woensdag 30 december 2015

To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This

The NY Times has a piece about falling in love ("To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This"). It builds on research by the psychologist Arthur Aron more than 20 years ago to let two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. The candidates have to sit opposite each other and ask each other 36 questions of increasing emotional intensity. After that they have to look each other 4 minutes in the eye. It is a quick way to build an emotional connection. And it seems to work - at least sometimes...

woensdag 16 december 2015

Are religious kids more selfish?

A scientific research discussed at Salon: Are kids from religious backgrounds really more selfish than their nonreligious peers?. Quote: Here’s the zinger: according to Decety and his colleagues, kids from more religious households are less altruistic, and more apt to deal out punishment, than kids from non-religious households. Corollary zinger: on the punishment front, Muslim kids are even more vindictive than Christians. The article is critical of this claim and comes with a whole series of arguments, such as the artificialness of the situation, the difficulty to define religiousness and the question whether you can generalize this experiment beyond its setting. I doubt those explanations. My guess would be that this has to do with group strength. People have only a certain amount of altruism. And when they are in a strong group they will spend more of that altruism inside the group and less outside. Religions bind people in strong groups. And that applies even more to minority religions like Islam and Judaism.

zondag 13 december 2015


In Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture — and Your Mood the effect of iHunching is discussed. In fact, there appears to be a linear relationship between the size of your device and the extent to which it affects you: the smaller the device, the more you must contract your body to use it, and the more shrunken and inward your posture, the more submissive you are likely to become. Ironically, while many of us spend hours every day using small mobile devices to increase our productivity and efficiency, interacting with these objects, even for short periods of time, might do just the opposite, reducing our assertiveness and undermining our productivity. Finally, the next time you reach for your phone, remember that it induces slouching, and slouching changes your mood, your memory and even your behavior. Your physical posture sculpts your psychological posture, and could be the key to a happier mood and greater self-confidence.

zaterdag 17 oktober 2015

The funny thing about adversity

In the article "The funny thing about adversity" the question is discussed whether suffering makes people more sympathetic to the suffering of others. The conclusion: in general yes. However, when the other experiences the same kind of problem that the subject once had he will be less understanding than usual. Possible explanations are that suffering makes the subject more aware of connecting with other people. However, having overcome a specific type of suffering gives him the impression that it is not that bad.

woensdag 14 oktober 2015

Anorexia a habit?

This article (Anorexia May Be Habit, Not Willpower, Study Finds quotes a brain study that sees with anorexia activity in the brain regions that are related to habits. Neither psychiatric medications nor talk therapies that are used successfully for other eating disorders are much help in most cases. And research suggests that 50 percent or more of hospitalized anorexic patients who are discharged at a normal weight will relapse within a year. The researchers used a brain scanning technique to look at brain activity in 21 women with anorexia and 21 healthy women while they made decisions about what foods to eat. The anorexic women were more likely than the healthy women to choose low-fat, low-calorie foods, and they were less apt to rate high-fat, high-calorie foods as “tasty,” the study found. As expected, both the anorexic and the healthy women showed activation in an area known as the ventral striatum, part of the brain’s reward center. But the anorexic women showed more activity in the dorsal striatum, an area involved with habitual behavior, suggesting that rather than weighing the pros and cons of the foods in question, they were acting automatically based on past learning. [] B. Timothy Walsh, the senior author of the report, said the study grew out of a theoretical paper he published in 2013. In that paper, he proposed that for women who are vulnerable to anorexia, weight loss initially serves as a reward, eliciting compliments, relieving anxiety and increasing self-esteem. Over time, though, the pairing of dieting with a reward — weight loss — may result in the act of dieting itself becoming rewarding. This theory, said Dr. Walsh, a professor of psychiatry at the psychiatric institute at Columbia, might shed light on why treatment is more successful the earlier it is offered and less successful the longer the illness has been established. He predicted in the paper that as an anorexic patient’s dieting became more habitual, the dorsal striatum would become more involved. [] But he noted that activation in the dorsal striatum had been associated with other aspects of anorexia, like anxiety.

zondag 27 september 2015

How smartphones harm conversations

The article Stop Googling. Let’s Talk discusses how looking on the phone harms conversations. Some excerpts: When college students explain to me how dividing their attention plays out in the dining hall, some refer to a “rule of three.” In a conversation among five or six people at dinner, you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out. Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us. In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000. According to the article conversation has become less "open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are. At a retreat, the dean described how a seventh grader had tried to exclude a classmate from a school social event. It’s an age-old problem, except that this time when the student was asked about her behavior, the dean reported that the girl didn’t have much to say: “She was almost robotic in her response. She said, ‘I don’t have feelings about this.’ She couldn’t read the signals that the other student was hurt.” The dean went on: “Twelve-year-olds play on the playground like 8-year-olds. The way they exclude one another is the way 8-year-olds would play. They don’t seem able to put themselves in the place of other children.” A college junior told me that she shied away from conversation because it demanded that one live by the rigors of what she calls the “seven minute rule.” It takes at least seven minutes to see how a conversation is going to unfold. You can’t go to your phone before those seven minutes are up. If the conversation goes quiet, you have to let it be. For conversation, like life, has silences — what some young people I interviewed called “the boring bits.” It is often in the moments when we stumble, hesitate and fall silent that we most reveal ourselves to one another. But the article sees hope: on a no-Phones camp kids quickly learn traditional conversation. It is also making such camps much more important than in the past. The article sees even harm in attending to the phone when alone as it breaks the concentration of solitude. It sees a connection between solitude and conversation: In solitude we learn to concentrate and imagine, to listen to ourselves. We need these skills to be fully present in conversation.

dinsdag 1 september 2015

The coddling of the American mind

The Altantic has an article ("The coddling of the American Mind - How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus") about the increasing sensitivity of students at universities in the US. It notes the movement for "trigger warnings". This claims that if a college or prescribed book might trigger an emotional response in some students because it contains passages about violence, rape, racism or something else sensitive, the students should be warned up front and should be enabled to avoid the subject by making it optional. One example the article mentions is law students who don't want to study the law on rape. It also mentions "micro-aggressions". Where before harassment might trigger repercussions now "micro-aggressions" are enough. The difference is that micro-aggressions only need to happen once to be considered offensive and that they are subjective. If someone feels offended it should be taken seriously. The article links the phenomena to the protective way in which the present generation has been raised. Gone are the times when children played for long times outside the house without adult supervision. There may also be a link with the present attention to bullying. No one can expect that everyone likes him. There will always people who do not like you and who harass you. However, if the whole social universe of a child consist of a few quarters of an hour around school time he hasn't much opportunity to find alternative social worlds and people who do accept him and where he feels safe. The article notes that the psychology on fear and trauma teaches confronting the fears - not condoning them. And that by condoning them the universities are not only failing to learn those sensitive students to deal with their sensitivities and to get used to the real world, but that they are also teaching the rest of the students to adopt such sensitivities. In contrast to the movement for political correctness a few decades ago the present climate focuses on emotions. The article foresees much trouble as a result. Those sensitive kids might become very eager to start law suits against anyone hurting their feelings. In fact we see the effect already in politics - where Republicans and Democrats have become different tribes who hardly interact and have very negative images of each other.

zondag 9 augustus 2015

What Do the Poor Need? Try Asking Them

What Do the Poor Need? Try Asking Them tells about Neighborhood Centers in Houston: Neighborhood Centers, a Houston nonprofit that grew out of the settlement house movement, has been around since 1907. Although it has grown exponentially, in large part because of the leadership of Angela Blanchard, the organization’s president and chief executive officer for the past two decades, its philosophy remains unchanged. “The people are the asset, the source of potential solutions, not the problem,” Ms. Blanchard says. Instead of telling poor neighborhoods what’s wrong with them, the organization takes a bottom-up approach. “We go where we’re invited and do what we’re asked to do.”

zondag 12 juli 2015

Münchhausen by Proxy revisited

In the article The New Child Abuse Panic a parent (and law professor) discusses the high number of parents who are accused of “medical child abuse” in the US. She estimates it at 1600. This is a new and increasingly popular accusation against parents in the US. This is a popular broadening of the older accusation of "Münchhausen by Proxy". The author notes that many parents get this accusation when they don't agree with some medical specialist and seek help elsewhere. Specially parents with chronically ill children where the cause is not clear and who may have some rare genital defect get accused of this crime. The author notes that many of the parents who have been accused of "Münchhausen by Proxy" were later found to be innocent - their child having a real illness. As a consequence quite a few parents have lost custody.

zondag 5 juli 2015

Reducing gun violence by paying the perpetrators

To Stop Crime, Hand Over Cash tells the story of the Office of Neighborhood Safety that reduced gun violence and the murder rate in Richmond, California: We modeled our approach on “Cure Violence,” a community outreach program in Chicago founded by the epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. The Chicago project evolved from the Operation Ceasefire program begun in Boston in the mid-1990s, since replicated in scores of cities across America. Many of these were successful at reducing gun violence, but we felt that they were too law-enforcement-driven and lacked the social services to help the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods. We employed street-savvy staff members, whom we called neighborhood change agents. Think of their work as a kinder version of stop-and-frisk, more like stop-and-blend with the profile subjects, to build healthy, consistent relationships with those most likely to shoot or be a victim of gunfire. Once we’d identified the city’s potentially most lethal young men, we invited them to a meeting (the first was in 2010). Then came the big innovation of the Operation Peacemaker fellowship program. We offered those young men a partnership deal: We would pay them — yes, pay them — not to pull the trigger. The deal we offered was this: If they kept their commitment to us for six months — attended meetings, stayed out of trouble, responded to our mentoring — they became eligible to earn up to $1,000 a month for a maximum of nine months.

maandag 29 juni 2015

The town shrink

The NY Times has an article The town shrink about Mindy Thompson Fullilove who was trained as psychiatrist and advises now cities. The article discusses that ghettoization is often partially caused by political decisions that isolate those areas from their surroundings and tries to dump poor citizens on them.

dinsdag 28 april 2015

As Cognition Slips, Financial Skills Are Often the First to Go

An interesting article in the NY Times: As Cognition Slips, Financial Skills Are Often the First to Go. When Helen Clark brought her father-in-law, then 83, to the doctor last year, she knew his mind was slowing, but a mental status exam confirmed it. He knew the year, where he lived and the name of the president. But when the doctor asked him to count backward from 100, subtracting seven from each number — 100, 93, 86, 79 — a look of confusion washed over his face. Studies show that the ability to perform simple math problems, as well as handling financial matters, are typically one of the first set of skills to decline in diseases of the mind, like Alzheimer’s [...] The signs, while perhaps not surprising, are subtle, making them easy to miss: It may become more difficult for people to identify the risks in a particular investment, and they may focus too much on the benefits. Completing various tasks on a financial to-do list may start to take longer, such as preparing bills for the mail. Everyday math may become more laborious or prone to errors, whether that’s figuring out a tip in a restaurant or doing a calculation that requires two steps. Financial concepts, like medical deductibles and minimum balances required in savings accounts, may also become harder to grasp. Naturally, these behaviors should represent a significant change: If a person was never adept with personal finances, this won’t serve as much of an indicator. [...] He said he wishes all 65-year-olds would start by simplifying their financial lives, reducing the money clutter to just a few mutual funds at a reputable institution.

zondag 4 januari 2015

Racial bias in all of us

It is well known that nearly all people have some racial bias - as can for example be shown with the Implicit Apperception Test. This article (Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions) lists some of the consequences. It mentions Daniel Kahneman's distinction between quick and slow thinking. Some of the information we process is processed in "quick" (unconscious) thinking. A nice example was that an iPod offered on eBay got 20% more offers when on the picture of the advertisement it was held by a white hand than when it was held by a black hand.

donderdag 1 januari 2015

Social programs that work

Another interesting NY Times article: Social programs that work. It is written by a Republican asking his fellow Republicans not t blindly cut social programs but to look at what works. Interesting is a list of programs that were shown to work.