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Saturday
Sep132014

Your Profile Photo is a Liar

Be honest. Do you draw conclusions about someone based on his or her profile photo?

Whether it’s on dating websites or Facebook or any other social media venue, the power of a single photo is immense. Looking at a person’s profile photo, we develop first impressions that frame the rest of what we see and read.

Psychology researchers want us to know something about our profile photo-centrism: it’s a lie, and it’s leading us to draw conclusions that likely have zero basis in reality.

"Our findings suggest that impressions from still photos of individuals could be deeply misleading," says psychological scientist and study author Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, an expert on the personality dynamics underlying first impressions.

Todorov and his research team conducted a series of studies to demonstrate how easily swayed we are by profile photos, and how even slight variations in photos can significantly change our opinions of a person’s personality.

Researchers asked participants in an online survey to view and rate headshots on personality characteristics, including attractiveness, competence, creativity, cunning, extraversion, meanness, trustworthiness, and intelligence.  The photos were all taken in similar lighting, but headshots of some of the people were varied to show slightly different facial expressions.

The results showed that participants’ personality ratings of these slightly changed facial expressions varied just as much as their ratings of different people.  In other words, virtually any change in photos of the same person altered personality impressions as much as viewing photos of different people.

In another study, the researchers asked participants to rate headshots shown in different contexts. The results in this case showed that participants’ ratings changed solely based on which context the photo appeared in.  According to the research team, “(participants) tended to prefer one shot of an individual when they were told the photo was for an online dating profile, but they preferred another shot when they were told the individual was auditioning to play a movie villain, and yet another shot when they were told he was running for political office.”

The studies also examined how long it took for someone to make a personality judgment based on a profile photo, and found that strong preferences for specific images developed even when the photos were shown for a fraction of a second – a result that underscores just how sure we are that a profile photo tells a true story.

The takeaway from these studies is that our impressions formed by looking at profile photos are extremely malleable, no matter how sure we are that the photos are telling us something accurate about someone’s personality. That's worth keeping in mind especially on dating sites, where we're tempted to draw sweeping personality conclusions based on a passing glance at a photo.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative, at Forbes, and at Psychology Today. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Saturday
Aug302014

Study: Fish Oil Prevents Brain Shrinkage and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults

Three more cases of Alzheimer’s disease will have been diagnosed by the time you finish reading this article. More than 5 million people have Alzheimer’s in the United States alone (44 million worldwide), and the rate of new diagnosis is about one patient every minute, with no cure on the horizon. Now a new study adds evidence to the argument that fish oil supplementation could be one of the best preventives we have against the disease--at least for people not at genetic risk of developing it.

Researchers from Rhode Island Hospital studied three groups of older adults, ages 55-90, using neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) every six months. The group included 229 adults with no signs of the disease; 397 who were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment; and 193 with Alzheimer’s. All participants were part of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), which began in 2003 and ended in 2010.

Results showed that adults taking fish oil, who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s, experienced significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than adults not taking fish oil. Cognitive decline was measured using the Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale (ADAS-cog) and the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE). (Unfortunately, the study did not specify the amount of fish oil taken, nor the percentage of EPA and DHA in the supplements.)

These are promising results, but they have one notable caveat: benefits of taking fish oil only held true for people lacking the main genetic risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, known as APOE ε4 . The researchers think that people with APOE ε4  are incapable of metabolizing DHA, the fatty acid in fish oil thought to promote cognitive benefits.

The researchers add, however, that it’s still possible that starting fish oil supplementation during or before middle age could protect against developing Alzheimer’s even for people with the genetic marker. If you think of the gene for Alzheimer’s as a light switch, taking fish oil earlier in life could prevent the switch from being flicked on.

At least that’s the hope, and given the fact that Alzheimer’s—the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.—still evades a cure, fish oil will continue to be a hot target of cognitive research as a possible shield against developing the disease.

The study was published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at Forbes. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Saturday
Aug092014

How Feeling Grateful Improves Your Decision Making

Ancient wisdom traditions have long held that gratitude is a prerequisite for fulfillment. Focusing on what we have, instead of what we think we need, fortifies the mind against rampant desire that ultimately leaves us feeling empty.

The difficulty we face in living out that wisdom comes in the form of challenges to self-control – our perilous dance with instant gratification and temptation. Now new research suggests that gratitude can help us out here as well, by improving our decision-making chops by fortifying our patience.

Researchers tested this theory by putting study participants through a test of financial self-control after they were pre-conditioned to feel one of three emotional states: (1) Grateful, (2) Happy, or (3) Neutral. The pre-conditioning was achieved by having the participants write about a life experience that made them feel either grateful, happy, or left them feeling a lot of nothing.

The financial test was very basic: participants could either choose to receive $54 now or $80 in three days. Alternatively, they could negotiate to receive a lesser or greater amount now instead of more later (for example, a participant could choose to take a $60 payout now instead of an $85 payout later).

The typical reaction to these tests is that most people opt for less money upfront instead of waiting for more. Participants in this study who were pre-conditioned to feel happy or no particular emotion mostly reacted exactly as expected – they wanted the cash now.

But participants feeling grateful showed more restraint, with significantly more in this group opting to wait longer for the larger amount of money. And the more grateful participants reported feeling, the more patient they were.

“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking,” said study co-author Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration.

It’s not entirely clear why feeling more grateful increases patience, but it may simply be that gratitude is an emotional counterbalance to selfishness.

Juliann Wiese, an executive coach who consults with several top-tier companies, says the study buttresses something she’s found to be repeatedly true in her experience.  "In my coaching practice, I've observed that once people shift their focus to what's already worthwhile in their lives--instead of what they think they are missing--their decision-making skills rapidly improve."

Just as people in this study were pre-conditioned to feel grateful, there’s likely benefit in putting ourselves in a grateful mindset to alter our perspective. According to Wiese: "Filtering decisions through a gratitude-centered perspective isn't only important for making better decisions on the job, but across all aspects of our lives. People are simply more patient and less prone to jumping at the first offer or fleeting hint of temptation when they’re grounded in gratitude.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at Forbes. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Monday
Jul212014

Why Our Brains Love The Curve

You’ve seen the advertisements all around the Web: the curve is coming to a TV near you.  It seems at first glance a simple innovation, in some ways even a predictable one. Watching commercials for Samsung’s new line of televisions, I find myself wondering why it’s taken this long for curved screens to arrive. And it’s altogether possible that I’m asking that question because to my brain—and quite likely to yours—the curve simply fits.

Behavioral researchers have known this for some time; people consistently show a preference for curves over hard lines and angles. Whether the object is a wristwatch, a sofa, or a well-designed building, curves curry favor. Neuroscience, following the lead of behavioral science, is on the hunt for a neurally-hardwired preference for curvy elegance.

Of course, televisions with curved screens offer technical advantages beyond aesthetics. Curvature reduces reflection, making the viewing experience easier on the eyes, and simultaneously creates the illusion that the viewer is surrounded by the screen. The so-called “sweet spot” at the center of the illusion is a comfortable magnet for our attention. (Most of this has been known since the 1950s with the introduction of the first curved movie theater screen, the Cinerama.)

But aside from those advantages, studies suggest that merely viewing the curves of an object triggers relief in our brains – an easing of the threat response that keeps us on guard so much of the time.  While hard lines and corners confer a sense of strength and solidity, they are also subtly imposing. Something about them keeps our danger-alert system revved.

Research shows that we subjectively interpret sharp, hard visual cues as red flags in our environment (with corresponding heightened activity in our brain’s threat tripwire, the amygdala).  Even holding a glass with pronounced hard lines and edges has been shown to elevate tension across the dinner table. Curves take the perceptual edge off.

The softness of contour may also play out in our brains not unlike an emotionally satisfying song or poem. A new discipline known as neuroaesthetics—an ambitious vector between neuroscience and the fine arts—is exploring this idea, shedding light on why the love of curves is seducing technology manufacturers. Recent research under this new banner suggests that curved features in furniture, including TVs, trigger activity in our brains’ pleasure center. We derive a buzz from curves much as we do when viewing a beautiful work of art.

The overlap of visual impact from things as commonplace as chairs and tables and TVs, and emotional impact at such a high level (a level we’d normally reserve for art and music) suggests that the ordinary elements in our environments aren’t so ordinary after all. Skilled industrial designers have known this for quite some time, but now science is adding an explanatory dimension that makes the point all the more compelling.

And if it’s true, as the research indicates, that the curve is an emotional elixir for anxiety-prone brains, the latest trend is likely to take hold and transform our interface with all things digital.  We may eventually look back on the non-curved days of technology the way we think of black and white television now. The term “flat-screen TV” will go the way of “rotary dial phone”.

Having said that, the true test of the curvy trend’s appeal won’t happen until the price point drops considerably. Curves may calm, but the prices on many curved screen TVs are anything but calming. We’ll have to wait a while for that to play out to know whether the brain's love of the curve translates into an enduring shift in technology.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at Forbes. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Sunday
Jun152014

How Your Blood Sugar Could Be Wrecking Your Relationships

We’ve all known people who should have to wear a flashing red DANGER! sign if they miss lunch, though even without the warning we instinctively know to steer clear if someone is running on empty. A grumbling stomach means a drop in blood sugar, and through excruciating experience most of us realize that means trouble. But could the blood sugar-anger connection lurk behind more relationship conflicts than we realize?

new study probed that question with a research methodology as painfully funny as it was effective.  Researchers rounded up 107 married couples for a 21-day couples’ boot-camp to draw a direct line between blood glucose (aka circulating blood sugar) and aggression.

First they asked the couples to complete a relationship questionnaire that evaluated their level of satisfaction with their marriages, which allowed the research team to control for variables like how rocky the marriage was to begin with. They also measured all of the participants’ blood glucose levels to set a benchmark, and continued to measure the levels throughout the 21-day study.

The researchers predicted that drops in blood sugar would consistently correlate with heightened aggression between the spouses. Aggression was defined in two ways: aggressive impulse and aggressive behavior.  The distinction was meant to identify aggression in thought versus action, because aggression rarely happens in a vacuum—there’s usually a thought impulse that precedes it, even if that impulse doesn’t occur immediately before the action but compounds over time.

To test aggressive impulse, the researchers gave participants a voodoo doll and 51 pins, with instructions to place as many pins in the doll every night as needed to show how angry they were with their spouse. A light conflict day might get just a couple pokes, while a “cover the kids' eyes and ears” day might warrant the full 51 to the head.

To test aggressive behavior, the researchers had the spouses wear headphones while they competed against each other in 25-part tasks. After each task, the winner decided how loudly and for how long to blast the loser with a noise through the headphones.

At the end of the 21 days, with riddled voodoo dolls and ringing ears aplenty, the hypothesis was proven out.  The lower the level of blood glucose, the more pins the spouses poked, and the higher the intensity and longer the duration they blasted their partners through their headphones.

The study provides a couple of worthwhile takeaways. First, quoting Brad Bushman, professor of psychology and communication at Ohio State University and lead study author, “Before you have a difficult conversation with your spouse, make sure you're not hungry."  Simple to say, harder to do.

Second, and the reason why that’s such good advice, is our brains are energy hogs. "Even though the brain is only two percent of our body weight, it consumes about 20 percent of our calories. It is a very demanding organ when it comes to energy," added Bushman. When the brain is short on energy, it’s also short on self-control, and the door is opened for aggressive impulses and behavior to take center stage. And if the study results are a true indication, we’re red lining our self-control more often than we realize.

I’d love to see a follow-up study that attempts to track these results against the blood sugar rollercoaster associated with fast food-laden diets. I have a suspicion that glucose-related aggression isn’t solely about how much or little food we eat, but also the sorts of food we eat. Just a hunch, but it stands to reason that shoveling in foods that cause our blood sugar levels to spike and crash day after day may also trigger spousal (and other) explosions. A little food for thought while you're sitting in the drive-thru.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative, at his website The Daily Brain, and on YouTube at Your Brain Channel. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.