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Wither the SAT

31 Mar

Test

The College Board organization has recently revised the SAT college admissions test. In a couple of weeks it will publish new sample questions to illustrate the changes it has had to make the test more relevant, the vocabulary more functional, and the orientation more real world.   Below are a few of my ideas about how the new SAT questions might appear.

 

Stawar Aptitude Test

 

1. Joshua graduated two years ago with a degree in _________. He should ask Sallie Mae ___________.

a. Art History,   out on a date

b. Communications, for an unpaid internship

c. Humanities, for a forbearance

d. Occlumency,   if she’s from Kentucky

 

2. Which of these founding documents of America contains 234,812 words?

a.   The Constitution

b.   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

c.   Chicken Soup for the Soul

d.   The Affordable Health Care Act

 

3. If your current cell phone plan has unlimited data and messaging, 50GB of free cloud storage, but limits talk to 500 minutes per month, when will you be eligible for the next phone upgrade?

a.   after the first year

b.   the week before you accidently drop it in the toilet

c.   just in time for the   iPhone12 release

d.   when you sign a new contract for 12 more years

 

4. If the toll for a new bridge is $12 for a round trip, based on the current inflation rate of 3%, what is the probability that your father would actually use the bridge ?

a.   100%

b.   one in a million

c.   50/50

d.   not a chance in hell

 

5. After a(n) ________________ consideration of the all the alternatives, Donald   conclude that __________________ was the last place he wanted to be.

a.   copious,   band camp

b.   assiduous, drug court

c.   indolent, summer school

d.   odiferous, the Port-a-Potty

What Does Your Desktop Say?

13 Mar

deskyopinkblot

           I’m always changing the desktop wallpaper on our computer at home. I just got rid of the Valentine Day’s hearts for February and replaced them with a couple of Irish Dancers for March and St. Patrick’s Day. The boy dancer looks a bit goofy, so I will probably change it again— I’m thinking a leprechaun or shamrock. Over the holidays I had a slide show of Thanksgiving and then Christmas pictures set up in the screen saver , which irritated my wife Diane. When the grandchildren come to visit, I usually put up something like images of SpongeBob Squarepants or Disney princesses.

On my work computer I have our company logo on the home screen. My daughter and her husband have a slide show of pictures of their children constantly playing on the computer in their kitchen. For a lot of people these screens have become our personal art galleries.  A few years ago a British study of the psychological meaning of computer desktops was commissioned by Microsoft. Psychologist Donna Dawson reviewed a sample of office workers’ desktops seeking factors which reflect personality traits. She said “….desktops are our personal space and as such provide a fairly accurate personality description of an individual.”

According to eMarketer, the average American spends over 5 hours a day looking at screens. BioniX a company that makes software that helps people customized their computers, quotes a customer who says, ““One of the things I love about getting a new phone or computer is not just the things I can do with it, but the fact that I can personalize it and make it my own. I like my technology to reflect who I am, what I’m into, my opinions and beliefs.” The website also says that such customization helps people “feel at home” with their device and implies that no one would ever “dream of using the factory settings” for their desktops.

BioniX also says that getting a new device is much like buying a new home. The first thing you want to do is to redecorate it and make it your own. Since we spend so much time with our screens they say, “the choice of the image that greets us every time we fire up our laptop is an important one”. Brian McGannon, a columnist from postgradproblems.com says, “Maybe you’re a minimalist who likes to keep it simple, or maybe you’re the flashy type who has a beautiful cityscape with lightning flashing in the background. Either way, that desktop background can provide a deep look into your personality.”

Many people consciously choose images that are a source of inspiration. These pictures may be spiritual or religious in nature. Personal beliefs may also be expressed through political and historical images or quotations. Calming images that evoke relaxation or pleasant reveries are often seen on work desktops used to reduce the ill effects of on-the-job stressors.  Desktop visuals may also serve as reminders for goals we want to achieved or resolutions we wish to keep. Additionally the number and organization of icons on your desktop also may have psychological significance.  Along with Dawson and McGannon, writers Jeff Wysaski from pleated-jeans.com and Sophie Daste from Sparklife have offered their take on the different kinds of desktops people use. These along with some interpretations stemming from the content analysis of common symbols are presented for several desktop themes below.

1. Windows/MAC Default: Use of factory loaded defaults is generally associated with older users who may not be very tech savvy regarding how to personalizes the device. They also imply a lack of artistic temperament, being overly simplistic and old fashioned. It may also point to depression and a lack of energy or perhaps contempt for modern technology. You also may just be “stuck using your dad’s old laptop.” On a MAC it suggests someone who is easily pleased, unimaginative, and perhaps uses the use computer sparingly and only bought a MAC because of its association with youth.
2. Plain Blue Wallpaper: This simple, but often used, wallpaper suggests that the user possesses the technical skills to personalized the computer. This ability, however, is overpowered by a defensive and guarded unwillingness to disclose very much. Overall it suggests someone who likes to keep their personal life private.
3. Cute Animals: In all likelihood this user is an animal lover, compassionate, optimistic, imaginative, charitable and very possibly a little girl. These images suggest some degree of distancing of the self from others. Cartoon animals represent one step further away from reality.
4. Sports Photos or Logos: This wallpaper is associated with personality characteristics such as team/city/college loyalty, adventurousness, hero worshipping, and possibly beer drinking. It also suggests aggressiveness, competitiveness, extroversion, and a high energy level. Unless of course unless it’s the Green Bay Packers, then it’s okay.
5. Nature: These images are often used by people value travel and tend to be dreamers. They are commonly associated with people who lack windows in their workspace and need a vacation.
6. TV/Movie Characters or Scenes: People who use these backgrounds tend to be homebodies and loyal Netflix users. They may be imaginative and have an active fantasy life. This type of screen may overlap with the Celebrity Crush desktop, which is generally harmless unless you are over 15 years of age, when stalking becomes a viable possibility.
7. Personal Photos: These users tend to be family-orientated, as they are often they are people with children.. They may also reflect travel or hobbies. Subcategories include photos of: (A) You and your significant other, which reveals romantic tendencies, but also exhibitionism, since it invites personal conversations; (B) you accepting an award . Such self-portraits strongly indicate narcissism — folks with big egos who revel in past triumphs. This category reminds me of a guy that Diane once worked for, who didn’t have any pictures of his family around his office, but instead had many pictures of himself; and (C) college days: these indicate a desire to return to the good old days where there was less pressure and responsibility. Unless you just got out of college last week, authorities agree that it might be time to move on.
8. Inspirational Quotes: These are used by people who are overly conventional, easily influenced, and generally happy with their lives, although they may feel pangs of ambition at times.
9. Cluttered Icons on Desktop : When a desktop has icons strewn across the screen it suggests the owner is disorganized and tends to easily lose focus. Research reveals such people are e likely to be male, liberal, have higher education, be career-oriented, and are math whizs.
10. Highly Organized Icons: People with very tidy desktops are likely to be younger, non-urban, tech savvy, and place personal life ahead of work. When the icons are arranged symmetrically its suggests obsessive-compulsive features. If can also indicate they value balance and that they have the ability to keep a cool head, even in thorny situations.
11. Several Rows of Desktop Icons: This type of a desktop arrangement reflects a strong need to feel in control and prepared for every contingency. At the same time it indicates underlying anxiety, insecurity, and internal disorganization.
12. Seasons of the Year: Seasonal images are most often used by elementary school teachers who are constantly decorating bulletin boards and, of course, talented writers.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Indiana Jones vs. Goliath

2 Jan

uNDERDOGV

“…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”
Ecclesiastes 9:11
Last September when the Floyd Central football team unexpectedly defeated Jeffersonville High, the News Tribune quoted Floyd running back Gaige Klingsmith as saying, “This was a huge win, and everybody was doubting us. We were the underdogs and came through.” Just the other night my wife Diane and I were watching a Scottish television show about how a group of misfit underdogs managed to defeated their powerful arch-rivals in the traditional Scottish game of shinty (a cousin to racquetball). Whether it’s sports, politics, or international conflicts, people are always attracted by the idea of a winning underdog. From the Old Testament’s David and Goliath to the Hunger Games’ Katniss, the successful underdog is an archetype that is familiar to all of us. In fairy tales we have Cinderella and in sports we have James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” who defeated heavily favored Max Baer for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship in 1935. What else, besides a preference for underdogs, could account for all those Chicago Cubs fans.
Many of us identify with the underdog automatically. This may be because there are so many more underdogs than top dogs. In most endeavors, there is only one top dog, while there are many underdogs. To paraphrase Lincoln, God must have really love underdogs, since he made so many of them.
A few years ago University of South Florida psychologist Joseph Vandello, conducted several studies about people’s preferences for underdogs. In one study participants first read an essay about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Afterwards, half of the group was presented with a map showing Palestine as an area smaller than Israel, while the other half was given a map which was altered to show Israel as being smaller in size. When asked who they sided with, all participants chose the side that had the smaller map representation. Delving a bit deeper into the issue, Vandello also found that most people believed that underdogs worked harder than favorites. People naturally seemed to like for someone to defy the odds.
New York Times writer Steven Kotler suggest that we are attracted to underdogs due to that most American of values— “infinite possibility”. We like to believe that in America any one can grow up to be president and it encourages a sense of hope in our own lives.
Aside from our respect for hard work and the sense of hope they engender, the underdog’s appeal might be rooted in something even more basic. According to Los Angeles Times science writer Geoffrey Mohan, our brains may be actually hard wired to identify with the underdog. He cites a Japanese’ study, in which 10 month old infants watched an animated video of a yellow square (the underdog) being pursued by a bullying blue circle. The ball bumps the square seven times and then smashes it completely. The researcher found that 16 of the 20 infants tested reached out for the underdog yellow square.
In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at the New Yorker magazine, examined the underdog phenomena in the light of modern social science. Gladwell first considerers the biblical story of David and Goliath, analyzing it from a novel perspective. He maintains that in ancient times, armies had three types of troops— infantry, cavalry, and projectilists (slingers and archers). Each group had its strengths and weakness. For example, infantry required close quarters fighting in order to be effective, while cavalry moved too fast to be accurately targeted by projectiles. The slinger was a feared and respected warrior, not just a youth with a slingshot, as we often think of the shepherd boy David. When the Philistines proposed one-on-one combat to settle their dispute with Israel they had an infantry vs. infantry confrontation in mind. David, however, turned the tables, as he felt no obligation to play by those arbitrary rules. Gladwell cites one historian who said that Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword, would have against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol. In contemporary vernacular it seems that without realizing it, Goliath had taken a knife to a gunfight.
Diane says that it’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crowd parts and the huge swordsman steps forward expertly handling a massive blade. Like David, Steven Spielberg changes the paradigm and instead of giving us the arduous close quarters fight we expected, he has the exhausted Indiana Jones simply pull out his pistol and readily dispatch the scary and troublesome fellow. We didn’t expect it, but we loved it.
Changing the paradigm is the primary weapon in the underdog’s arsenal. Gladwell also refers to the work of Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft. In 2001 Arreguín-Toft published an article in the journal International Security entitled; How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. This work analyzes how underdogs can and often do win.
According to Arreguín-Toft’s analysis of international conflicts over the past two hundred years, the stronger side typically wins about 70% of the time. When the underdog, however, doesn’t play by traditional rules and adopts guerrilla or other unconventional tactics, this weaker side wins almost 64% of the time. But even underdogs, find it difficult to abandon tradition. During the American Revolution George Washington, for example, was determined to fight the war using classic European military strategy, despite the colonists’ early success with unconventional tactics. He found them distasteful and it almost cost him the war. Underdogs often win using approaches that the opposition finds “unsportsman like”.
This willingness to be disagreeable is related to the basic personality structure of the successful underdog. For the past 30 years psychologists have refined a theory of personality based on what is called the Five Factor Model. Using factor analysis they identified a set of basic personality traits, known as the Big Five. The Big Five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. University of Toronto psychologist Jordon Peterson’s research suggests that successful underdogs display high levels of openness and conscientiousness, but low levels of agreeableness. This profile paints a picture of an individual who is open to new ideas, self-disciplined and works very hard, but who is also prone to be uncooperative, antagonistic, and uncomformist— just the sort of person liable to skillfully use a creative and unconventional approach that others might find objectionable.
According the Gladwell, we should all keep in mind that the strong are not necessarily as strong as they think they are. Likewise the weak are not necessarily as weak as they are believed to be. If you find yourself in an underdog position the three things to remember are: (1) work as hard as you possibly can (2) Don’t be bound by convention and be open to new and creative approaches and finally (3) Don’t worry about what other people think. I’m pretty sure that the Philistines booed David when he first pulled out his slingshot.

Originally Published in The Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

SLING

Abracadabra: Why it Reaches out and Grabs Ya

6 Sep

magic

I recently attended a silent auction and was the high bidder on a walking stick that I added to my small collection. Although I don’t really like walking all that much, I was attracted to this stick because of its unique design and because it reminded me of the sumac walking stick that Emma Thompson use in the Nanny McPhee movies. Whenever Nanny McPhee needed to conjure up some magic to teach naughty children a lesson, all she had to do was tap her stick twice on the floor. Oh, if it were only that easy!

Oklahoma State University social psychologist and Psychology Today blogger, Melissa Burkley refers to the continuing popularly of magic as the “Harry Potter Effect” after J. K. Rawling’s hero from her immensely popular series of books and movies. According to Burkley, “If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic.”

Part of our attraction may stem from the fact that all of us have had experience with magical thinking. Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event takes place as a result of a second event, without any plausible connection. From ages two to seven years of age, magical thinking predominates and youngsters have considerable difficulty with logical thought.

Magic may also appeal to people who feel powerless or lacking in control over their environment and circumstances. This may be especially true for adolescents and young people who struggle with interpersonal situations. Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and on-line and other role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, can provide an alternative magical universe where they have limitless power in contrast to their everyday life.

But do people really believe in real world magic? According to Burkley, “Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains…”. We often see this in everyday superstitions.

Just the other day my wife Diane and I were discussing the “knock on wood” superstition and also how our granddaughters play the childhood “jinx” game. Various cultures have different explanations for the “knock on wood” custom. It is one of many forms of “apotropaic magic” which is intended to “turn away” evil influences. According to one explanation at the divinecaroline.com website, the ancients druids, worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wooden objects. To encourage these spirits to work on their behalf, they would knock on wood. Thus, whenever we want a good thing to continue or to prevent a bad thing from happening, we rouse these elemental spirits by knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Diane and I also recently received a clock and a bracelet, that came from Turkey as a gift, and both of them were decorated with the traditional apotropaic blue eyes, for protection.

The “knock on wood” superstition also reflects the magical belief that just talking about something good happening can cause bad luck, since it tempts fate. Athletes tend to be very superstitious in this regard. For examples in baseball, it is widely held that you can jinx a no-hitter by talking about while the game is still in process. A recent study by Jane Risen from the University of Chicago and Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich explored the magical thinking behind the belief that is bad luck to “tempt fate”. They theorized that this belief stems from two sources. First is the strong human tendency to be disproportionately attracted to negative events. They contend that, “negative events simply “pack a bigger psychological punch” than positive ones, probably because of evolutionary associations with survival.

Second research has consistently shown that thinking about an event makes it seem to us more likely to take place. Combining these two phenomena, the researchers then hypothesized that since the bad outcomes that might result from tempting fate are very negative, we automatically think more about them. Next, because we think more about them, we also conclude that they are more likely to occur, than the bad outcomes resulting from not tempting fate. Their studies clearly demonstrate that people are predisposed to expect the ironic. An example might be the careless college applicant, who ostentatiously wears a sweatshirt from the college to which he wants to be admitted, only to be rejected.

Our granddaughter’s “jinx game”, which also purportedly brings bad luck, is initiated when two people simultaneously say the same words. The rules vary on just how to resolved the jinx created, but usually it ends when one child pronounces the name of the other, who is then considered the jinxed party. The historic penalty for violating a jinx, is a “pinch or a poke” in the arm or buying the other person a drink, hence the phrase, “Pinch and a Poke! You owe me a Coke!” San Francisco psychoanalyst Jerome Oremland has described the game as a ritualized expression of preadolescent conflicts over their emerging new identities.

One of Diane’s aunts once wrote a family history of her mother’s side of the family, who were German farmers in east central Wisconsin. In this narrative there were several references to “hexes”, which were spells casted by neighbors to account for unfortunate events, such as cows going dry, bad crops, and at least one fretful baby. Historically such beliefs are common as prescientific explanations for events with unknown causes. When Diane questioned her mother about this she said, “Yes, it was true.”

Such magical thinking is still present in various forms. In a 2006 Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if college students could be lead to believe that they possessed magical abilities. The participants were first introduced to a confederate of the experimenter, who posed as a fellow student. With half of the subjects, he acted extremely cordial and friendly. With the other half, however, he acted as obnoxiously as possible, in an attempt to evoke hostility. Then the subjects were given a voodoo doll and directed to stick pins in it, in the presence of the confederate, who was the intended “victim”. The “victim” feigned having a headache and then the participants were asked how much they believed they had actually caused the headache. As predicted, the people who had interacted with the obnoxious confederate were more much more likely to believe that they had actually caused the headache.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mind is especially adept at identifying patterns, since such casual links are critical for survival. Unfortunately this process is far from perfect, so we often believe that events are connected when they are not, resulting in magical thinking and superstitious behavior. It may well be that we are so receptive to magic because as Burkley asserts , “…we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events”.
Although I enjoy magic as entertainment, personally I’m not a superstitious person and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I stay that way.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

Bored to be Wild

3 Apr

bored_man

 Last weekend I was assigned to  watch my two youngest grandchildren, while my wife Diane and our daughter went shopping. This has become a more or less a routine procedure, intended to weed out the especially cranky and whiney members of our party. I’m sorry,  but  too much shopping hurts my knees and makes me crabby.

I did my level best to entertain the little nippers, including a lengthy cartoon quiz and discussion session  regarding  the relative merits of Spongebob Squarepants as compared to  Patrick and Squidward, innumerable  games of Stupid Zombies on my cellphone, and watching most of an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie  on You Tube.  Despite these desperate measures, blonde-haired, blue-eyed,  four-year-old Rosie turned to me and said dismally, “I’m bored.” Surprised that she  knew what that meant, I was forced to agreed, saying, “Yeah, me too”. With two older sisters I’m sure Rosie’s heard that phrase quite often.

I have always thought that being able to tolerate a boring situation with patience and equanimity was a sign of maturity. Since such circumstances are inevitable, it is an important life skill that children are seldom taught.  Of course, with today’s frenetic and over stimulating technology, entertaining yourself has become considerably easier, although some may argue that these same digital  advances,  have  resulted in shorter attention spans,  aggravating instead of ameliorating the problem.  

The first recorded use of the English word “boredom” was, appropriately enough, in Charles Dickens’ exceedingly boring novel “Bleak House”  back in  1852. Psychologists believe that there are three basic types of boredom stemming from:  1.  Being prevented from engaging in some desired activity,  2. Being forced to engage in some undesired activity, and 3. For no apparent reason, being unable  to remain engaged in any activity.  All of these are related to problems in focusing attention.

Boredom is usually described as an unpleasant emotional state,  experienced when an individual has nothing  in particular to do  and lacks  interest  in their surroundings. It is generally seen as the opposite of arousal and may occur when all immediate challenges   are either incomprehensible or conversely, too simple or monotonous.  Additionally boredom has been found to appear at times when all perceived needs have been fully met and overall motivation is low.

Relativity  may also be a factor in boredom,  as people who have just returned from a very exhilarating or stimulating environment may find their usual  surrounding dull and boring in comparison. Veterans, for example who return from combat, may have difficulty at times adjusting to the calmer environment of civilian life.   Inveterate thrill-seekers who engaged in highly exciting recreational  activities (such as sky-diving)  or occupations (such as fire-fighting) may also start to find everyday activities exceptionally  mundane and boring.          

Boredom also seems to be related to the fatigue that stems from engaging in repetitive activity. A 1926 study in Britain demonstrated individual differences in the amount of boredom reported by workers assigned to perform the same repetitive  and monotonous task.  When we are bored we generally experience a lack of interest,  poor concentration, and temporal distortion,   as time seems to crawl along.  

In 1986 Richard Farmer, from the Oregon Research Institute,  and  Norman D. Sundberg, from the University of Oregon, developed  the  Boredom Proneness Scale to measure how likely people are to feel bored.  Subsequent research has shown that boredom proneness is related to depression,  hopelessness, perceptions of increased effort, loneliness, and poor motivation.  Other studies have  found  it to be a significant factor in depression,  anxiety disorders,  alcohol and drug abuse (especially as professed by teens),  pathological gambling, as well as eating disorders. Individuals who are  easily bored,  also have reportedly more hostility, anger,  less career success,  and poorer social skills,  than people not prone to boredom.

I’m afraid that I fall into that high boredom prone category. When I’m in a situation that  I find boring  where there is  little activity  going on,  my mind is  like a computer that automatically shifts into sleep mode.   I find that I have   these attentional lapses  especially at   continuing education seminars.  I used to embarrass Diane by bringing along a big stack of paperwork to do during these workshops to keep myself occupied. Now it’s even worse with  laptops and smart phones. I’m afraid that I’ve turned into  one of those insufferable people  who sit near the wall so they can plug in and pretend they are taking notes, when they are really reading their e-mail,   watching You Tube, checking their bank balance, or making grocery lists.

I suppose my worse attentional lapse took place a few years ago at a department  store. There were a lot of bargains and sales that day and   Diane and I had been shopping for quite a while. After an exhausting search,  Diane had found several items of clothing that she wanted to buy. I was tasked with watching over her intended purchases while she tried on some other things. I found an empty chair and put the clothing on the chair next to me. With nothing to do, except to sit there,  my attention started to wander.  Eventually the lack of activity caused my internal  screensaver to  kick  in, I shut down,   and  must have  nodded off. When I was roused by a rude shake, I discovered, to my horror, that all the clothes had disappeared. Some overzealous clerk had taken the entire pile of clothing and hung them back up on the racks, literally under my nose. Suffice it to say that Diane was less than pleased with my dedication that day.

            According to educational researcher Ulrike E. Nett  from  The University of Konstanz in Germany  there are  three psychological strategies that people  typically use to cope with boredom. 1. They reappraise the situation and try  to increase the relative importance of the boring situation or activity. 2. They actively make changes to the situation to make it less boring. and 3. They evade the boring situation by seeking out a more interesting activity or diversion.  

Generally boredom is seen as a negative force in people’s lives, however,  like any situation that causes discomfort,   it also can serve as an impetus for positive change by increasing our motivation to act. For example,  an individual with a very boring job,  may use the boredom as a catalysis to seek out a more challenging and ultimately rewarding position.

Finally, existential philosophers have viewed boredom, which they have called “a muffling fog”,   as a fundamental dimension of human existence.  In situations lacking any stimulation, the individual must confront “nothingness”.  Directly experiencing this lack of meaning creates existential anxiety.   Using  “waiting at the railway station”  as an example,  philosopher  Martin Heidegger wrote over  100 pages on the topic of boredom, which, either ironically or perhaps  fittingly, are  themselves incredibly boring to read. 

I had no idea Rosie could be so profound in her observations about spending time with me. I’m just afraid she might agree with Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who once   famously wrote “…there is a sense that any immediate moment of life may be fundamentally tedious [especially when spent with grandpa].”

Based on a column in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

A Ticklish Issue

3 Apr

ImageAristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Da Vinci  and Darwin  are just a few of  history’s  great minds who  have speculated  about the origin and purpose of tickling.  My four-year-old grand-daughter, Rosie,  is an inveterate tickler. She revels in the power that tickling gives her over  older and larger  people. I also think she does it  because she likes to be tickled herself.  For some reason, however, she has picked me  as the primary target for her assaults, as small children and dogs often do.

I must have victim written all over my face, as I  can hardly visit anywhere,  without  some child or dog giving me the business. Little dogs, like my daughter’s Bichon Frise, jump on my lap and try to lick my face.   Our niece’s  Siberian Huskies slobber on my hands,  steal my fur hat, or try to bury  a bone (the one in my arm). I’m also a prime target for mimes. For her part Rosie never misses an opportunity to tickle me.

Today evolutionary psychology may be close to finding some answers regarding why people tickle.   Robert R. Provine,  a psychologist at the University of Maryland says that  tickling is a “mechanism for social  bonding between close companions. It helps forge relationships between family members  and friends...”

According to Provine, infants begin laughing in response to tickling  within the first few months of life. He says “It’s one of the first forms of communication between babies and their caregivers…”   Parents tickle because they are so reinforced by the baby’s laughter.

Back in the 1980’s University of Iowa  psychiatrist Donald Black  noted that the most ticklish parts of the body  tend to be where we have protective reflexes.   He believed that children learn to protect their necks, ribs, feet, and armpits as they wrestle and  tickle each other. In 1924, J.C. Gregory proposed that ticklish places on the body were those most vulnerable in combat and learning to guard them conveyed an evolutionary advantage. Laughter in response to such tickling may be seen as a sign of submission or a way to say “uncle”.

 Besides possibly developing self-defense skills, tickling among children can reinforce sibling and/or peer bonding.  It also may be an alternative to  violence intended  to hurt or  dominate each other.  When one sibling tickles  another  relentlessly,  to point of  unpleasantness it is called “tickle torture.”

Based on his observations of chimpanzees and orangutans, Provine also believes that the “ha-ha” of human laugher most likely evolved from the inevitable panting  that takes place  during prolonged tickle fights. 

Some experts  believe  that tickling  requires  social interaction and that’s one reason why  you can’t tickle yourself.  University of California psychologist Christine Harris, however, believes that tickling is more like a automatic reflex. To test her hypothesis,  she built a robotic arm that looked like a tickling machine. She christened her creation — Mechanical Meg. Subjects were blindfold and then tickled by what they thought was Mechanical Meg. Actually they were tickled by a human assistant hiding under a table (Meg didn’t actually work).  The subjects laughed and squirmed anyway, demonstrating that   tickling did not require the perceived presence of another human being.

I personally believe that you can tickle someone without actually touching them. When our kids were preschoolers I would sometimes tickle them on the knees (a much neglected tickle target). Then I would sit across the room and tell them that I could tickle them by remote control. I would stare seriously at their knees and wiggle my fingers and they would invariably start laughing and grab their knees.

Around the turn of the century scientists classified tickling into major categories. “Knismesis” is  evoked by a very light touch on the skin. It may produce an itching sensation, but not laughter. It is the sensation you get when an insect crawls on you and may have evolved in mammals to help them keep rid of parasites. 

The other class of tickling is called “gargalesis” and is achieved by repeatedly applying pressure to sensitive areas. Gargalesis is generally met with uncontrollable laughter.  It is generally   pleasurable, but can be extremely uncomfortable when it involves persistent involuntary tickling. Gargalesis was once believed to be the exclusive province of primates,  but more recent research suggests that rats can also be tickled. I pity the poor graduate assistant who  had that  job.

Charles Darwin  theorized that tickling was related to the anticipation of pleasure. He based this on the observation that ticklish people often  laugh before  being actually  tickled . In addition unexpected tickling from a complete stranger is generally perceived as an assault and no laughing matter.   Darwin believed that in order to laugh at a tickle, you cannot know the exact location where you were going to be touched. Knowing where the stimulation was going to take place removes all anticipation and that’s why people cannot effectively tickle themselves.  More recent research seems to confirm this notion.      

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London analyzed   self-tickling  using sophisticated  brain imaging studies.  Her studies show your brain can predict sensations when your own movements are the cause, but not if someone else does it. She says, “When you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction is used to cancel the response of other brain areas to the tickle. Knight Ridder newspaper reporter Usha Lee McFarling says,” the cerebellum acts as a killjoy, squelching the tickling response if the tickling doesn’t come from an outside source.

Research also suggests that tickling is a young person’s game and often between four and seven years of age many children no longer see it as pleasurable.  A survey of college students found that that only 32%  reported that they enjoy being tickled and about 36% said  they didn’t  like the experience at all. .  It probably has a lot to   do with   the wide variability in different peoples’ pain and pressure thresholds.  Provine says that interest and   participation in tickling drops off significantly after the age of forty. I must be an exception, since I have to frequently use tickling in self-defense. I think it must be like jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. Young children have no problem doing it,  but the older you get the harder it becomes. 

Some authorities say that if you shut your eyes tight and concentrated real hard during a tickle attack, you can stop the sensation. I think I’ll try that next time, but I’m skeptical.

 

Based on a column that originally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune,

Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan

Shaun

Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal

Causal Comments

24 Sep

Image

When people offer  spontaneously, without thinking, their offhanded remarks   possess a special kind of power.  We frequently assume that extemporaneous comments are  truthful, or at least that they honestly reflect the way the speaker feels. Unintentionally overheard comments can be especially influential, since we assume they were frank expressions,  not tailored specifically for our ears, just ask Mitt Romney.

For example, our five-year old grandson prefers to wear button-up shirts  instead of the polo variety. We believe that’s because of a remark that some sweet nursery or Sunday School  teacher once made  that   resulted  in him referring to button-up shirts as “Mr. Handsome Shirts”.  After all, what male wouldn’t want to wear a “Mr. Handsome Shirt”.

Of course such statements are not always positive.  At a parent-teacher conference   my wife Diane once overheard her Kindergarten teacher tell her mother,  “Don’t bother ever giving Diane  dance lessons, because she has no rhythm at all.” This has stuck with her for all these years and made her feel inhibited and avoid dancing. Some people may say perhaps for the best.

In his book Uncommon Therapy famed hypnotherapist  Milton Erickson  describes how he once treated  a young woman who was convinced that her perfectly normal   feet were grossly oversized  and ugly. This belief kept her from ever going outside the house.  On pretense  Erickson made a  home visit ostensibly  to see the young woman’s “sick” mother.   He acted quite annoyed and grumpy and  “accidentally on purpose” stepped on the  young woman’s foot. As she recoiled in pain he said loudly, “If only you could grow those feet big enough for a man to see!”.  His crabby and spontaneous statement had more credibility with the young woman,  than all the reasoning in the world would have had,  and  ultimately  did the trick as,  she re-shuffled her thinking about her self-image.

Over the years Diane has prepared and given children’s sermons in various churches we’ve attended. She always says that the children’s sermon is an excellent way to communicate with the adults in the audience.  Since the message is not intended specifically for them, their defenses  are down.  Also their critical judgment is often suspended, as they are distracted and  charmed  by the youngsters’ response to the message.

Such casual messages function similar to what are called indirect or embedded suggestions in hypnosis. An indirect suggestion is a type of instruction phrased as an offhand comment, used during hypnosis to encourage patients to follow a desired course of action without specifically telling them to do so. The power of   indirect and embedded suggestions lies in their ability to by-pass normal conscious resistance and influence people on an unconscious level.

An embedded suggestion is another special kind of a hypnotic suggestion that is usually buried in some sort of mind-numbing context,  like a boring conversation.  The suggestion is typically repeated, but since it doesn’t stand out dramatically,   it is usually not consciously perceived.

I once attempted to use a variant of these techniques with a young woman I was seeing for counseling. Outside my immediate family,  she was probably the most argumentative person I had ever met. Even when I was repeating back exactly what she just told me, she would disagree.  Most of all she was highly self-critical and  I was trying to help her  realize that she did possess some positive features.  One day I was talking to her and the secretary called me  out of my office,   to handle an  emergency.  When I returned the  chart containing my progress notes was in a slightly different position. It was hardly noticeable,  but I realized that she had must been reading my notes. For the next session, I carefully prepared a fake progress note to put in a dummy chart that looked just like the real thing.  This note contained all the positive messages that I wanted her to realize. If I had said these things to her, she would have just argued with me and rejected them.  When she came in for her session, my secretary made a prearrange call to my office,   and I excused myself, claiming that it was another emergency. After about 15 minutes I returned. The client seemed both pleased and frustrated. She obviously liked what she had read, but seemed bursting,  wanting to argue the points. She was not able to, however, because she was loathe to admit she had been surreptitiously reading my notes.

Back in  June,   Ann Von  Brock, a blogger  with United Way in Asheville, North Carolina wrote a   piece entitled,   “Can One Passing Comment To a Child Really Make a Difference?”  It was about the power of adult influences on a young people’s lives.  She describes how her 7th grade biology teacher once wrote “has potential”  as  remark  on her report card.  Although  Von Brock  admits  she was a an underachiever for much of her school career  she  says,  “… somehow I hung onto the comment of that one teacher and always believed that I was a smart kid.”   She concluded that  seemingly casual comments can be   “powerful”, “ motivating  and inspiring”,  but  just as easily   “crushing”     depending upon the people, the setting, the tone,  and the context.

I suppose there are two important lessons you  can draw from  the power of passing comments.  First, if some casual comment is hurtful or discouraging, then reengage your  critical thinking  and challenge it. If parts still seem true, then use it as a motivator for positive change.  Second use your own casual remarks constructively. You can never really know how much influence a word of encouragement or a positive comment can have in the long run. We  are constantly confronted with  opportunities that can change people’s lives with very little effort or cost to ourselves.

I respond to  casual remarks as much as anyone.  When I was   in high school,  the first day of varsity football practice,  the coach looked at me  and realized  my brother had played for him a few years earlier.  He said   to the people standing around, “Stawar’s brother was an All Conference Guard, but Terry here  isn’t good enough to carry his cleats”. I suppose that was meant to be inspirational but it ended up being more prophetic.  Was it important to me or did it affect me?  I would like to say no, but then I do remember it,  48 years later.

On the other hand many years ago I   attended a two-day training workshop. It was in a resort area and everyone dressed very casually. On the first day I wore a tan jacket. On the second day  I overheard   people at  nearby table talking about what people were wearing. One of them said, “You should have seen this tan jacket some guy was wearing yesterday. It was really cool.” I don’t think I had never heard a spontaneous positive comment about my apparel before. I believe I wore my “Mr. Handsome” tan jacket for at least the next decade.

Carrying a Secret can be a Heavy Load

24 Aug

With the recent news of finding bodies buried in backyards in our region , a lot of people are probably wondering what other secrets are out there, just waiting to be discovered.  Personally I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets. In the past, even after   a friend    would solemnly swear me to secrecy, I’d usually blab to  the next person I’d see. I just couldn’t help it. Maybe this was because in my professional role as a therapist, I had to be especially careful about always maintaining confidentiality.   I’m a little better now, but not much. I hope I’m never captured by   enemies, I’d probably tell them more than they wanted to know, even before they asked. No need for water boarding with me.

People keep secrets for a lot of reasons, but mainly I think it is to avoid looking bad  in front of other people or to escape the consequences of our behavior.   Sometimes we keep secrets just  to avoid conflict with others, or to prevent our  enemies from using  information against us.

In literature keeping a secret   usually leads to something bad.  New York City writer Maria Konnikova   points outs how keeping a terrible secret takes it’s deadly  toll on the health of the fictional  Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (father of Hester Prynne’s  illegitimate baby)   in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  She wonders if a terrible  secret could actually do that much damage  to someone.  She says,  “The Scarlet Letter gets one thing so incredibly right   that it almost…  makes up for everything it gets wrong: it’s not healthy to keep a secret.”

It seems, however, to depend on the nature of the  secret.  Gail Saltz, a psychiatry professor at Cornell Medical School,  says that  secrets can be either  “benign” or “malignant,” depending on the scenario.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner and  his colleagues found that secret thoughts tend to  be  very  accessible.  People can recall memories, which  they had been asked to keep secret, better than memories which  they had been instructed to tell the truth or lie  about.   Secrets come to mind much more often than almost any other kind of thoughts. They frequently preoccupy us, contrary to  our conscious wishes.  Wegner found that in his experiments people were   likely to give  unintentional hints about things they were supposed to keep secret.  Wegner  also found that personal secrets often  result in outward signs of distress, and  that secrecy can itself create further unwanted thoughts,  continuing  the cycle.

Knowing how difficult it can be to keep secrets, Wegner his  colleagues  give the following common sense suggestions: 1. Avoid  alcohol since it diminishes inhibitions.  2  Reduce stress, since it  decreases  conscious control. 3. Write the secret down (in a symbolic way this disclosures the secret  and relieves some of the   pressure, even though     no one actually reads the secret  and finally  4. Avoid situations where being asked to keep a secret is likely to occur.

When we speak about secrets we use a special vocabulary and we often say things like, “We carry (or hold)  a secret”   as if where an actual physical object. Our language also refers to   “being weighed down” or “carrying a heavy  burden ,”  and confession is said to “lighten our load”.  Researchers  have investigated how our bodies may literally interpret  such  metaphorical descriptions.   For example, the importance or seriousness of information is often associated with weight. A serious persons is said  to have “gravitas”, or an intellectual work may be  said to be quite “weighty”. Dutch  studies have shown that when subjects learn  that a certain book is  important, they begin to   perceived that book as physically weighing more.

Along similar lines,  Michael L. Slepian from Tufts University and his colleagues found that bodily  states, associated with physical burdens, may be simulated when  people have important personal secrets. In this study they looked at the behavior of people who harbored important personal secrets, such as infidelity or sexual orientation. In a series of studies,  they found that subjects, who were currently held an important personal secret, perceived hills to be steeper, distances  longer, and  physical tasks  requiring  more effort than they would otherwise. Participants were also significantly less  inclined  to help other people with physical tasks. It was as if their own energy reserves were depleted.  The more subjects thought about the secret,  the more the secret   influenced   their perceptions.

The researchers found that   concealments are   perceived at a somatic level as physical burdens,   they can result in actual physical overexertion and exhaustion. This exhausting effort required to maintain secrets over many years,  may also explain why criminals sometimes suddenly confess,  despite years of previous  silence.

Psychologist James Pennebaker, from the  University of Texas, found  that people who had a serious trauma before age 17 were much more likely to have health problems as adults. The majority of these people kept the trauma secret. Pennebaker had   subjects visited his lab each week to  write about their  traumatic experiences. Some subjects talked about the trauma, while others just wrote about it, showing their writing to  no one.   Divulging the secret to others or simply writing it on a piece of paper that is later burned,   were both highly  correlated with physical and mental  health improvements.  People who continued to conceal  their traumatic secrets showed more  hypertension, influenza,  and even cancer.  The subjects, who wrote about their secrets demonstrated, enhanced immunity and in some cases, T-cell counts in AIDS patients even increased.

In similar research studies, holocaust victims who finally disclosed secrets   demonstrated a marked improvement in their health status,   after the interviews.  The more they disclosed, the more their health improved.

How the disclosure of personal secrets creates such health benefits is rather complicated.    Pennebaker says that writing about a secret helps label and organize it, which in turn helps subjects better understand and master aspects of the secret that had been hidden. Disclosure can become a habit, leading to more openness in relationships. Revealing secrets can also reduce obsessive ruminations and their accompanying anxiety. Without   anxiety and self-absorption,  people become better listeners and have more opportunities for richer social relationships.

Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly and her colleagues   examined people’s health statuses and found that secretive people, tend to be sicker than other people. She found that  “self-concealers,”, were often   more depressed, anxious, and shy, and have discomfort.  She believes there may be a genetic link  between   secretiveness and   vulnerability to illness.

Kelly  also believes that  keeping  benign secrets can have  positive aspects,  providing personal boundaries or avoiding  unnecessary social conflicts.  Disclosing  a   malignant secret, may have a positive outcome, but that  depends on having a safe confidant.   If such a confidant is not available, Kelly takes a cue from Pennebaker and   suggests writing about the secrets, which  simulates the benefits of disclosing the secret  to others.

So, it you have some deep secret that is troubling you, spend some time  writing about  it  down,  or  find someone that you trust and take a chance. You may find that a large burden is  finally lifted.  Just don’t tell me anything,  if you know what’s good for you.

From a column that appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Magic Cookies: The Placebo Effect

18 Jan

 

 Our expectations  can be remarkably  powerful.  The magic feather that Dumbo, the flying elephant, was told would help him fly,  is a classic example of what is known as a placebo.  The word placebo is Latin for “pleasing” and refers to an object that has no actual effect, other  than to bolster our expectations.  

In the early 70’s when I was a brand new psychology  student,   my study group was assigned to devise  an experiment involving preschool  children. I believe it was Thurmond Culpepper, a member of our  group, who proposed that we study expectations and  preschoolers’ memory for  pictures.  This evolved into the “Magic Cookie Study”.

In step one of our study,  all the children were to be given a rather  odd looking cookie to eat. This sugar cookie, covered with  marshmallow and sprinkled with pink  coconut, was to serve as the  placebo. 

Half of the class was to be  told that the cookie was magic and would help them remember things perfectly.  The other  half of the kids  were told that  it was just a snack.  Then we planned  to  test them  by  showing    pictures of   animals , and then recording how many  of the animals they could  recall five minutes later. 

It turned out that most of the kids hated the cookies and not only  refused to eat them but  physically  threw them at Thurmond while making  fun of his name. Evidently coconut is not very popular with the  preschool set,  as  many complained vocally  about the pink  hair on their cookies.

Also, it was  nearly impossible to get them to  sit down long enough to  look at the animal pictures. And when it came  time to telling us what animals they remembered,  few subjects  felt that this boring  task was  worth their time or effort, especially compared  to throwing cookies or  grabbing  the experimenter’s stopwatch and dashing madly  about the classroom. We did  not demonstrate  the  placebo effect,  but  we did  discover that   our study group needed someone who actually knew something about kids.     

Newsweek magazine science editor Sharon Begley has reported on a  new placebo study  published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.    Daniel Cherkin  at theGroup Health Center in Seattle  compared the effectiveness of  acupuncture,   simulated acupuncture,  and  standard treatment on back pain. The researchers found that pain decreased  significantly for 60% for both acupuncture groups,  but only 39 % for the standard care patients.  Although the results  were used to support alternative  approaches, like acupuncture, the most intriguing  finding, as Begley points out,  is  that   fake acupuncture (randomly getting poked with toothpicks)  worked as well  as real acupuncture,  and twice as well as standard procedures.   

A survey of Chicago area internists   revealed that half  of  them  used   placebos with their patients. Twelve per cent, however,  had ethical qualms and said that placebos should never be used. Most physicians, who used placebos, were somewhat  cagey in what they actually told their  patients– not wanting  to lie outright, but also not wanting to diminish  the benefits of  positive expectations.

According to Fabrizio Benedetti of the Universityof Turin, a pioneer in placebo pain research, positive expectations  can lead to the release of natural pain killers in the brain. The greater the expectations, the greater the  relief  that people feel.  About 30% of the population  appears  capable  of a   strong placebo effect and   magic cookies not withstanding, children have a greater response than adults.

 According to MIT behavioral economist  Dan Ariely,  we  associate the cost of medicines  with their  efficacy and this  may be why expensive placebos work best and  people  claim that generic medications do not work as well as brand names.   Placebo effectiveness is also  related to factors such as  exoticness,  intrusiveness,  and technological sophistication.   Injections, for example  are more potent that capsules, which in turn  are better than tablets. Procedures   associated with   elaborate scientific looking equipment or arcane devices, also tend to have greater credibility. 

One mental hospital used an impressive looking electroconvulsive shock machine to successfully  treat depressed patients for many years. However a technician found  that the  machine had never been plugged in properly and it’s success was purely placebo effect.        

 The size of a  pill is also related to its  placebo value. As you  might  expect,  if a  little is good,  a lot is great.  When they feel bad,  most people want the maximum strength  possible.  As comedian Jerry Seinfeld said,   “We want them to figure what dose can  kill  us and then back off just a little.”     

Placebo saline injections even helped some Parkinson  patients in  a study at   theUniversityof British Columbia.  The very brain chemicals that placebos stimulate, may actually help  reduce some  Parkinson Disease  symptoms, such as stiffness and rigidity.  

Placebos  may also be  effective  when people  learn, through association, that a particular experience is routinely followed by a  specific  response. This is known as classical  conditioning.   In a 1999 study,  patients   received several  injections  of a substance  that quickly depressed their respiration. Later  the  injection of an inactive  substance produced the same results. The  nervous system  had learned to associate all  injections with the depressive response.  

Similarly  when kidney transplant patients were repeatedly given a strong  anti-rejection medication, along with a  distinctly flavored drink,   the drink alone began to have the same beneficial effects as the medication.   Begley says  that this “was like finding that Kool-Aid can prevent organ transplant rejection”.  

            Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore  Jacobson  wrote a controversial book in 1968 entitled  Pygmalion in the Classroom about their  study  in which teachers were told  that certain (randomly selected) children had been  scientifically identified as  “late  bloomers”  and would show tremendous academic  progress  in the next school year . The teachers’ expectations were a self-fulfilling  prophecy and the designated  children  showed a tremendous gains in achievement.

This  research demonstrates that, not only our own expectations, but those of others, can result in a significant placebo effect. The story of the unplugged  shock machine also dramatically displays this effect.   In addition to the machine, the expectations of the attending staff  influenced  patients to the point that they  exhibited sham seizures, when they thought shock was bring administered.

The placebo effect is a real testament to the  power of our expectations. It also explains why I still want a big  antibiotic pill every time  I catch a cold,  even  though I know it doesn’t work on viruses.  Maybe I should just eat a cookie instead.

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