Posts filed under ‘Psychology’

The Secret To Happiness

The American Dream tells us we are free to pursue happiness, but doesn’t give us instructions.  Even life-changing events such as winning the lottery have been shown (Brickman 1978) to only increase happiness in the short-term.

The secret to long term happiness is a concept that seems too sacred to be studied and dissected. However, many researchers devote themselves to this topic, and this paper by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky presents a nice theory about sustainable happiness.

This elusive goal is difficult, and may be impossible. Many past studies have shown that each person has a base level of happiness which they can only deviate from temporarily. Even more unfortunate, is that this base level of happiness is 50-80% inherited.

The researchers in this paper divided events that increase your well-being into: activity changes (intentional acts such as exercising) and circumstantial changes (such as being assigned a great roommate). They performed 3 studies on psychology students who had recently experienced an increase in well-being. These studies showed that sustainable happiness was only possible through activity changes. Intentional changes resulted in a bigger boost in happiness and more varied experiences.

After a period of time, those who experienced the increase in well-being because of an activity change retained their increase more than those who experienced the increase because of a circumstantial change. The ones who became happier by chance became accustomed to the change and were no longer affected by it.

There is no shortcut — effort and hard work are the best route to happiness.

Sheldon, K & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions, not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 55 – 86. [PDF]

Edit by Jeff Huang

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September 29, 2008 at 3:14 am 46 comments

The effectiveness of self-imposed deadlines on procrastination

I often hear of graduate students postponing their research to do other things: play Tetris, read comments on Slashdot, or write a blog. We defer doing something “more important” to do something else and feel guilty and pleased at the same time.

How sweet is it not to do work? Apparently, sweet enough to abate the heavy and bitter costs of procrastinating. Late fines and extra work for missing a deadline seem distant when you can chat online for another 20 minutes right now.

Why do people procrastinate? This is an effect psychologists attribute to “hyperbolic time discounting”: the immediate rewards are disproportionally more compelling than the greater delayed costs. In other words, Procrastination itself is the reward.

However, the eventual cost of neglecting a task has such an impact on people that they learn to impose deadlines on themselves to restrict their own behavior. At what lengths do people do this? This article looks at three questions:

  1. Do people self-impose costly deadlines on tasks in which procrastination may impede performance?
  2. Are self-imposed deadlines effective in improving task performance?
  3. Do people set their deadlines optimally, for maximum performance enhancement?

A few studies are reported in this paper, where students had the opportunity to choose their own deadlines for three tasks they needed to do (write or proofread papers). They were allowed to set separate deadlines for each paper, but they would be bound to the deadlines and be assessed penalties if the papers were submitted late. Logically, the best solution would be to set all the deadlines to be the last day, which would give them the most flexibility and time to work on the three tasks.

However, only 27% of the students chose to submit all three papers on the last day of class. This answers the first question — people are aware of their own procrastination and give themselves earlier deadlines to counter it. The studies show that these deadlines do improve performance over only having deadlines at the very end. Unfortunately, they are still suboptimal because the subjects who were given equally spaced deadlines performed better, thus supporting question two but rejecting question three.

Procrastination Study

But hey, I’ll push myself to start my taxes earlier, but after a round or two of Winterbells.

Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224. [PDF]

December 26, 2006 at 2:42 am 84 comments

The Creative Process

What are the underlying cognitive mechanisms for the creative process?

Gabora explains what happens to our minds when we’re doing creative work.

Stages of the Creative Process

Preparation: Becomes obsessed with the problem, collects relevant data and attempts traditional approaches.

Incubation: Does not actively attempt to solve the problem, but unconsciously continues to work on it.

Taking a shower is my most common incubation step. Programming bugs seem to reveal themselves when I’m lathering up in there.

Illumination: Possibilities surface to the consciousness in a vague and unpolished form.

Verification: The idea is worked into a form that can be proven and communicated to others.

Architecture of the Mind

Since the human mind can sense and store any of the combinations of sound, color, etc., the number of memory locations is much less than the number of possible experiences. The mind can therefore be represented as a sparse matrix.Mind Architecture

During the initial, intuitive phase, each thought activates, and potentially retrieves information from, a large region containing many memory locations. Because of the distributed, content-addressable structure of memory, the diverse contents of these many locations merge to generate the next thought. Novel associations often result. As one focuses on an idea, the region searched and retrieved from narrows, such that the next thought is the product of fewer memory locations. This enables a shift from association-based to causation-based thinking, which facilitates the fine-tuning and manifestation of the creative work.

This association-based seems to be the main reason why brainstorming works. Jotting down everything you can think of about a topic lets you visualize the associations between concepts.

Gabora, L. (2002). Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying the Creative Process. Proceedings from C&C ’02: Creativity and Cognition, 126-133. [HTML]

October 22, 2006 at 1:53 am 5 comments

The Effect of Brief Naps on Alertness and Cognitive Performance

If you don’t get enough sleep at night, a quick 10 minute nap may help improve your alertness and cognitive performance. However, shortening it to a 30 or 90 second nap won’t cut it.

Sleeping Girl

Psychology researchers performed a study with 16 subjects, each restricted to 5 hours of sleep at night. The subjects were split into 4 groups — no nap, 30-s nap, 90-s nap, and 10-min nap. Subjects that took naps for 90 seconds or less were not found to perform any better on alertness and cognitive tasks. However, subjects that took a 10 minute nap significantly improve performance in multiple post-nap tests. This seems to suggest that only stage 2 sleep helps you recuperate from lack of nocturnal sleep.

Tietzel, A. J. & Lack, L. C. (2002). The recuperative value of brief and ultra-brief naps on alertness and cognitive performance. Journal of Sleep Research, 11, 213-218. [PDF]

October 13, 2006 at 4:26 pm 16 comments

People Take on the Traits They Describe in Others

Spontaneous trait transference is a phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Telling others that your math professor is lazy will cause them to infer that you are lazy. This works the other way too — describing positive attributes about your friend may ascribe you those attributes as well.

Several experiments showed that people will associate personality traits to communicators mindlessly without logical rational. They also have a poor recollection of whether the communicator was describing themselves or someone else in a conversation.

So be careful when gossiping about a co-worker, lest you be seen as what you describe. And if you want to appear more charming, perhaps you could add that word to your vocabulary when talking about others.

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 837-848. [PDF]

October 12, 2006 at 1:48 pm 27 comments

“Just Kidding” Falls on Deaf Ears

Teasing taken literally is negative; teasers point out flaws, habits, questionable attire, or other traits of the target. But there are a variety of intentions for teasing. Positive intentions include to socialize, flirt, play, entertain, teach, or show affection. However, teasing can also be used for negative intentions: to humiliate, harass, or hurt the target.

Previous studies have shown that targets of the teasing often have a more negative impression of the tease than the teaser. (tongue twister alert)

To mitigate the negative intentions of the tease, people generally use gestures, facial expressions, or tone of voice to say “aha, just kidding”. However, this fails because the targets still evaluate the intentions of the teaser more negatively.

Kruger, J., Gordon, C. L., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in Teasing: When “Just Kidding” Just Isn’t Good Enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(3), 412-425.

September 25, 2006 at 3:56 pm 8 comments

Why Men Commit Crimes (and Why They Desist)

It’s fairly well-known that young men commit the majority of crimes in every society.

Previous explanations for this behavior have been flawed.

“many adolescents find their roles lacking in intrinsic rewards and turn to sensate activities to achieve a sense of self.”

But why would adults not want the same stimulation from crime as adolescents?

Gove and Walsh explain crime among adolescents as a function of the combination of high autonomy and low responsibility during the teenage years”

This only describes teenagers in modern western society, and so doesn’t hold for developing nations or even western nations in the past.

Kanazawa extends evolutionary psychology to explain the relationship between age and crime.

Evolutionary Psychology

The brain of humans evolved over millions of years when they were living in the African savanna during the Pleistocene epoch as hunter-gatherers. The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is that humans adapted psychological behaviors in order to reproduce and survive as a species.

Male sexual jealousy provides us with an example of evolutionary psychology. During the evolutionary years, males could not be certain of the paternity of their mates’ offspring while females were always certain of their maternity, due to the nature of offspring originating from the female body. Hence, males who invested their resources in offspring that wasn’t theirs ended up wasting them and not reproducing. Males would therefore have a strong incentive to prevent other males from having any sexual contact with their mates. This sexually selected men who were not jealous from the gene pool, and so we are descended from those with a psychological mechanism to be jealous.

On the other hand, women become jealous when their mates get emotionally involved with other women, because it diverts their resources from them and their children. Jealousy is not a choice, but a psychological response that was developed over millions of years to increase our reproductive success.

However, in modern developed countries, there are birth control methods which prevent women from having children when having an affair. But no man would say that this reduces the feeling of jealousy since this psychological mechanism was developed when birth control did not exist.

Applied to Criminality

During the evolutionary period, humans were mostly polygynous where some males would monopolize access to the females while others were completely left out. Reproductive success was at stake and this made the system very competitive; hence, there was a lot of violence as a result of this direct competition. Similarly, women tended to mate with men with resources, so acquiring them through stealing would be a means to increase their chances of reproductive success.

Despite the fact that violence and property crimes are looked down upon in modern society, the psychological mechanism to commit crimes in order to reproduce is still very much within us. This happens unconsciously and even those committing crimes are unaware of this logic.

Why is there a sharp decline in crime by men after reaching adulthood? While the benefits of reproductive success are still there, most men would have already had children by adulthood. The risks associated with committing the crime is greater because their children might starve or victims of others. This benefit versus cost analysis has been done through sexual selection, explaining the increase of crime among young adolescents and sharp decline during adulthood.

This theory explains many previous findings, including why men commit crimes overwhelmingly more than women, why married men have less tendency to commit crimes, and why sexual competition increases men’s tendency to commit crimes in every society. This also explains why men with lower status among their peers are more likely to commit crimes — they are less competitive and need more resources to achieve reproductive success.

All of us are descended from men and women who were very successful at reproduction.

Kanazawa, S. & Still, M. C. (2000). Why Men Commit Crimes (and Why They Desist). Sociology Theory, 18(3), 434-447. [PDF]

September 17, 2006 at 4:41 pm Leave a comment

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