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kottke.org posts about psychology

The science of persuasion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2009

This list of 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive is pretty awesome. Two of my favorites:

2. Introduce herd effect in highly personalized form. The hotel sign in the bathroom informed the guests that many prior guests chose to be environmentally friendly by recycling their towels. However, when the message mentioned that majority of the guests who stayed in this specific room chose to be more environmentally conscious and reused their towels, towel recycling jumped 33%, even though the message was largely the same.

40. Incentive programs need a good start. A car-wash place gave one group of customers a free car wash after 8 washes, and everybody got their first stamp after their visit. Group B got a free car wash after 10 car washes, with 3 stamps on the card. Both groups needed to make 7 more trips to get a free wash. 19% of the Group A returned, while 34% of the Group B did.

These are all taken from a book of the same name. (via lone gunman)

I’ve lost control again

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2009

Jonah Lehrer, who is seemingly in a race with Michael Lewis these days to see who can write the most books and articles in a 12-month period, writes about self-control in the New Yorker…what it is, how it works, and how it affects things like achievement, happiness, etc. The article focuses on the efforts of Dr. Walter Mischel and the marshmallow test that he developed to measure self-control in young kids. With the marshmallow test, kids are given a mashmallow and they are told that they can eat it right away or, if they hold out, they can eat two marshmallows.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

I must have really underachieved on the SAT because as a four-year-old, I would have likely waited forever…I don’t like marshmallows.

Update: Radiolab recently tackled the marshmallow test on their podcast. There is also marshmallow test footage on YouTube. (thx, michael)

Update: Lehrer answers readers’ questions over on the New Yorker web site.

Squeezing the lemon

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2009

What Makes Us Happy? asks Joshua Wolf Shenk in the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic. The article is a dual biography of two intertwined entities, a long-running study of 268 Harvard men and the study’s long-time principal investigator, George Vaillant. The study was started as a way to determine how people lived successful lives. Valliant’s main interpretation from decades of study is that how people respond or adapt to trouble correlates with their healthy aging.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations — like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania — which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naivete, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Shenk then goes on to evaluate Vaillant on his own terms, with some interesting results.

Setting goals can backfire

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2009

Sometimes I link to stuff only because it justifies my organizational laziness. See: Ready, aim…fail.

A few management scholars are now looking deeper into the effects of goals, and finding that goals have a dangerous side. Individuals, governments, and companies like GM show ample ability to hurt themselves by setting and blindly following goals, even those that seem to make sense at the time.

I’ll continue stumbling towards the light at the end of the tunnel, thank you very much.

Mo’ money, mo’ socioeconomic issues

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2009

New Scientist has collected a bunch of studies related to the pychological impact of money on people.

Almost all of us, for example, are “loss averse” — it hurts more to lose £50 than it feels good to win £50. We also value money in relative rather than absolute terms — we consider £10 irrelevant when buying a house but not when paying for a meal. Similarly, finding £100 will give many people more pleasure than having a heating bill cut from £950 to £835, even though this gains them more in real terms.

Getting people to vote

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2008

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests that just asking people whether they are going to vote is a good way to get them to actually vote.

Those effects would be small at the margin, but there are those effects that are small at the margin that can change election results. You call and ask people ahead of time, “Will you vote?” That’s all. “Do you intend to vote?” That increases voting participation substantially, and you can measure it. It’s a completely trivial manipulation, but saying ‘Yes’ to a stranger, “I will vote”…

(via marginal revolution)

Update: Or perhaps not. This paper by Dustin Cho finds that there’s no “statistically significant” correlation between intending to or being asked if you’re going to vote and actually voting. (thx, max)

Survival of the fittest Playboy Playmate

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2008

In lean times, men look for women who can work and in times of plenty, they want women who can reproduce.

The Environmental Security Hypothesis says that in tough times men will prefer women who are good at production, generally older, taller, heavier, less curvaceous women with less body fat. In good times, they will prefer women who are good at reproduction, generally younger, shorter, lighter, more curvaceous women.

A pair of social psychologists looked for signs of this in the pages of Playboy magazine.

Consistent with Environmental Security Hypothesis predictions, when social and economic conditions were difficult, older, heavier, taller Playboy Playmates of the Year with larger waists, smaller eyes, larger waist-to-hip ratios, smaller bust-to-waist ratios, and smaller body mass index values were selected. These results suggest that environmental security may influence perceptions and preferences for women with certain body and facial features.

Traits of the creative personality

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2008

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality.

Furthermore, people who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure and that most workshops try to enhance.

Some of this seems like foolishness but the rest is a really interesting look at how to channel your creativity into success. (via 43f)

How to be a con man

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2008

I could read about con men and tricksters all day.

“I could sell shit at an anti-scat party,” he says, “you have to figure out someone’s wants and needs and convince them what you have will fill their emotional void.” A con man is essentially a salesman — a remarkably good one — who excels at making people feel special and understood. A con man validates the victim’s desire to believe he has an edge on other people.

It requires avid study of psychology and body language. It’s an amazing paradox—a con man has incredible emotional insight, but without the burden of compassion. He must take an intense interest in other people, complete strangers, and work to understand them, yet remain detached and uninvested. That the plan is to cheat these people and ultimately confirm many of their fears cannot be of concern.

The particular fellow profiled in that piece has also written a book called How to Cheat at Everything.

Top ten psychology videos

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2008

The top ten psychology videos includes footage of the Stanford Prison Experiment and Jill Boyte Taylor’s TED talk about having a stroke. Surely this 45-min video about The Milgram Experiment should have been on the list.

We’ve heard from the sex workers about

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2008

We’ve heard from the sex workers about the Spitzer affair. Now the psychologists. This article compiles many ideas about why Spitzer did what he did:

Psychologist Christopher Ryan, author of “Sex in Prehistory,” says the desire for sex with more than one person has always been there — for leaders and followers alike. “The desire is not a function of status or power — it’s a question of availability.”

What’s relatively new to the human race, he said, is the ability to exercise power and the connection between power and sex.

That’s because, for most of human existence, there was only so far a man could coerce others when food was essentially free and hard to hoard. And until relatively recently, sex with multiple partners was the norm. “It would have been very unusual 100,000 years ago for a person to have one sexual partner for 30 years,” said Ryan in an interview from Barcelona.

And here’s the evolutionary psychological point of view:

She points out that, while powerful men throughout western history have married monogamously (they had only one legal wife at a time), they have always mated polygynously (they had lovers, concubines, and female slaves). Many had harems, consisting of hundreds and even thousands of virgins. With their wives, they produced legitimate heirs; with the others, they produced bastards (Betzig’s term). Genes and inclusive fitness make no distinction between the two categories of children. While the legitimate heirs, unlike the bastards, inherited their fathers’ power and status and often went on to have their own harems, powerful men sometimes invested in their bastards as well.

As a result, powerful men of high status throughout human history attained very high reproductive success, leaving a large number of offspring (legitimate or otherwise), while countless poor men in the countryside died mateless and childless.

(thx, anne)

Update: And one more from Natalie Angier:

Yet as biologists have discovered through the application of DNA paternity tests to the offspring of these bonded pairs, social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy. Assay the kids in a given brood, whether of birds, voles, lesser apes, foxes or any other pair-bonding species, and anywhere from 10 to 70 percent will prove to have been sired by somebody other than the resident male.

Keeping too many doors open narrows our

posted by Deron Bauman   Mar 03, 2008

Keeping too many doors open narrows our options.

“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

The Year in Ideas, 2007

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2007

The NY Times Magazine is out with its annual Year in Ideas issue. 2007 was the year of green — green energy, green manufacturing, and even a green Nobel Prize for Al Gore — and environmentalism featured heavily on the Times’ list. But I found some of the other items on the list more interesting.

Ambiguity Promotes Liking. Sometimes the more you learn about a person or a situation, the more likely you are to be disappointed:

Why? For starters, initial information is open to interpretation. “And people are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles,” Norton says. If a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers “the outdoors” refers to nude beaches. And “once you see one dissimilarity, everything you learn afterward gets colored by that,” Norton says.

I’m an optimistic pessimist by nature; I believe everything in my life will eventually average out for the better but I assume the worst of individual situations for the reasons proposed in the article above. That way, when I assume something isn’t going to work out, I’m rarely disappointed.

The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid involves a technique called “mirror bees”.

The best method, called “mirror bees,” entails sending a group of small satellites equipped with mirrors 30 to 100 feet wide into space to “swarm” around an asteroid and trail it, Vasile explains. The mirrors would be tilted to reflect sunlight onto the asteroid, vaporizing one spot and releasing a stream of gases that would slowly move it off course. Vasile says this method is especially appealing because it could be scaled easily: 25 to 5,000 satellites could be used, depending on the size of the rock.

What an elegant and easily implemented solution. But Armageddon and Deep Impact would have been a whole lot less entertaining using Dr. Vasile’s approach.

The Cat-Lady Conundrum. More than 60 million Americans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that most people get from their cats. And it’s not exactly harmless:

Jaroslav Flegr, an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, is looking into it. He has spent years studying Toxo’s impact on human behavior. (He found, for example, that people infected with Toxo have slower reflexes and are 2.5 times as likely to get into car accidents.)

This may explain why I can’t seem to get past “Easy” on Guitar Hero.

The Honeycomb Vase is actually made by bees. One unintended consequence of having a vase made out of beeswax is that flowers last longer in it:

Libertiny is convinced that flowers last longer in them, because beeswax contains propolis, an antibacterial agent that protects against biological decay. “We found out by accident,” he explains. “We had a bouquet, which was too big for the beeswax vase, so we put half of the flowers in a glass vase. We noticed the difference after a week or so.

Prison Poker. This is a flat out brilliantly simple idea:

[Officer Tommy Ray] made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked. Two months in, as a result of a tip from a card-playing informant, two men were charged with a 2004 murder in a case that had gone cold.

The Gomboc is the world’s first Self-Righting Object.

It leans off to one side, rocks to and fro as if gathering strength and then, presto, tips itself back into a “standing” position as if by magic. It doesn’t have a hidden counterweight inside that helps it perform this trick, like an inflatable punching-bag doll that uses ballast to bob upright after you whack it. No, the Gomboc is something new: the world’s first self-righting object.

More information is available on the Gomboc web site. You can order a Gomboc for €80 + S&H.

Update: The Gomboc is available for sale but it doesn’t come cheap. The €80 version is basically a paperweight with a Gomboc shape carved out of it. It’s €1000+ for a real Gomboc, which is ridiculous. (thx, nick)

The Case Against Adolescence

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2007

Psychology Today talks with psychologist Robert Epstein about his book, The Case Against Adolescence:

In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching puberty, animals function as adults, often having offspring. We call our offspring “children” well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing — 30 is the new 20 — and most Americans now believe a person isn’t an adult until age 26.

The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways.

Epstein says the infantilization of adolescents creates a lot of conflict and isolation on both sides of the divide. Over at Marginal Revolution, economist Tyler Cowen adds:

The problem, of course, is that a contemporary wise and moderate 33 year old is looking to climb the career ladder, find a mate, or raise his babies. He doesn’t have a great desire to educate unruly fifteen year olds and indeed he can insulate himself from them almost completely. He doesn’t need a teenager to carry his net on the elephant hunt. Efficient capitalist production and rising wage rates lead to an increased sorting by age and the moral education of teens takes a hit.

You can read the first chapter of the book at The Radical Academy.

Update: Bryan writes to recommend Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood, saying that “Postman argues that the idea of childhood is a cultural phenomena that comes and goes through the ages”. (thx, bryan)

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: “the phenomenon whereby people

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2007

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: “the phenomenon whereby people who have little knowledge systematically think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge”. “Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Meanwhile, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their competence.” (via cyn-c)

Last 100 posts, part 8

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2007

Here are some updates on some of the topics, links, ideas, posts, people, etc. that have appeared on kottke.org recently (previous installment is here):

The Celluloid Skyline exhibition at Grand Central is well worth checking out…I was up there this past weekend. Pentagram collaborated with Saunders on the exhibit and wrote up a brief piece on how it came together.

My short post on Nina Planck’s reaction to the recent “death by veganism”, as she calls it, of a baby boy is a good reminder that I don’t always agree with the things I link to. My only criteria for posting a link is that it’s interesting, whether I think it’s right or wrong or am still trying to form an opinion about it. Anyway, I got lots of mail about this one, much of it that said that the parents’ veganism was beside the point — which the prosecutors and jury in the subsequent criminal case agreed with (thx, matt) — and that a headline like “Death By Stupidity” was probably more appropriate. After all, you don’t see “Death by Omnivorism” headlines every time a baby with a more traditional diet dies of starvation.

Debra from Culiblog pointed out that contrary to Planck’s assertion that “there are no vegan societies”, the Jainists practice vegetarianism and veganism. On the other side of the aisle, meat fan Michael Ruhlman chastised Planck for going too easy on vegans, saying that “Veganism is a colossal arrogance, a refusal to admit to our own nature, a denial of our humanity. Sometimes it kills people. And it’s not very much fun, besides.” You can imagine the discussion that generated…although it was nothing like the 300+ comment thread on MetaFilter.

My opinion of Cars improved with a second viewing.

Discover’s chat bot conversation reminded a reader of this old interview with the Ask Jeeves search engine (thx david). Back in 2002, I interviewed ELLEGirl magazine’s AIMbot:

jkottke: Do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons?
ELLEgirlBuddy: do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons? that’s a tough choice.
jkottke: yes, to celebrate or merely recognize. that is a toughie.
ELLEgirlBuddy: yes to celebrate or merely recognize that is a toughie? i dunno.
jkottke: you seem like an actual 13 year old girl.
ELLEgirlBuddy: i haven’t really made a decision ‘bout that.
jkottke: growing up is tough, isn’t it?
ELLEgirlBuddy: i dunno.

And whoever posted the chat bot story to Digg (5696 Diggs and counting!) used the exact wording from my original post. You’re welcome!

Prime, David Burke’s quarter-million-dollar Black Angus bull, has his own web site. (thx, brian)

Regarding Alex Reisner’s excellent baseball statistics web site and, in particular, the pennant race graphs, here’s another interesting visualization of the pennant races…you can see the teams race to the end of the year like horses. (thx, scott)

Re: my post on better living through self-deception, I’ve heard that pregnant women tend to forget the pain of childbirth, perhaps because “endorphins reduce the amount of information trauma victims can store”. Also related tangetially is this article on research into lying and laughing, which includes this simple test to see if you’re a good liar:

Are you a good liar? Most people think that they are, but in reality there are big differences in how well we can pull the wool over the eyes of others. There is a very simple test that can help determine your ability to lie. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, draw a capital letter Q on your forehead.

Some people draw the letter Q in such a way that they themselves can read it. That is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of their forehead. Other people draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the Q on the left side of their forehead. This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as “self-monitoring”. High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.

High self-monitors tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the centre of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at manipulating the way in which others see them. As a result, they tend to be good at lying. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the “same person” in different situations. Their behaviour is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.

The skyscraper with one floor isn’t exactly a new idea. Rem Koolhaas won a competition to build two libraries in France with one spiraling floor in 1992 (thx, mike). Of course, there’s the Guggenheim in NYC and many parking garages.

After posting a brief piece on Baltimore last week, I discovered that several of my readers are current or former residents of Charm City…or at least have an interest in it. Armin sent along the Renaming Baltimore project…possible names are Domino, Maryland and Lessismore. A Baltimore Sun article on the Baltimore Youth Lacrosse League published shortly after my post also referenced the idea of “Two Baltimores. Two cities in one.” The Wire’s many juxtapositions of the “old” and “new” Baltimore are evident to viewers of the series. Meanwhile, Mobtown Shank took a look at the crime statistics for Baltimore and noted that crime has actually decreased more than 40% from 1999 to 2005. (thx, fred)

Cognitive Daily took an informal poll and found that fewer than half the respondants worked a standard 8-5 Mon-Fri schedule. Maybe that’s why the streets and coffeeshops aren’t empty during the workday.

List of cognitive biases. “Mere exposure effect

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2007

List of cognitive biases. “Mere exposure effect - the tendency for people to express undue liking for things merely because they are familiar with them.” See how many of these you exhibit while reading things on the web!

Better living through self deception

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2007

Interesting article about how people tell their stories and think of their past experiences and how that influences their mood and general outlook on life.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person’s unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

“The story is one of victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,’” Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The article goes on to describe the benefits of thinking about past events in the third person rather than in the first person:

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

But things like eating disorders and mental illness aren’t external forces and thinking about a bad memory as if it happened to a third party is not the truth. The standard model of the happy, smart, successful human being is someone who knows more, works hard, and has found, or at least is heading toward, their own personal meaning of life. But often that’s not the case. Self-deceit (or otherwise willfully forgetting seemingly pertinent information) seems to be important to human growth.

Consider the recent findings by a group at Harvard about the effects of mindset on physical fitness:

The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects’ mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.

Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women’s health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.

Just by thinking they were exercising, these women gained extra benefit from their usual routines. The idea of thinking about oneself reminded me of Allen Iverson’s training routine, which utilizes a technique called psychocybernetics:

“Let me tell you about Allen’s workouts,” says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. “All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we’ll be on our way to the game and he’ll be quiet as hell. Finally, he’ll say, ‘You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I’m gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I’m gonna kill ‘em with it all night long.’ And damned if he didn’t do just that. See, that’s his workout, when he’s just sitting there, thinking. That’s him working on his game.”

What Iverson is doing is tricking his conscious self into thinking that he’s done something that he hasn’t, that he’s practiced a move or shot 100 perfect free throws in a row. I think, therefore I slam. (I wonder if Iverson pictures himself in the first or third person in his visualizations.)

Carol Dweck’s research looks at the difference between thinking of talent or ability as innate as opposed to something that can be developed:

At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite — the determination to master new things and surmount challenges — lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn’t tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.

For some people, the facade they’ve created for themselves can come crashing down suddenly, as with stage fright:

He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as “stage dread,” a sort of “paradigm shift.” He says, “It’s not ‘Look at me - I’m flying.’ It’s ‘Look at me - I might fall.’ It would be like playing a game of chess where you’re constantly regretting the moves you’ve already played rather than looking at the ones you’re going to play.” Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.

In a slightly different but still related vein, Gerd Gigerenzer’s research indicates that ignoring information is how smart decisions are made:

In order to make good decisions in an uncertain world, one sometimes has to ignore information. The art is knowing what one doesn’t have to know.

Research done by Edward Vogel at the University of Oregon shows the capacity of a person’s visual working memory “depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information”:

“Until now, it’s been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it’s about the bouncer - a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness,” Vogel said.

And data from another study indicates that perhaps one of the things that the brain does best is forgetting (“motivated (voluntary) forgetting”, in the words of one researcher):

The findings suggest that despite the brain’s astonishing ability to archive a lifetime of memories, one of its prime functions is, paradoxically, to forget. Our sensory organs continually deluge us with information, some of it unpleasant. We wouldn’t get through the day — or through life — if we didn’t repress much of it.

Perhaps the way to true personal acheivement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information. There are plenty of self-help books on the market…where are the self-hurt books?

Researchers looking into the science of happiness

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2007

Researchers looking into the science of happiness have found evidence that through kindness, gratitude, and optimism exercises, a person can increase their happiness level, much like physical exercise can increase physical fitness.

New research on laughter is showing that “

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2007

New research on laughter is showing that “It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. Itss not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along. It’s a way to make friends and also make clear who belongs where in the status hierarchy.”

Why do we feel suspense, surprise, or

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2007

Why do we feel suspense, surprise, or delight when watching a movie we’ve seen before? “But later you watch Notorious a second time. Strangely, you feel suspense, moment by moment, all over again. You know perfectly well how things will turn out, so how can there be uncertainty? How can you feel suspense on the second, or twenty-second viewing?”

Analysis of some studies that link political

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2007

Analysis of some studies that link political tendancies and factors like education level, how afraid we feel, and personality traits. “[A study] found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.” And an interesting conclusion about the effects of rational thought on all this.

Does free will exist? “The conscious brain

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2007

Does free will exist? “The conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.”

People with low self-esteem don’t like surprise

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2006

People with low self-esteem don’t like surprise endings in mystery novels while the self-confident did. (via mr)

The Rotenberg Center is a school for

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2006

The Rotenberg Center is a school for special education students that is essentially a giant Skinner box. Students are hooked to electrical devices and shocked when they misbehave. At once fascinating and disturbing. (via mr)

Why does Ze Frank’s face fill the

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2006

Why does Ze Frank’s face fill the entire screen on The Show? According to experiments described in The Media Equation, when participants were shown a series of photographs of people shot from different distances from the camera, “the faces that had the most impact on the viewers were the ones with screen-filling faces and that seemed ‘closer’ to the viewer, those with the least interpersonal distance”.

Unobserved people paid almost three times as

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2006

Unobserved people paid almost three times as much to the “honesty box” when watched by a photocopied face than in the absence of the face. See also What the Bagel Man Saw by Freakonomists Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt. I wonder if the smiley face on milk cartons deters people from drinking straight from the carton?

Update: Spiegel Online has a story with a graph depicting the results of different sets of eyes…sexy eyes did the worst while serious eyes looking straight ahead performed the best. (thx, roland)

Why online text-only communication is so problematic:

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2006

Why online text-only communication is so problematic: interpretation of tone in email is successful only about half the time but we think we’re 90% successful. No word on how emoticons affect interpretation success. ;) ;)

Political party members’ brains get a rush

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2006

Political party members’ brains get a rush from “ignoring information that’s contrary to their point of view”. “None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

The researchers found that while straight men

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2005

The researchers found that while straight men are only aroused by females of the human variety, straight women are equally aroused by all human sexual activity, including lesbian, heterosexual and homosexual male sex, and at least somewhat aroused by nonhuman sex.