Daily Archives: May 12, 2017
I’ve focused on studies that I personally feel stand out, not only as examples of great science, but even more importantly, as examples of how the science of psychology can improve our lives.
Each study has a clear “take home” message, offering the reader an insight or a simple strategy they can use to reach their goals, strengthen their relationships, make better decisions, or become happier.
1) How to Break Bad Habits
If you are trying to stop smoking, swearing, or chewing your nails, you have probably tried the strategy of distracting yourself – taking your mind off whatever it is you are trying not to do – to break the habit. You may also have realized by now that it doesn’t work. Distraction is a great way to resist a passing temptation, but it turns out to be a terrible way to break a habit that has really taken hold.
That’s because habit-behaviors happen automatically – often, without our awareness. So thinking about George Clooney isn’t going to stop me from biting my nails if I don’t realize I’m doing it in the first place.
What you need to do instead is focus on stopping the behavior before it starts (or, as psychologists tend to put it, you need to “inhibit” your bad behavior). According to research by Jeffrey Quinn and his colleagues, the most effective strategy for breaking a bad habit is vigilant monitoring – focusing your attention on the unwanted behavior to make sure you don’t engage in it. In other words, thinking to yourself “Don’t do it!” and watching out for slipups – the very opposite of distraction. If you stick with it, the use of this strategy can inhibit the behavior completely over time, and you can be free of your bad habit for good.
2) How to Make Everything Seem Easier
Most of us have grown accustomed to the idea that our moods, and even our judgments, can be influenced by unrelated experiences of sight and sound – we feel happier on sunny days, more relaxed when listening to certain kinds of music, and more likely to lose our tempers when it’s hot and humid. But very few of us have even considered the possibility that our tactile experience – the sensations associated with the things we touch, might have this same power.
New research by Joshua Ackerman, Christopher Nocera, and John Bargh shows that the weight, texture, and hardness of the things we touch are, in fact, unconsciously factored into our decisions about things that have nothing to do with what we are touching.
For instance, we associate smoothness and roughness with ease and difficulty, respectively, as in expressions like “smooth sailing,” and “rough road ahead.” In one study, people who completed a puzzle with pieces that had been covered in sandpaper later described an interaction between two other individuals as more difficult and awkward than those whose puzzles had been smooth. (Tip: Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater. Consider satin underpants instead. Everything seems easy in satin underpants.)
3) How To Manage Your Time Better
Good time management starts with figuring out what tasks you need to accomplish, and how long each will take. The problem is, human beings are generally pretty lousy when it comes to estimating the time they will need to complete any task. Psychologists refer to this as the planning fallacy, and it has the very real potential to screw up our plans and keep us from reaching our goals.
New research by Mario Weick and Ana Guinote shows that, somewhat ironically, people in positions of power are particularly poor planners. That’s because feeling powerful tends to focus us on getting what we want, ignoring the potential obstacles that stand in our way. The future plans of powerful people often involve “best-case scenarios,” which lead to far shorter time estimates than more realistic plans that take into account what might go wrong.
The good news is, you can learn to more accurately predict how long something will take and become a better planner, if you stop and consider potential obstacles, along with two other factors: your own past experiences (i.e., how long did it take last time?), and all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task (i.e., factoring in the time you’ll need for each part.)
4) How to Be Happier
Most of us tend to think that if we just had a bit more money we’d get more satisfaction out of life, but on the whole, this turns out not to be true. So why doesn’t money make us happier? New research by Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues suggests that the answer lies, at least in part, in how wealthier people lose touch with their ability to savor life’s pleasures.
Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences. Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, imaging the fun you’ll have on an upcoming vacation (and leafing through your trip photos afterward), telling all your friends on Facebook about the hilarious movie you saw over the weekend – these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us.
Why, then, don’t wealthier people savor, if it feels so good? It’s obviously not for a lack of things to savor. The basic idea is that when you have the money to eat at fancy restaurants every night and buy designer clothes from chic boutiques, those experiences diminish the enjoyment you get out of the simpler, more everyday pleasures, like the smell of a steak sizzling on your backyard grill, or the bargain you got on the sweet little sundress from Target.
Create plans for how to inject more savoring into each day, and you will increase your happiness and well-being much more than (or even despite) your growing riches. And if you’re riches aren’t actually growing, then savoring is still a great way to truly appreciate what you do have.
5) How to Have More Willpower
Do you have the willpower to get the job done, or have you found yourself giving in to temptations, distractions, and inaction when trying to reach your own goals? If it’s the latter, you’re not alone. But more importantly, you can do something about it. New research by Mark Muraven shows that our capacity for self-control is surprisingly like a muscle that can be strengthened by regular exercise.
Do you have a sweet tooth? Try giving up candy, even if weight-loss and cavity-prevention are not your goals. Hate exerting yourself physically? Go out and buy one of those handgrips you see the muscle men with at the gym – even if your goal is to pay your bills on time. In one study, after two weeks of sweets-abstinence and handgripping, Muraven found that participants had significantly improved on a difficult concentration task that required lots of self-control.
Just by working your willpower muscle regularly, engaging in simple actions that require small amounts of self-control – like sitting up straight or making your bed each day – you can develop the self-control strength you’ll need to tackle all of your goals.
6) How to Choose a Mate
What role does personality play in creating marital bliss? More specifically, is it your personality, your partner’s personality, or the similarity between the two that really matters when it comes to being happy in your marriage? A study of over 10,000 couples from three countries provides us with some answers.
Your own personality is in fact a powerful predictor of your marital satisfaction. People who were more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable reported being significantly happier with their spouse. That spouse’s personality was also a reliable, though slightly less powerful, predictor of relationship satisfaction. Keep these same traits – the “Big 3” for happiness in a marriage – in mind when you are seeking Mr. or Ms. Right.
Finally, there’s personality similarly – which, as it happens, doesn’t seem to matter at all. The extent to which married couples matched one another on the Big Five traits had no predictive power when it came to understanding why some couples are happy together and others not. This is not to say that having similar goals or values isn’t important – just that having similar personalities doesn’t seem to be.
So if you are outgoing and your partner is shy, or if you are adventurous and your partner doesn’t really like to try new things, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying marriage. Whether you are birds of a feather, or opposites that attracted, you are equally likely to live a long and happy life together.
Just try to be generally pleasant, responsible, and even-tempered, and find someone willing to do the same.
7) How to Feel More Powerful
In the animal kingdom, alphas signal their dominance through body movement and posture. Human beings are no different. The most powerful guy in the room is usually the one whose physical movements are most expansive – legs apart, leaning forward, arms spread wide while he gestures. He’s the CEO who isn’t afraid to swing his feet up onto the conference room table, hands behind his head and elbows jutting outward, confident in his power to spread himself out however he damn well pleases.
The nervous, powerless person holds himself very differently – he makes himself physically as small as possible: shoulders hunched, feet together, hands in his lap or arms wrapped protectively across his chest. He’s the guy in the corner who is hoping he won’t be called on, and often is barely noticed.
We adopt these poses unconsciously, and they are perceived (also unconsciously) by others as indictors of our status. But a new set of studies by Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap reveals that the relationship between power and posing works in both directions. In other words, holding powerful poses can actually make you more powerful.
In their studies, posing in “high power” positions not only created psychological and behavioral changes typically associated with powerful people, it created physiological changes characteristic of the powerful as well. High power posers felt more powerful, were more willing to take risks, and experienced significant increases in testosterone along with decreases in cortisol (the body’s chemical response to stress.)
If you want more power – not just the appearance of power, but the genuine feeling of power – then spread your limbs wide, stand up straight, and lean into the conversation. Carry yourself like the guy in charge, and in a matter of minutes your body will start to feel it, and you will start to believe it.
8) How To Tell If He Loves You
“If he really loved me, then he would…”
Everyone who’s ever been in a relationship has had thoughts like this one. If he loved me he would bring me flowers, or compliment me more often, or remember my birthday, or remember to take out the damn garbage. We expect feelings of love to translate directly into loving behaviors, and often judge the quality and intensity of our partner’s feelings through their more tangible expressions. When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words, right?
Well, not necessarily. According to new research by psychologists Lara Kammrath and Johanna Peetz, romantic feelings like love, intimacy, and commitment reliably lead to some loving behaviors, but not others. In their studies, love predicted spontaneous, in-the-moment acts of kindness and generosity, like saying “I love you,” offering a back rub, or surprising your partner with a gourmet dinner – the kinds of loving actions that don’t require much in the way of forethought, planning, or memory.
On the other hand, love does a lousy job of predicting the kinds of “loving” behaviors that are harder to perform, often because they have to be maintained over longer periods of time (e.g., remembering to do household chores without being asked, being nice to one’s in-laws) or because there is a delay between the thought and the action (remembering to buy your wife a gift for her birthday next week, keeping a promise call home during your conference in Las Vegas.). When it comes to the harder stuff, it’s how conscientious you are, rather than how much in love you are, that really matters.
So if you’re trying to get a sense of how your partner really feels about you, the smaller, spontaneous acts of love that occur without much forethought are a much better indicator of the depth of his love than whether or not he remembers your birthday or to take out the trash.
9) How to Make It Easier to Cut Your Losses
Sometimes, we don’t know when to throw in the towel. As a project unfolds, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as planned, that it will cost too much or take too long, or that someone else will beat you to the punch. But instead of moving on to new opportunities, we continue to devote our time, energy, and money to doomed projects (or even doomed relationships), digging a deeper hole rather than trying to climb our way out of it.
Why? The most likely culprit is our overwhelming aversion to sunk costs – the resources that we’ve put into an endeavor that we can’t get back out. We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, and not nearly enough about the costs of not moving on – more wasted time and effort, and more missed opportunities.
But thanks to recent research by Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui, there is a simple way to be sure you are making the best decisions when your endeavor goes awry: focus on what you have to gain, rather than what you have to lose.
Psychologists call this adopting a promotion focus. When Molden and Hui had participants think about their goals in terms of potential gains, they became more comfortable with accepting the losses they had to incur along the way. When they adopted a prevention focus, on the other hand, and thought about their goals in terms of what they could lose if they didn’t succeed, they were much more sensitive to sunk costs.
If you make a deliberate effort to refocus yourself prior to making your decision, reflecting on what you have to gain by cutting your losses now, you’ll find it much easier to make the right choice.
10) How to Fight With Your Spouse
Having a satisfying, healthy relationship with your partner doesn’t mean never fighting – it means learning to fight well. But what is the best way for two people to cope with their anger, frustration, and hurt, without undermining their mutual happiness?
Thankfully, recent research by James McNulty and Michelle Russell provides the answer. The best way to deal with conflict in a marriage, it turns out, depends on how serious or severe the problem is. Did your spouse drink too much at the party last night, or is he drinking too much every night? Did she splurge a little too much on clothes last month, or are her spending habits edging you closer and closer to bankruptcy? Did he invite his mother to dinner without discussing it with you first, or did he invite his mother to live with you without discussing it first? Little problems and big problems require very different approaches if you want to have a lasting, happy marriage.
When it comes to minor problems, direct fighting strategies – like placing blame on your spouse for their actions or expressing your anger – results in a loss of marital satisfaction over time. Flying off the handle when he forgets to pick up the dry cleaning yet again, or when she spends a little too much money on a pricey pair of shoes, is going to take its toll on your happiness in the long run. You really are better off letting the small stuff go.
In response to major problems, however, these same direct fighting strategies predict increased marital satisfaction! Expressing your feelings, blaming your partner and demanding that they change their ways will lead to greater happiness when the conflict in question is something significant – something that if left unresolved could ultimately tear your relationship apart.
Issues involving addiction, financial stability, infidelity, child-rearing, and whether or not you live with your mother-in-law need to be addressed, even if it gets a little ugly. Couples who battle it out over serious issues do a better job of tackling, and eventually resolving those issues, than those who swept big problems under the carpet.
By Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., Author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals
Before the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was clinically depressed.
In the early 1990s, she returned to the U.K. to settle down in Scotland near her sister. A three-year stint in Portugal had led to a short, unhappy marriage, and she left the country as a single mother of a newborn child.
Rowling spent the next few years struggling to meet ends.
“I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” she said in her commencement speech at Harvard.
During this period, her depression took a dark turn, and she considered herself a failure. She had fallen and felt stuck. She even contemplated suicide.
Luckily, she found it in her to seek help, and writing became an outlet.
The idea for the Harry Potter series had come to her years before on a train ride from Manchester to London. She had worked on a few chapters in Portugal, but she only really found her momentum back in the U.K.
Rowling finished the first two books while still on welfare benefits. The dementors introduced in the third book were inspired by her mental illness.
The whole world now knows the story of The Boy Who Lived, but not many people know the struggle behind his creation. It holds a very practical lesson.
Seemingly definitive failures can often be debilitating. They break many, but J.K. Rowling’s story provides a rich narrative for how this kind of failure can be made temporary with the right approach. Let’s take a look.
Rock-Bottom is a Foundation, Not a Conclusion
A consequence of a psychological rock-bottom is that we cease to recognize opportunities. We get so caught up in defeat that we don’t sense when another road might be opening up. We see our situation as a conclusion.
In reality, that’s not really where it ends. The act of falling to the ground comes with a strange and unintended side-effect. Liberation. With nothing more to lose, we have a foundation and this foundation limits downside.
With the onset of her depression and the lack of visible opportunity, Rowling treated her rock-bottom as a conclusion, and the feeling that accompanied her failure was acceptance. She believed in the story she told herself.
That began to change after her visit to seek help. With time, she realized that though her situation was what it was, it could also be more. With defeat behind her, she was left with great upside potential and little downside risk.
In a state of definitive failure, we don’t have to worry about what other people think, or face any more pain than we’re already in.
We can focus our attention with more deliberation and less hesitancy. With a platform below us, we can move with more clarity and more confidence. With less risk, we have the incentive to chase the reward more aggressively.
It’s not easy to think like this when we feel at our lowest. Feelings of inadequacy don’t go away because we want them to, and that’s okay. You just have to accept that you can either stay where you are, or decide to be more.
Less is Generally Not a Bad Thing
Failure can place limitations on our means by stressing our resources.
If you’re a business owner and you’re dealing with low demand, you might be faced with a need for a new source of income. And until you’re able to readjust, you may even have to downsize. It’ll force you to live with less.
In most developed countries, we live in societies of abundance, and after a while of getting used to that abundance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that less is bad. It’s actually often the opposite of that.
The more we have and the more we have going on, the more complicated our life is. There’s more noise, and there’s less focus. It can be paralyzing.
Barry Schwartz has analyzed much of the research on the topic. In The Paradox of Choice, he explains how backward our thinking on the concept is.
He points out that although modern culture is obsessed with the freedom of choice, more choice isn’t a good thing. Research has consistently shown that the more we have to choose from, the less likely we are to do things.
Limitations Can Fuel Work and Resourcefulness
When Rowling returned to the U.K., without a job or the ability to accumulate, she produced far more in the next few years than she had in the years leading up to her new life.
She attributes this to the routine guided by the simplicity of her life. There wasn’t much she could do, so she would pretty much just get up in the morning and go to a cafe. Her daughter would sleep, and she would write.
Such limitations also drive resourcefulness. When we have more, we follow existing patterns built into our environment. We have less of an incentive to look beyond what’s immediately accessible and how it’s presented.
That isn’t the case with less. If you want to keep moving, you have to think outside of the box. You’re pushed to be creative, and that sparks inspiration.
Failure often simplifies, and it eliminates. It removes any excess noise, and though these limitations may initially appear as hurdles, if you use them right, they actually free you to better stimulate momentum.
Great Work Isn’t Always Recognized Right Away
The likelihood of success depends on the effectiveness of output and the consistency of effort. It’s not only about creating great work, but it’s also about how far you’re willing to go for it.
Rowling is now a globally renowned author. Her success with the Harry Potter series can’t just be attributed to luck. Critics widely agree that she’s a talented writer, and the rest of us can attest to the beauty of her imagination.
In spite of that, she didn’t always have the easiest time convincing others of that. According to some sources, she was rejected by 12 major publishing houses in the U.K. It wasn’t until a year after her first attempt that Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was recognized as a tale worth printing.
Today, the first book alone has sold more than 100 million copies, and the combined series is estimated to have sold close to 400 million. It’s the highest selling book series in the world.
Probability of Success Increases with Persistence
In hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But what if she would have quit after that first round of rejections? It’s almost a scary thought, but it’s not an unreasonable one.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should always push ahead in spite of external circumstances.
Sometimes, we’re just not good enough, and sometimes, the reward is insignificant relative to the risk. It’s important to have checks and balances in place to provide a sanity check.
The only real point is that persistence matters. Rejection and failure may not be easy to absorb, but if you have a rational reason to believe that what you have to offer is of value, then showing up and trying, again and again, is a critical part of any strategy for success.
In statistics, the law of large numbers dictates that if our sample size is small, then factors of chance play a greater role in determining an outcome.
For example, if you flip a coin twice, you could very well land on tails with each flip, even though the probability of each avenue is even. If you flip a coin 200 times, however, you’re far less likely to have randomly skewed results.
All You Need to Know
There are two kinds of failure: temporary failures, which occur throughout any process and help drive progress; and definitive failures, which occur less frequently but can change how we see ourselves. They can be debilitating.
J.K. Rowling has been there. Before her status as the most successful living author, she had her own struggles. Mentally, these struggles weren’t too different from the kind that the rest of us face from time to time.
This is what her story can teach us:
I. Choose to see rock-bottom as a foundation and not a conclusion. A byproduct of failing is a sense of liberation. With no more room to fall any further, the risk relative to the potential reward gets skewed. It can be easy, in a state of pain and disappointment, to not see that as an opportunity. Try to.
II. Use limitations to fuel resourcefulness and inspiration. Heavy defeats, in part, hurt because they limit us. They force us to restart and get by with less. Fortunately, that’s not a bad thing. Limitations help cancel out the noise. They force creativity by providing a more opportune environment for it to flourish.
III. Take control by increasing your odds of success with persistence. Success depends on the consistency of effort as much as it does on the quality of work. We can produce great work and not have it recognized. It takes more than that. It’s a numbers game. Trying again and again makes all the difference.
Failure is an inevitable part of life. It can stop us from aspiring and achieving.
Dealing with it is a skill, and psychological preparation can go a long way.
As with all matters of the mind, however, it’s much easier said then done. You have to actively fight it to beat it.
By Zat Rana / Medium