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Ten Psychology Studies from 2010 Worth Knowing About

Surveying the top 10 psychology studies from 2010

image credit: Donald Wilson Bush

Around this time of year, I like to take a tour of psychology studies from the last twelve months and pick out those that I think are really worth knowing about. There are, of course, several others that deserve mention, but the ten below are those that struck me as especially intriguing, with the added benefit of also being useful.

1. Most of Us are Space Cadets Nearly Half the Time

Have you ever wondered just how many of your waking hours are dedicated to day dreaming? A 2,250-person study co-authored by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (author of the book, Stumbling on Happiness) has answered the question: 46.9%. Just about half of the average person's time is spent "mind wandering" -- defined as a state in which we're not focused on any particular task or anything in the outside world. Instead, we are lost in our thoughts.

Unfortunately, the study concludes, mind wandering doesn't make us happy, nor does resting, working or using a computer. All of those choices ranked lowest on the happiness scale in this study, while making love, exercising and chit chatting ranked highest. Here's the kicker: participants also said that their mind wanders no less than 30% of the time even while they are doing something else, with the notable exception of having sex. Seems that your brain would rather check out than focus in, unless the focus is really, really engaging.

2. When Heading into a Negotiation, Come Heavy and Sit Hard

Ever heard the term "embodied cognition"? It's the psychological hypothesis that bodily perceptions--like touch--strongly influence how we think. More and more studies are providing evidence for this hypothesis, and one was published in 2010 that did an especially nice job of bearing it out. Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Yale performed six experiments exploring whether the hardness, weight, shape and texture of certain objects affect our decisions about totally unrelated situations. For example, the study shows that when you're negotiating a deal, it's better to sit in a hard, sturdy chair--doing so may lead you to negotiate harder than you otherwise would. And when you go for a job interview, be sure to carry your resume in a weighty, well constructed padfolio; according to the study, job candidates appear more important when they are associated with heavy objects. And when you invite your date over for dinner, keep the setting "smooth"--objects with a rough texture make social interactions seem more difficult than they really are. So put away those glasses with the beveled edges and your evening will stand a better chance of success.

3. Excuse Me, Your Sweat is Making Me Feel....Risky

People are obsessed with managing their sweat, mainly because we think it's embarrassing (the dreaded underarm pancakes). But a study from 2010 suggests that there's far more to our sweat than meets the eye; indeed, the sweat of others may be influencing us in ways we don't realize. Researchers collected sweat samples from people who completed a high-rope obstacle course and placed the samples in odorless tea bags, which were then placed under the noses of people about to gamble. Other gamblers were outfitted with sweat samples from people who had just finished riding an exercise bike. Gamblers sniffing the high-ropers' sweat took longer to make decisions, but eventually took significantly larger gambling risks compared to the bike-sweat-sniffing gamblers. Since there was no difference in how the sweat in either group smelled (everyone said the teabags smelled equally horrible), it appears that anxiety-laced sweat influences riskier behavior than normal sweat. No one is quite sure why this is the case, but since the animal world is full of chemical-influence examples (think of ants and bees, for instance), it's not hard to believe that humans also send signals in ways that seemingly defy the senses.

4. Making an Impression Changes Your Perception

Remember this the next time you are about to meet someone new: the impression you're trying to give influences how you evaluate the other person. That's the finding of a study that included hundreds of participants who watched a short film and then discussed it with another participant. Half the participants were given an "impression management goal" to appear introverted, extraverted, smart, confident or happy. After the discussions, participants rated themselves and the person they had chatted with across several personality traits. Those with an impression management goal rated their conversation partner significantly lower on the trait they were trying to show in themselves, but not on other personality traits. This seems to happen because when we focus on embellishing a particular trait in ourselves, we unconsciously increase the standard for that trait in others--and they usually fall short. So just because someone you're trying to impress doesn't seem as outgoing, gregarious or confident as you are, don't assume that they truly aren't. It could just be that how you're trying to come across has changed the game.

5. We're Happier When Busy, but Wired to be Lazy

If you ever watched the show "Fraggle Rock" from the 80s, you'll remember that the Doozers were little creatures who spent all of their time building things. Unfortunately for them, the Fraggles--a far lazier critter--loved to eat the Doozers' buildings (though not the Doozers themselves) and summarily crushed the product of the little creatures' hard work anytime they wanted a snack. But the Doozers never seemed the least bit frustrated by this and just kept right on building. A study from this year tells us that we're better off being like the Doozers, though we're wired more like the Fraggles.

Participants were offered an identical reward (a chocolate candy bar) for either delivering a completed questionnaire to a location that was a 15-minute walk away, or delivering it just outside the room they were in and then waiting 15 minutes. 68% chose to deliver it just outside the room and wait. When the reward was changed to a slightly different chocolate candy bar, 59% chose to walk 15 minutes to deliver the questionnaire (and this held true even though both types of candy bars were rated as equally appealing by all participants). Afterwards, participants who took the walk rated themselves as feeling significantly happier than those who sat it out. It appears that our first instinct is for idleness, but when given an excuse to be busy (even a meaningless one), we're liable to act on it and consequently feel happier. But before you go looking for busy work, remember that our evolutionary vestige to conserve energy is tough to overcome. Believe it or not, laziness, in marginal doses, serves a purpose.

6. You're Not Imagining It, the Rich Really are Different

Ah, the ridiculously rich, oh how we'd love to be them. But a study from 2010 suggests that being "them" would also require seeing other people differently, to say the least. In a series of experiments, researchers tested whether people from low or high socioeconomic backgrounds were better at reading emotions on peoples' faces. Turns out, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are significantly better at accurately reading emotion--a key component of expressing empathy. Study co-author Dacher Keltner (author of the book, Born to be Good), attributes this effect to the difficult circumstances those in lower socioeconomic environments face, causing them to develop adaptive strategies like learning to expertly read emotion in peoples' faces and body language. In an earlier study, Keltner found that members of lower socioeconomic groups are typically also more supportive of each other and tend to build stronger alliances than their wealthy counterparts. What this all suggests is that many among the wealthy lack empathy simply because, in the world in which they live, developing it isn't all that important.

7. Religion Makes People Happier, Beliefs Aside

A 2010 study (in this case equal parts sociology and psychology) indicates that religious folks are indeed a bit happier than those without religious beliefs--but it also seems that the beliefs themselves have little to do with why. Instead, the reason is that organized religions provide social networks that enhance a sense of connectedness between people who would otherwise not interact, and this is true regardless of the doctrines espoused by those religions. The study focused on Catholics and those in mainline and evangelical Protestant sects, so it can't necessarily be applied to other religious groups, at least not yet. But if similar social network principles are involved, there's no reason to believe the same isn't true of other groups that congregate and foster social interaction between believers.

8. Another Advantage for Beautiful People: We Understand Them Better

At least when it comes to human books, we judge beautiful covers more closely and accurately than others. So suggests a study from 2010 that investigated whether physically attractive people were judged more in line with their unique, self-reported traits. Researchers used a "round robin" format in which participants met each other for brief intervals and took away a certain impression of the other. Turns out, the more physically attractive someone was, the more accurately the other person read them. At least up to a point--the study also found that when we evaluate an attractive person, we're more likely to judge them favorably. To the extent that an attractive person believes about her/himself what we also want to believe about her/him, we may just be under the irrationally compelling spell of physical attraction. Keep that in mind before you head out to the bars tonight.

9. The Power of Posing, it's a Biochemical Thing

Let's say that you're about to discuss a difficult issue with your manager that you're convinced you are right about. You can either go in with a firm, confident physical posture, ready to make your points with a strong voice and imposing hand gestures; or you can go in with your arms folded, your head bowed and your voice low. The option you choose is more than a matter of interpersonal politics--it will also affect your biochemical reaction. Researchers in a recent study wanted to know if body gestures like those I just mentioned actually alter levels of testosterone (associated with assertiveness and risk-taking) and cortisol (associated with anxiety and fear). In other words, does "power posing" confer a biochemical advantage that increases feelings of power and tolerance of risk? According to this study, it definitely does. High power posers gained a testosterone boost and cortisol drop; low power posers experienced the exact opposite effect. But which comes first, the biochemical chicken or the behavioral egg? This study indicates that behavioral choice punches up the biochemical reactions, suggesting that even a typically understated person can get a big boost by doing a little power posing. Said another way: personality is hardly destiny.

10. If You Want to Stop Procrastinating, Give Yourself a Break

Most of us inveterate procrastinators are also world-class self punishers. You miss a deadline because you put something off for too long and your mind instantly turns into the Grand Inquisitor, complete with a studded whip to flog you into self-induced terror. But a study of the past year tells us that we've got this all wrong. If you want to get yourself out of the procrastination trap, stop beating yourself up and try a little self forgiveness instead. Researchers followed first year college students through their first and second midterm exams with an eye toward tracking the effects of procrastination and self forgiveness. They found that students who procrastinated before the first midterm were significantly less likely to do so before their second midterm if they gave themselves a break.

This runs counter to the conventional assumption that letting ourselves off easy will foster more procrastination, but the result actually makes a lot of sense for a very practical reason: self-forgiveness allows you to get past your mistake and concentrate energy on correcting your behavior. When you punish yourself, you're also draining energy, sapping focus and taking on too much mental baggage. Not to mention, you also make trying to do whatever you failed at the first time a horrible experience because of its association with self punishment. Instead, acknowledge your procrastiantion and its ill-effects, forgive yourself for screwing up, and get on with the tasks at hand.

My 2009 picks can be found here.

David DiSalvo - Copyright 2010

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