ought to know better.

What I think she knows, however, is that popular science books don’t have to be evidence-based to become best sellers, and she’s no doubt correct. Her just-released book, “The Male Brain”, will demonstrate that marketplace truism once again, and once again she is raising the ire of scientists.

A few examples will better illustrate why this tension exists.  Brizendine likes to say that men and women are very much alike, but different in a few crucial ways. Fair enough. How are we different?

For one, she claims the “I feel what you feel part of the brain–mirror-neuron system–is larger and more active in the female brain. So women can naturally get in sync with others’ emotions by reading facial expressions, interpreting tone of voice and other nonverbal emotional cues.”

What’s interesting is that the “mirror-neuron system” at the core of her claim may or may not be a “system” at all; in fact, whether mirror neurons even exist is still a point of neuroscientific contention. At the very least, how these neurons work is debatable and there’s anything but widespread agreement about what they do. But Brizendine makes it sound as if the matter is settled and we can confidently draw sweeping conclusions.

But take another look at her statement. Is the conclusion she’s reaching a paradigm-breaking discovery? Not at all. It’s just a regurgitation of the same stereotype we’ve heard for years, that women are more empathetic, more in sync with emotions and better communicators. Only now, according to Brizendine, we have a grandiose scientific underpinning for believing it.

Here’s another claim: “Perhaps the biggest difference between the male and female brain is that men have a sexual pursuit area that is 2.5 times larger than the one in the female brain.”  This statement begs the question, where exactly is this “pursuit area”?  The reader shouldn’t expect an answer—at least not one with scientific validity—because in all likelihood no such “area” exists. At minimum we should be asking how this skirt-chasing control center was identified.

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Filed under Books and Ideas

When You Expect Rapid Feedback, the Fire to Perform Gets Hotter

Let’s say that you’re preparing for an extremely important test that you and roughly 100 other classmates will be taking in a week.  A few days before the test, you find out that your instructor will be going on a trip not long after the test is over and will be providing written and verbal feedback to the students within a day of the test.

This is unusual, because ordinarily the instructor waits a week or more before providing feedback.  About half of the class finds out that they’ll be getting rapid feedback and the other half thinks they won’t receive feedback for several days, per usual.

Which group is more likely to perform better on the test?

That question was investigated by University of Alberta researchers Keri Kettle and Gerald Haubl in a study published in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers hypothesized that the mere anticipation of proximate feedback would result in better performance on a test. Previous research has shown that when feedback is rapid, the threat of disappointment increases. The desire to avoid the negative feeling of disappointment—the feeling you get when you fall short of expectations—is a potent motivator to perform well.

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Filed under About Research