All posts in Psychology

In Praise of Storytelling, and its Illuminating Vignettes

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Tell me a story—a tale spun with intriguing events and characters, the actions of which are unpredictable, human, unique and unexpected—and I will listen, intently, mind and heart open to the deeper meaning lying beneath. Rattle off facts and numbers— diluted experiences seized by barcodes, cookies and analytics—and I will wonder about the stories and faces hiding behind the veil of quantification.

In the sea of data in which we swim, and the reportage that comes with it, it is no surprise that we yearn for narratives, or as Apple’s recent campaign asked, “What Will Your Verse Be?”

The ad is appealing, not solely because it’s poetic, and visually stunning, but because it nudges each and every one of us to imagine what our individual purpose is, what our personal contributions might be, in a world interconnected. Stories are seductive because they’re each unique, like a fingerprint (and thus intriguing) yet not so unique that they’re not familiar, and lessons for our own lives. A story about a woman grieving the death of her parent lost to a rare form of cancer may entice us to read more on the little-known illness but more importantly, we hold on to the narrative because of what it tells us about survival, in the midst of tragedy. Stories are both private and shared expressions.

A doctor, in defending benefits of storytelling, recently shared his observations of this form in the medical field. In “Why Doctors Need Stories,” Dr. Peter Kramer says:

“In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails.”

But he swims against the tide, and is an advocate for the anecdote. Stories, he found, when included in his own book, engendered sympathy from readers:

“… readers wrote to say that they’d recognized themselves. Seeing that they were not alone gave them hope. Encouragement is another benefit of case description, familiar to us in this age of memoir…vignettes can do more than illustrate and reassure. They convey what doctors see and hear, and those reports can set a research agenda.”

Dr. Kramer continues:

“Beyond its roles as illustration, affirmation, hypothesis-builder and low-level guidance for practice, storytelling can act as a modest counterbalance to a straitened understanding of evidence.”

With the rise of data collection, monitoring and evaluation, our culture has become quite good at standardizing, organizing and distilling information. Sweeping studies across vast e-scapes of data may paint the big picture, but in doing so, do we lose sight of its smaller and significant parts? Storytelling, singular narratives buried in the mine of information, connects us to other human beings. It is one of the challenges of our time—to usher in an age defined by large-scale data collection, and keep alive this form—the human voice of experience.

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In Pursuit of the Origin of Happiness

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Imagine a moment of elation—a surprise visit by your best friend, a favored underdog’s win or maybe a dip in cool springs on a steamy summer’s day—reviewed in slow motion. What we would see, frame by frame, would be happiness divided, into chunks—people, sounds, things, actions. In our irresistible quest for happiness, what is its genesis?

Research, as it turns out, increasingly tells us happiness is specifically derived from experiences, not possessions (though some would argue that possessions comprise experiences). A recent study, published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information site takes this theory a step further, and posits that mere waiting for experiences is more gratifying than waiting for material possessions:

“…Four studies demonstrate that people derive more happiness from the anticipation of experiential purchases and that waiting for an experience tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good.”

The study monitored how about 100 college students and over 2,200 randomly selected adults felt about material goods and experiences.

Researcher Amit Kumar, quoted in NPR, stated:

“I think one aspect of that has to do with the nature of imagination…If you’re waiting to buy an iPhone, you know exactly how many megapixels the camera on the new phone will have…People often get really creative while planning out a future vacation, he says, and just thinking about all the things they’ll be doing and all fun they’ll be having can boost their mood.”

Is it the anticipation prior to an experience, or everything that happens between the former and the latter and the actual event itself that releases endorphins? Must happiness be in concert with another human being, or can it exist in one’s solitude?

To the second question, our own anecdotal evidence reveals that we can certainly find pleasure being alone. We all know someone, perhaps one’s self, that relishes the idea of retreating to a private cove of isolation—likely temporary, but maybe longer—for a peace that soothes stressors that detract from our overall well-being. Healthy relationships, too, can contribute to happier, better selves.

Last week, in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, a study highlighted the benefits gained from meaningful relationships—specifically, how they help you “thrive.” A press release from Eureka Alert expounded on what this means:

“Researchers Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of University of California at Santa Barbara emphasize the importance of relationships in supporting individuals not only in their ability to cope with stress or adversity, but also in their efforts to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life.”

But not all meaningful relationships are good for you, they note:

“It is not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it that determines the outcome of that support…being sensitive involves responding to needs in such a way that the support-recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for.”

For all the benefits science confers on our understanding of happiness, nothing affirms its presence as how it feels. When we are happy, we know it. The things that we buy may induce it, experiences with loved ones may trigger it even more, but whatever its origin, our brains are wired to replicate the contentment. Hopefully, with that replication, comes a happiness that is not only pleasurable, but good for us.

To review a popular post on how a meaningful life is not always a happy one, check out this piece, published in January.

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Different Paths to Making Difficult Choices

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From the moment we exercise free will, our lives, in the most pragmatic sense, become a series of decisions. Good or bad, or neither, choices carve paths anticipated, or more commonly, unpredicted—that lead us to the right now, feet planted and poised to move again, toward some unknown destination. Some choices are simple; others not so. It is the difficult ones—the ones involving more risk—that often have us plagued with agony and paralysis.

A plethora of online commentary on the topic is no surprise: People are desperately seeking advice on making difficult decisions. TED, in particular, is stocked full of videos on the subject.

To start, there is Psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, who outlines a formula (passed down by 1700′s Dutch polymath Daniel Bernoulli) for why we make bad decisions (also the name of his talk). He labels the formula “Bernoulli’s gift,” which states:

“The expected value of any of our actions – that is, the goodness that we can count on getting – is the product of two simple things: the odds that this action will allow us to gain something, and the value of that gain to us.”

In other words:

Expected value = (Odds of Gain) X (Value of Gain)

“In a sense, what Bernoulli was saying is if we can estimate and multiply these two things, we will always know precisely how we should behave.”

Formulas, at first glance, can be ready-made solutions to quandaries. An “=” sign has always served as a salve for my conundrums: Trying to get a job? “Success = readiness and opportunity.” Pithy lines such as this are so chic, so lean, and yet weigh one down with the expectation that you absolutely can achieve what’s on the other side of the “=” sign. These formulas tend over-simplify our life’s ills, reducing them to numbers that don’t nearly capture values unquantifiable.

Enter Ruth Chang, another presenter on TED, who acknowledges this complexity of our human decision-making in “How to Make Hard Choices”:

“Even taking two alternatives side by side with full information, a choice can still be hard. Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they’re hard because there is no best option.

As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do.”

Her talk ends on a very positive note:

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.”

And choice doesn’t always have to be about us, but about others. For those interested in reviewing this concept not through an individualistically-minded lens, but a collective one, see Renata Salecl’s “Our Unhealthy Obsession with Choice”. In it, she says:

“I also embrace the idea that we should go beyond thinking about individual choices, that it’s very important to rethink social choices, since this ideology of individual choice has pacified us. It really prevented us to think about social change. We spend so much time choosing things for ourselves and barely reflect on communal choices we can make.”

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Brands That Were ‘Mmm, Mmm Good’ Back Then, Still Are Today

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Recalling food experiences from childhood undoubtedly conjures up a bevy of beloved names that in our hearts remain as dear as the memories created around them: Dinty Moore. Kraft. Oscar Mayer. Jell-O. Betty Crocker. Heinz. Each could have been characters in a storybook—their impressions so indelible in our lives. Instead, they are brand names of popular foods.

Recently, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, corroborated what we often feel—that loyalty to the brands we loved as children never wanes. Authors Paul M. Connell (Stony Brook University), Merrie Brucks, and Jesper H. Nielsen (both University of Arizona) say:

“…children develop brand loyalty and biases that carry over into their adult lives and are often difficult to change…Our research provides an initial investigation into how exposure to ads in childhood can lead to enduring biases that favor products associated with the ads once the kids grow up.”

The researchers studied subjects on the matter. Eureka Alert explains:

“In four studies, the authors examined adults’ judgments of the healthiness of various products, some of which were heavily advertised in their childhood years. Participants viewed images of characters that would have been widely advertised when they were children. Study results showed that when exposed to advertising using characters before age 13, we develop positive long-term feelings towards the characters and the brands’ nutrition for years to come.

Additionally, the researchers found that people who harbor strongly positive feelings toward the advertising character resist changing their minds about the products featured in the ads. They discovered that these effects are not limited to the products that were originally advertised. That is, if people continue to have positive feelings toward advertising characters, then they also rated fictitious new brand extensions as healthier.”

It is clear now that food (or rather food product) heavily targeted at children during the 1980s was not nutritious. But from a child’s point of view, nutrition was never an indicator of significance. As a child growing up the 80s, I can personally vouch for a brand’s power of influence. No breakfast memory is without Kellogg’s trio Snap, Crackle and Pop!

What scientists may fail to take into account is the association of a generally positive experience linked with brands still revered. I loved Kellogg’s cereal not because of its miniature cartoon mascots, necessarily, but because of fond memories of getting ready for school in the morning. I loved Oscar Mayer’s bologna not for its name (and catchy tune), but because of the holes I would cut out (to make smiley faces) of the meat product with my siblings.

In part we love old brands because of marketing genius, but we also love them because of the power they have to take us back in time—to a life youthful, carefree and, hopefully, positive.

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Eccentric Artists and Why We Love Them

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To the open-minded truth seeker, artists living on the fringes of reality can seem like the sages of our time. Somehow they manage to escape the mainstream, and yet capture its stories and lessons so beautifully in their work. Imagine eccentrics Johnny Depp, J.D. Salinger and Salvador Dali. Are these artists as brilliant as we believe?

A recent article in BPS Research Digest suggests that such perception is a shared one, a stereotype, of eccentric people:

“…people infer that work made by an eccentric person is better and more valuable than work produced by a conventional character. Eccentricity is taken as a sign of artistic skill, except when the work in question is conventional and/or the display of eccentricity is judged to be fake.

Wijnand van Tilberg and Eric Igou tested these ideas across five studies. In the first, 38 students rated a painting by Van Gogh more positively if they were first told about the ear-cutting incident. In two other studies, dozens more students rated paintings by a fictional Icelandic artist more positively and estimated it to be more valuable if they were told he had an eccentric personality, or if they saw a photograph showing him looking eccentric, unshaven with half-long hair (as opposed to seeing a photo showing him looking conventional, with short hair and neat clothing).

The fourth and fifth studies highlighted some caveats. Students rated the unconventional art of Joseph Beuys (“The Pack”) more positively if they were told that Beuys was eccentric in that he had a habit of carrying roadside stones on his head. However, the same yarn about Andrea del Verrocchio did not lead to higher ratings for his conventional art (“Lady of Flowers”). Similarly, seeing a photo of Lady Gaga crouching in an usual outfit (tight, all black, with shiny mask) led student participants to rate her as more highly skilled compared to seeing her seated in a conventional black dress; unless, that is, the students were told that Gaga’s eccentricity is fake and no more than a marketing ploy. In other words, eccentricity of the artist leads to more positive ratings of their work, unless that work is conventional, and/or the artist’s unusual behaviour is seen as contrived.”

Why is it that, aside from the disingenuous attempts, we love creative genius in the non-conformist? Is it simply due to a lifetime of exposure of a stereotype? Or do we believe that our conventional ways of being are pragmatic ways of living, and that given bouts of inspiration, could give way or expand into a non-traditional, and more aware, creative self?

Must the enlightened, more often than not, be counter-culture? Must they be eccentric?

Van Tilberg and Igou’s study does not answer these questions, but it does remind us of the power of stereotypes—that embedded deep within our psyche is a tendency to glorify the quirky, and to do that may mean we inadvertently overlook the talent of everyday, “normal” folks.

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Why Risk Takers Go For It And Others Pause

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Risk takers may not crave thrills and danger merely based on bravado or desire. According to researchers, they may roll the dice, however unwisely, because they simply can’t help themselves.

The site Eureka Alert recently reported:

“We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control,” says Sarah Helfinstein, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin and lead author of the study that appears online…in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study’s findings were based on data from 108 subjects who sat in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner — a machine that allows researchers to pinpoint brain activity in vivid, three-dimensional images — while playing a video game that simulates risk-taking.

The researchers used specialized software to look for patterns of activity across the whole brain that preceded a person’s making a risky choice or a safe choice in one set of subjects. Then they asked the software to predict what other subjects would choose during the game based solely on their brain activity. The software accurately predicted people’s choices 71 percent of the time.

“These patterns are reliable enough that not only can we predict what will happen in an additional test on the same person, but on people we haven’t seen before,” said Russ Poldrack, director of UT Austin’s Imaging Research Center and professor of psychology and neuroscience.

In other words, some individuals are risky because they’re wired that way. If this is true (and more research is needed to corroborate the findings), then real-world implications could be far-reaching for those who engage in unsafe sex or drug abuse, for example. As Ms. Helfinstein states:

“If we can figure out the factors in the world that influence the brain, we can draw conclusions about what actions are best at helping people resist risks.”

This is not to say that all risky behavior is nefarious. In fact, in American culture, risk is often associated with success. Where the consequences of failure are severe for some decisions, the reward is also great. It is not uncommon to hear of risk takers depicted as trail blazers. Last Fall, for example, the Huffington Post ran a piece called “7 Reasons Why Risk-Taking Leads To Success.” Their list included reasons such as:

  • Taking risks shows confidence and helps you stand out.
  • Success won’t fall in your lap — you have to pursue it.
  • You don’t achieve your dreams by playing it safe.

While well-intentioned risks (applying for an ambitious job, telling a joke in front of a tough crowd, etc.) are more complicated than the bullet points that recommend them, they nevertheless can be gambles worth taking; challenging the status quo and pushing our boundaries brings us one step closer to understanding the “sweet spot”—that perfect balance of hard-earned achievement and personal security.

This sweet spot may be more difficult to assess for the overly-risky person lacking degrees of self-control, but that does not necessarily have to exclude them. Self-awareness and the support of close friends help to identify one’s tendencies (healthy or not), which ultimately, can provide a more accurate reading of risk—the decisions worth making, and the ones best avoided.

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