Psychology Applied to Life

June 15, 2010

(Mistress of) My Own Domain

Filed under: The Blog — Tags: , , — psychoflife @ 7:32 pm

As in the old “Seinfeld” joke combined with the awesome “Mistress of Science” title that many of us females who get the MS rename ourselves? …I thought it was funny! :o)

This will probably be my last post here (at least for awhile) because I’ve officially purchased my own domain name and started a blog there – Psych at Work ( It’s very similar to this blog, but I simply wanted my own domain name with more flexibility in terms of the design. So please subscribe there if you enjoyed the content of this blog at all – I’m doing my best to teach myself some web design as well as putting together helpful and interesting ideas, links, and relevant finds.


March 7, 2010

Burnout and the Plague: Flow as the Solution to Both

I sincerely apologize for my complete absence from the blogging world though a recent bout with what can only be called “The Plague” has had me incapacitated for more than a week. Minus a trip to the doctor that only reinforced my belief that going was a waste of time… but, I digress.

One of the small benefits of being sick is that you can gain some perspective on various tasks and areas of your life – you realize what you enjoy doing and will fight to get to do even when you are beyond exhausted and then you realize what you were doing because it was “the right thing to do” or you really had to do it. During my couch-confinement, I’ve tried to get a variety of tasks done – for classwork, my boss, to prepare for comprehensive (or qualifying) exams in May, etc. It reminded me of one of many, many exercises from productivity, organization-type blogs that encourage you to set your priorities (see an example on balancing your work-life from ChickSpeak, or Stratejoy’s take on running in circles, a usability post on fighting perfection in design, Lifehacker’s “do not do” lists, etc.)

Admittedly, I’m desperate to find a benefit from the lost productivity right now, but I genuinely feel that I’ve gotten a little reminder about why I’m doing all of this (in the big picture), the kind of work that energizes and makes me feel like all the little annoying stuff is worth it, and the kind of work that I find ultimately fulfilling. And while I could have easily identified this work before entering grad school, three years in, with concerns about publications and productive professors, credit-hogs and near-plagiarists, I lost sight of that a bit. Because the truth is that I often find myself bogged down by (ultimately) small (seemingly huge) decisions about data transformations and citations to justify different analytic techniques, translating meeting notes to public to do lists, preparing study guides, and running errands. I end up frustrated by unexpected costs (both time and money), everyday annoyances, and sometimes terrible working conditions. But, this week, I was reminded that some tasks don’t require the same Herculean effort from me (flow, anyone?), and some help me remember the big picture more easily than others.

Specifically, a paper I’m working on with a professor who is not my boss, that I approached because I had an idea and he loved it, is what I feel passionate about right now… it’s not anything in my area, nor is it something I think I’d want to build a career around. But it’s the academic, thinking-type work that actually forces me to integrate different literatures in unique ways and that forces me to write. Really write, not just explain complicated data in words. And I miss that. I don’t get to do it enough. I rarely actually think about much intellectual stuff and I think I need to make more of an effort to get back to doing that. Because the other stuff is important – I need to walk my dog and pay the bills, I have to do some scut work for my boss, I have to just deal with it. But to avoid the burnout that hangs over the head of any Ph.D. student, I think I need to make an effort to work on these projects and actually think about the big picture and big ideas more often too…

Oddly enough, it seems that this blogger described some of what I’m feeling as mere contrast effects – that basically the high-level, abstract thinking is enjoyable because it’s a break from the mundane. And I certainly think that’s true, and I know I need to figure out whether that type of thinking is appealing because of its uniqueness or because I genuinely want to do it all the time before I make any big career choices. But, for now, I think it’s enough to know that it’s a way that I can reduce burnout for myself and even get a tiny bit of flow in hectic everyday life…

(Note: Because I’m a nerd and have read a decent amount of Csikszentmihalyi‘s work and think he’s amazing, I’ve embedded a talk from him as well as one of my most favorite diagrams of his idea about boredom v. flow v. anxiety and all the corresponding states of arousal. I just think it’s cool stuff to think about so I’ve included it here though the need to include them here is somewhat questionable.)

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January 6, 2010

Men, Women, and the Parking Wars

One of my male friends was recently teasing me about the results of a study by Dr. Claudia Wolf of Ruhr University in Germany in which she had 65 participants – men and women – park Audi A6s in “standard size parking spaces.” Dr. Wolf claimed that results showed that (1) women parked more slowly than men, and (2) women were less accurate than men (men were able to maneuver the cars to the middle of the space better than women).

Traveling Mars and Venus, from a blog on the UK's Mirror

This study has achieved a fair amount of attention on the internet – as of the writing of this entry, the original Telegraph article had been dugg more than 1,000 times. Considering the popularity of John Gray’s Men are from Mars… and similar “psychology of gender” type research, this should come as not surprise. But what is at least slightly surprising – and endlessly frustrating – is the jump to overgeneralization and claims about fundamental gender differences.

I’m rather partial to the topic of gender (full disclosure: my thesis dealt with perceptions of gendered communication in emails), so this is a personal frustration for me. Notably, the most respected research in the field of psychology suggests that gender differences in abilities are not particularly meaningful or consistent (e.g., Hyde, 1981; Hyde & Lynn, 1988). What is much more meaningful are gender differences in norms, stereotypes, and expectations and how those differences translate into segregating the workforce (more men in math, science, and engineering; fewer women leaders; fewer women in highly paid positions, such as CEO; lower salaries for women).

The other major methodological issue with Dr. Wolf’s study is one fundamental to any claims of general group differences – the ability to generalize across people based on the sample of a few. While this is always an issue in psychology and statistics, the problem here is that to claim that these differences exist, Dr. Wolf needs to show that they exist across age groups and cultures – or at least address the idea that they may not. It’s well-established that our perceptual capabilities change as we age (there are fundamental changes in the brain as we age), so it’s reasonable to question whether the men and women in the sample were the same age… were they all pre-tested to determine whether they were equal in these perceptual capabilities?

If you look at the gender research in general and that I’ve cited here, you’ll notice the continual warnings about not generalizing findings related to gender differences across culture (note the Wikipedia warning that the article may not represent a worldwide view). In fact, a lot of gender research (that I’ll admit I like a lot) poses that differences in culture and roles are the real cause of supposed gender differences (see Eagly’s 1987 book or any of her work). The same is relevant here – were all the participants born and raised in Germany and is the expectation that both teenage boys and girls learn to drive? Or do females tend to learn to drive later in life (thus leading to less experience despite the same chronological age)?

And is there an expectation that females are worse drivers than males (as Dr. Wolf indicates by saying she intended to test the myth/rumor/urban legend)? Stereotype threat research (see Claude Steele’s work) shows that expectations strongly influence performance – such as when test-takers are told that women do worse on the math test they are about to take and then women subsequently perform worse – so it’s reasonable to assume that expectations can influence performance – which means that there are NOT gender differences in perceptual/cognitive capabilities. The fact that women took longer to park could be evidence that stereotype threat is at work – if women think they are going to do worse, they may go slower and be more deliberate in an effort to be more accurate (which may or may not actually lead them to be more accurate since the only thing the study showed is that women were slower and less accurate – NOT that slower women were less accurate than faster women).

But perhaps all of these concerns will be addressed when Dr. Wolf finally writes this all up in an article for a peer-reviewed journal. Or maybe these flaws will make it unpublishable (as no citation is listed for future publication of the study).

Note: I do my best to cite sources that are readily available on the internet, but sometimes I do cite what I know or have read because it’s easier and/or a better fit, in which case I try to link to an abstract that is widely available and sometimes resort to Wikipedia (when it matches up with what I’ve read in peer-reviewed journals, it seems to be a good way of concisely summarizing and supporting a point). That’s what you’ll get when you click on the links associated with the sources.  My apologies for not being able to offer the entire text – being young and poor makes it difficult to figure out a way to do that…

Original Article: Matthew Moore’s December 20, 2009 article “Women worse at parking than men, study shows” appeared in the UK’s Telegraph, link found here.

Melissa C. Waitsman (2010). Men, Women, and the Parking Wars Psychology Applied to Life Blog

December 30, 2009

No Pattern = No Guilt? A Modern Way to Blame the Victim

Most of you (or those of you who watch any ESPN at all) have seen the controversy surrounding Mike Leach, formerly of Texas Tech. Basically, Leach has been fired by the school amid allegations (albeit from an ESPN analyst Craig James’s son, wide receiver Adam James) of abuse and mistreatment. The James family claims that after the wide receiver was diagnosed with a concussion, Leach confined him to an electrical closet and an equipment room (on separate occasions). While I don’t know what I think about how Texas Tech handled anything, what the truth is about what really happened, or whether Adam James has a history of whining and acting entitled, as various commentators and news sources allege, some of the reaction from commentators – particularly Lou Holtz, someone I admit I do not particularly like or find reason to respect anymore (we might all dislike Rich Rodriguez, but you just can’t compare him to Hitler, no matter what) – are particularly outrageous.

Namely, Lou Holtz has claimed that because Mike Leach has coached at Tech for the past ten years and there is, so far, no evidence of a pattern of abusing and mistreating players, that we should all basically be very suspicious of the current accusations (note that I’ve tried to find a video of some of these moments from various halftime updates or in a column, but haven’t found anything helpful). Frankly, this is just outrageous and frustrating. Yes, we should retain a healthy amount of skepticism when evaluating the veracity of claims that have the potential to do so much harm to one’s reputation and career, but the idea that because no one else has formally spoken out against this man, we shouldn’t trust the first person brave enough to speak out is ludicrous and upsetting.

Statistics tell us that victims of crimes such as rape and sexual assault – something that makes the victim/survivor (I use these terms interchangeably simply because the literature and other discussions use both terms, rather than to imply any sort of passivity versus activism or any other connotation associated with the two nouns) feel humiliated – rarely report the event (LESS than 5% of college women who are sexually assaulted actually report the event, according to a study funded by the U.S. Justice department and cited here if you don’t want to download the pdf). The overwhelmingly negative consequences facing those women (and men) who report the event are a major cause – victims fear they will be blamed or no one will believe them, that the attacker will attempt to gain retribution against the victim who reported him or her, the sheer emotional exhaustion involved in recounting the story over and over again for medical and legal personnel are just a few of the associated costs of coming forward. When we think about those additional complications – that would happen again in addition to the assault already suffered. If you don’t believe me, here are just a few articles that discuss the negative consequences for those who report the crime:

  • An article appearing on this October recounted stories reported by the LA Times and NY Times about several women who faced severe costs after reporting domestic abuse – from eviction because of a crime being committed in the residence to suspicion about their own role in facilitating child abuse.
  • A November article covering CBS’s 5-month investigation found that thousands of rape kits aren’t even tested – something terrifying considering that

    Rape by the Numbers, from CBS News

    the actual collection of evidence for the rape kits seems to be quite traumatic. The article also points out that the arrest rate for rape is only 25%, compared to 79% for murder and 51% for aggravated assault.

  • – normally a favorite for hilarious stories about work conditions that make you feel better about your own cubicle/cardboard box situation – reported on the story of a UK employee who has filed sexual harassment, discrimination, and constructive dismissal years after the incidents began. The woman explains that those who have not experienced such events cannot understand how the survivor can wait so long to report the offenses, but that she really needed her job and she was scared that others wouldn’t believe her accusations.
  • The UK’s Guardian reported a 2007 study that found that victims of rape were often not believed and judged and followed up with a number of stories about the legal system’s failures in handling rape, including reports published by The Telegraph that victims are not believed when they are intoxicated or “from the wrong part of town.”

So what’s the connection between my outrage and frustration towards Lou Holtz, a seemingly loose cannon who shouldn’t really be allowed on live TV anymore, and continuing victimization of rape and sexual assault survivors? I might have first made the connection between rape victims and this situation because of a tongue-in-cheek sports blog called “With Leather” that I frequently read – despite the my belief that it occasionally steps over the line from funny to offensive – which you can check out here. But, namely, the silence of victims that enables the offender to continue to victimize others with the same unchecked behavior that seemingly could be reduced if victims weren’t so terrified to speak out against the offender. If the system made it easier for these women to get help and be protected, to survive and move on without fear of reprisal, who knows how many more incidents would be reported and perpetrators put away and prevented from continuing to victimize others?

But individuals like Lou Holtz not only tell victims that they might be mocked if they do find the courage to come forward, but that they may not be believed. The first survivor to speak out – the one that makes it easier and paves the way for other victims to tell their stories and help authorities find the evidence necessary to punish the offender – is specifically deterred from reporting any crime because there is no established pattern of abuse. This is cyclical – as more time passes, the likelihood that someone would have already reported the offender seems to increase and the victim becomes less and less likely to speak and out and more and more likely to believe that the offense was somehow self-created. Obviously there’s a bit of a jump from the belief that we should look suspiciously upon the first report of abuse or mistreatment made against an otherwise fairly well-liked person in power to discouraging rape and sexual assault victims from speaking out, but there are some parallels and some reasons to be concerned about statements made by Lou Holtz.

December 29, 2009

For more information… a video lecture from Philip Zimbardo

Filed under: Multimedia Learning, Social Psychology — Tags: , , , , , , , — psychoflife @ 7:54 pm

This is a lecture given by Philip Zimbardo – of The Lucifer Effect and the Stanford Prison Experiment mentioned in the previous post – where he talks about the ‘ease’ of doing heroic or evil things, specifically related to the Abu Ghraib trials and accusations that soldiers abused prisoners.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t watched the whole thing (yet), but be warned that there are graphic images included in the lecture (and the site warns you about this too). But what I’ve seen is quite interesting…

[Link to the lecture here.]

Psychology of Heroism: From Tackling the Terrorists and Thwarting Terror to… Sales?

Besides the always fun alliteration, I find myself drawn to bits and pieces of actual psychological research sandwiched into popular press and journalism. That said, I saw this interview with Phil Zimbardo on Newsweek‘s web site about the psychology of heroism and how it all relates to the courageous actions of Jasper Schuringa, the man who tackled the (alleged) terrorist who was attempting to set off a bomb and was literally on fire. How did this (more or less, seemingly) normal, ordinary guy end up jumping over other passengers and seats to tackle a man who was on fire – risking his own life and safety in the process and sustaining burns? What is it that turns some people into heroes who can ignore the obvious risks to themselves in order to protect others? Is it something that turns people into characters or are heroes born rather than made?

Phil Zimbardo is one of the most famous social psychologists there is, responsible for the Stanford Prison experiment, one of the most famous experiments of the last century. He’s also written a book about the psychology of evil called The Lucifer Effect. He’s appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”; he’s a past president of the American Psychological Association; and in general, considered to be a pretty well-known psychologist who taught everyone in the field a lot about “human nature,” ethics, and social norms.

Unfortunately, the excerpts from the interview seem to be taken in order to make some generalizations and “big points” about what heroism really means. Namely, the excerpts seems to be used to show us that anyone and everyone can be a hero – it’s more about having the opportunity to be a hero rather than an innate (psychological or personality) trait. And then, of course, the natural plug for Zimbardo’s book. But there’s more here and in Zimbardo’s work – there’s a larger basis for his research and these general conclusions that warrant examination or at least a brief glance!

Zimbardo briefly mentions some principles and ideas that are the seeds that have grown into to the larger branches of research, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll only mention one here – the foot-in-the-door phenomenon (FITD). FITD holds that by asking individuals for a small request (i.e., will you talk to this underprivileged child on the phone for a few minutes?), these individuals will then be more likely to agree to larger requests (i.e., will you take this child to the zoo?). One of the the theories behind this is that people want to appear consistent (and not hypocritical) and by agreeing to the phone call, they are demonstrating their own charity and desire to help and they don’t want to appear contradictory by turning down the zoo trip.

This phenomenon is sometimes embraced by marketing gurus and salespeople – once you’re already paying for a small upgrade, maybe you’ll want a larger one and so on. Ideally it’s also used by those in the philanthropy “business,” but nonetheless, it’s a way that psychological findings have boosted the effectiveness of salespeople and marketing campaigns alike.

There are a number of interesting connections between this scholarly research and real life – from sales to thwarting terrorist attacks – but this is also a line of research that demonstrates both the incredible highs and terrifying lows of humans. Because just as anyone can become a hero, Zimbardo’s prison experiment demonstrated that anyone could become an abusive leader, brutalizing fellow humans as such behavior becomes a new sort of social norm. But just as we can see the glass as half-full or half-empty, we can choose to focus on the fact that anyone can become one of the most admirable and respectable members of society. We can all be heroes. We can all do bad things. The bottom line in Zimbardo’s research seems to say that the largest difference between the (alleged) terrorist and the man who tackled him is situational rather than a fundamental evil or goodness. And while we may not have a lot of control over the situations we are born into and placed in, we can all work to help others become heroes, just as Zimbardo pilots studies (via the Heroic Imagination Project)  to increase the likelihood that children will take heroic actions when faced with a situation and a choice to become one.

But then again, maybe I’m just influenced by the Christmas afterglow…

[Link to the original Newsweek article from 12.29.2009 by Mary Carmichael entitled “The Making of a Hero” here.]

December 23, 2009

Menu Psychology: An Ethical Question?

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece on the psychology of menu creation. It’s something that perhaps only large chains are giving serious thought to – sending their menus and executives off to “menu boot camp” and learning about the four types of diners – but perhaps none of them really should. Obviously the goal of a business is to make money. To do that requires satisfying customers and success does seem to be measured in profit margins. But, the use of psychology in creating menus here seems to focus on increasing two very bad behaviors.

First, the menus are revised to encourage individuals to eat more… the idea that we should actually “mindlessly eat” (as is suggested by the title of Brian Wansink’s book) is a very VERY scary one given that obesity is a major health crisis in America. Programs such as Weight Watchers actually ask you to focus on what you eat and how much you are consuming – because then you actually do consume less. The idea is that we won’t naturally keep eating after we’re full, to the point that we’ll feel sick. But, the presentation of so much appetizing food on a menu can cause us to order more than we should (as our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, as the popular phrase goes) and then, when the food arrives, we feel some sense of obligation to eat it all (yet another piece of wisdom I picked up from my years on Weight Watchers).

The feeling that we ordered it and it’s ours, and we have to pay for it so we should eat it is intricately tied to the next bad behavior encouraged by these restaurants. Concerned about the economy and reduced spending of Americans – a record number of whom have been unemployed this past year and many more who consciously feel the pinch – restaurant managers and executives are investigating ways to present prices to maximize customer spending. This includes presenting prices near the end of the menu and using “friendly” numbers without dollar signs (apparently the use of the period to indicate cents is left to your discretion as it seems to have little effect on customer spending).

Ultimately, the psychological research behind may be sound (I have NOT read too much beyond this – it seems to use the same research methods I am familiar with and use, but is published by and conducted by those in hospitality and tourism fields, so let’s assume here that it is methodologically sound, for the sake of argument), but should it be used this way? It seems to be an ethical question with no easy answers. After all, though these restaurants may be subtly fooling customers into bad habits, the overspending of these customers leads to financial comfort and relief for the business owners themselves and who really gets to determine who should profit and who should face the brunt of the economic crisis?

[Link to the original New York Times article – “Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners” by Sarah Kershaw, December 22, 2009, here.]

December 22, 2009

An Introduction

I’ve decided to start this blog after creating and maintaining various (semi-) personal blogs, which always seemed to include a disproportionate amount of my own thoughts about psychology as it has been applied to everyday life. Though my “real life” focus is on psychology in the workplace, in practice, this line is much fuzzier… thus the title of this blog! I intend to post articles from more “pop psychology” resources such as Psychology Today, as well as peer-reviewed journals and the occasional podcast, quote, or link. I also want to include general news that touches on psychological research and principles, sort of Malcolm Gladwell-style.

In honor of this sort of metacognitive post about blogging, I found this abstract from a recent article in the American Behavioral Scientist about the psychology of blogging!

The Psychology of Blogging

You, Me, and Everyone in Between

Laura J. Gurak

University of Minnesota, St. Paul

Smiljana Antonijevic

The phenomenon and practice of blogging offers a rich environment from which to look at the psychology of the Internet. By using blogging as a lens, researchers can see that many predictions and findings of early Internet research on social and psychological features of computer-mediated communication have held true, whereas others are not as true, and that the psychology of the Internet is very much a sense of the one and the many, the individual and the collective, the personal and the political. Blogs illustrate the fusion of key elements of human desire—to express one’s identity, create community, structure one’s past and present experiences—with the main technological features of 21stcentury digital communication. Blogs can serve as a lens to observe the way in which people currently use digital technologies and, in return, transform some of the traditional cultural norms—such as those between the public and the private.

(author chosen) Key Words: Weblogs • psychology • identity • private • public

Official Citation: American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 52, No. 1, 60-68 (2008). DOI: 10.1177/0002764208321341

Link (to abstract) here.

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