Explanations and Our Place in Society

There is a funny paradox in politics. Many people who are successful or wealthy recognize the combination of talent and circumstances and plain luck that landed them where they are. Those who are unsuccessful or poor can recognize how things might have gone differently if their circumstances had been different.

Why Doesn’t Increased Wealth Always Make Countries Happier?

The United States seems to exist in a state of perpetual political campaign these days. Politicians play on people’s dissatisfaction and unhappiness as they talk about why they will be able to make things better. The hidden assumption of this work is that if the economy improves, people will be happier.

Does Mindfulness Meditation Affect Memory?

A key aspect of memory is your ability to distinguish things that actually happened to you from things you were just thinking about. When you witness an accident, your ability to recall it properly requires that you remember whether facts you believe about that event came from what you actually saw and heard or whether they reflect other factors.

Competing Against Another Group Makes Rivals Cooperate

An ancient proverb says, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This proverb suggests that I may choose to cooperate with one of my rivals when I know that this cooperation will allow us to defeat a common enemy.

Is Perspective-Taking a Skill?

When we study psychology, there is a tendency to think about the tasks that we do as if there were built-in modules in the brain dedicated to those tasks. So, we talk about memory and assume that there is a particular thing in the brain that helps us remember information.

What Drives Your Happiness With Work?

As a college student, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my work life would be like. I watched the adults in my life and saw that not everyone loved the work they did. Many of them were glad that they could provide for their families, but did not head to work in the morning excited to do their jobs.

Creativity Is Memory

Do you remember the shock you had (perhaps as a teenager) when you realized that all of the characters in your dreams are part of your own memories? Even though, the things they say seem to come from someone else, they have to reflect information from your own memory and experiences.

Why Does Misinformation Continue to Affect Thinking?

Vaccination for childhood diseases like Measles and Whooping Cough was one of the most significant public health victories of the second half of the 20th century. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s, these diseases had been relegated to the past.

People Cheat at the End of Sequences

A growing amount of research demonstrates that most people consider themselves to be honest, and yet—given the chance—they will take an opportunity to cheat a little in their favor. People fudge time sheets to add a little extra time that they did not actually work. They don’t always pay for coffee at the company break room.

Spreading Coherence and Emotion

Going back to the 1950s, social and cognitive psychologists noticed that people’s beliefs tend to become more coherent over time. For example, a couple buying a house might initially notice both the positive and negative elements of that house. If they decide they are not going to buy that house, they may start to focus on the negatives rather than the positives.

Surprise Reflects Difficulty of Explanation

We have all experienced surprise. Some of those surprises are wonderful. You get home and find an unexpected gift waiting for you. That is a happy surprise. Perhaps, though, you turn on the news and find out that a young actor you admire has died. Again, you experience surprise, but this time the emotion is negative.

How Do People’s Values Change as They Get Older?

At any given moment in your life, you have a set of values that guide your actions at an abstract level. As an academic psychologist, for example, I value knowledge, and spend a lot of time pursuing it. Success has also been a value for me, and so I have devoted time to my career. My values are not shared by everyone.

Does Anticipating Temptation Help You Resist Temptation?

In Smart Change, I talk about the importance of planning for temptations. The idea is that temptations are hard to deal with in the moment, because they suggest something that would feel good to do right now. Those temptations can capture your motivational system and drive you to do something that is not in your long-term best interests.

Using Attention to Get People to Do the Right Thing

We want people to take the stairs rather than the elevator, to eat fruits and vegetables rather than candy bars, and to help others rather than thinking only about themselves.

How Narcissists Wear Out Their Welcome

Narcissists feed off the energy of the people around them. They crave status and work hard to achieve it. But, do they succeed in getting the status they want? An intriguing possibility is that narcissists don’t actually get status, they just believe that they have status within a group.

Why Do Icons on Smart Phone Screens Slide?

Standing in line at any coffee shop gives you a chance to observe lots of smart phone behavior. Almost everyone in the line is staring at a small screen. Many of them are busily swiping at the screen, presumably moving the icons on the screen from page to page?

The Upside and Downside to Second Opinions

Chances are, you rely a lot on expert opinions. These opinions may be aesthetic (like movie or book reviews), functional (like product reviews), health focused or even business-focused. When you get these opinions, you are often encouraged to get a second opinion as well.

You May Not Persist Long Enough in Creative Tasks

I have the opportunity to work with groups who are trying to develop creative solutions to problems. One thing I have noticed is that groups often try to end the task of generating new potential solutions fairly quickly. After they have generated a couple of good ideas, they want to move on to evaluating those ideas and planning a way to execute those ideas.

How to Be More Patient (and Why It's Worth It)

Delaying gratification is hard. You have probably seen the adorable videos of kids in Walter Mischel’s classic marshmallow experiments. Adults also have a lot of trouble delaying gratification. People pay extra to get fast delivery from websites. They accept small rewards in the present rather than waiting for longer rewards in the future.

Using Psychology to Help At-Risk Students

There are many rewards for doing research in psychology. For one, it is just plain fun. There is something powerful about making progress on one of the world’s great scientific mysteries. For another, the things we learn about psychology have the potential to make people’s lives better.

Tylenol Blunts Positive Emotions Too

A while back, I wrote a blog entry on studies demonstrating that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) can dampen people’s responses to negative events. So, if you experience social pain, you may actually be able to medicate yourself for it in the same way that you take pain killers for a headache.

How a (Close) Loss Can Set You Up for a Win

Modern slot machines are fascinating devices. Most of them are not mechanical, they are electronic. That means that you pull the lever (or press a button) and the machine draws a random number that determines whether you have won. After that, the machine displays a show on the screen that ultimately lets you see whether you won.

How Does Physical Experience Affect Learning?

Go to a typical classroom, and it looks like a show. A teacher stands in front of the room. The teacher talks and demonstrates things from the front of the room. Unlike a show at a theater, the audience (the students) do get a chance to talk on occasion. But, most of the work students do is done from their seats.

The Consistency of Flashbulb Memories

I remember as a kid that my parents shared vivid memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They could tell me where they were and who they were with when they found out the president had been shot. In 1977, Roger Brown and James Kulik called memories like this flashbulb memories.

When You See Objects, You Think Words

Take a quick look around the room. Chances are, you looked at a number of different objects. From where I am sitting, there is a computer, a coffee mug, a tape dispenser, and a little green Gumby model.

Solving a Shakespearean Mystery With Data

Our ability to use language involves a combination of complex mechanisms that allow us to produce speech, learn words, and combine those words into sentences. We certainly notice the oddities in people’s speech when they are not a native speaker of your language. But, a lot of what you say daily involves habits you have developed over the course of your life.

Social Influence About Risk Differs for Teens and Adults

Life is full of risky decisions. Some involve physical risks like crossing the street against the light. Others involve social risks like expressing an opinion that differs from those of peers. Still others involve financial risks like investing in the stock of a new company.

Toddlers Understand the Cost of Actions

When a friend refuses to help you with something, that may or may not upset you. It depends on their ability to help as well as the cost of that help. What do young children do?

Should You Start Worrying About Your Mind?

I speak to a lot of corporate audiences. Regardless of the topic I am speaking about, I get a lot of general psychology questions from the crowd. The most popular question is about cognitive performance and aging. People in their 50s and 60s begin to worry that they are not going to be able to keep up mentally with their younger colleagues.

The Truth About What We'll Do To Fit In

People tend to do what the people around them are doing. Walk onto an elevator, and most everyone stands facing forward. People talking to each other tend to match their speech rate and even the pitch of their voices. The judgments made by a group also tend to converge.