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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 his website The Daily Brain. 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 his website The Daily Brain. 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.

Sunday
Jun082014

When It Comes To Choosing Mates, Women And Men Often Get Framed

If I tell you that seven of ten doctors believe a medication is helpful, the positive weight of the seven endorsements will trump potential negatives. But if I tell you that three of ten doctors believe that a medication should be avoided, the weight of those three negative critiques will overpower potential positives.  The information in either case is the same – the only difference is how it's framed.

Our susceptibility to the framing bias has been demonstrated in study after study (most notably by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman), and now a new study by Concordia University researchers shows how framing influences our selection of love interests.

Hundreds of study participants were given positively and negatively framed descriptions of potential partners. For example:

"Seven out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is kind." [positive frame]

versus

"Three out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is not kind." [negative frame]

The researchers tested the framing effect across six attributes that are known from previous research to rank high in importance to men and women; four that are important to either sex, and two that are important to both sexes:

  • Attractive body (usually more important to men)
  • Attractive face (usually more important to men)
  • Earning potential (usually more important to women)
  • Ambition (usually more important to women)
  • Kindness (equally important to both)
  • Intelligence (equally important to both)

Participants evaluated both “high-quality” (e.g. seven out of 10 people think this person is kind) and “low-quality” (e.g. three out of 10 people think this person is kind) prospective mates for each of these attributes, in the context of a short-term fling or a long-term relationship.

What the research team found is that more often than not, women were significantly less likely to show interest in men described with the low-quality frame, even though they were being presented with exactly the same information as they were in the high-quality frames.

"When it comes to mate selection, women are more attuned to negatively framed information due to an evolutionary phenomenon called 'parental investment theory,'" says study co-author and Concordia marketing professor Gad Saad, a noted researcher on the evolutionary and biological roots of consumer behavior.

"Choosing someone who might be a poor provider or an unloving father would have serious consequences for a woman and for her offspring. So we hypothesized that women would naturally be more leery of negatively framed information when evaluating a prospective mate.”

In particular, women were most susceptible to the framing bias when evaluating a man’s earning potential and ambition.

Men, on the other hand, fell prey to framing most often when evaluating a woman’s physical attractiveness.

While these results at first seem to reinforce stereotypes about how women and men seek mates, they make sense in light of what we know about evolutionary psychology. And they provide an important takeaway for both sexes: before you draw a final conclusion about a would-be mate, consider whether you’re being overly influenced by how their good or bad attributes have been framed, either by others or by the person her or himself. Better to check your bias early than suffer its consequences later.

The study was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

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.

Sunday
May182014

Could Cooperation and Corruption Originate with the Same Hormone?

We humans contend with quite a few wicked flip sides in our personal and interpersonal lives. Gratitude can transform into resentment. Concern can morph into apathy. Love can quickly become hate. New research digs deeper into a similar neurobiological duality that can, and frequently does, run rampant in groups: the Jekyll and Hyde of cooperation and corruption.

Researchers hypothesized that oxytocin—the same hormone that previous studies have linked to collaboration and altruism—can predispose us to acting dishonestly if we think doing so will benefit our group of choice. A “group” in this case means anyone to whom we feel some sense of obligation, be it family, coworkers, peers, political cronies or our Friday night craft beer buddies.

In our day-to-day lives, oxytocin is thought to play a big role in how closely bonded we feel to our group. It isn’t just the “cuddle hormone” (often discussed in studies about love and affection) but also the group-cohesion hormone.

To test the hypothesis, the research team gave one group of healthy male participants a dose of oxytocin via nasal spray and another group a placebo nasal spray (neither the participants nor the researchers knew which participants received which spray). The participants were then asked to toss a coin multiple times and make predictions on whether they’d flip heads or tails, and then self-report on the results. How well they did, they were told, would win or lose money for their fellow group members. How they reported—honestly or dishonestly—was kept anonymous, assuring the participants that how they chose to respond wouldn’t reflect back on them personally.

We might guess that participants would lie more often about the results only if they, individually, could benefit – but instead participants given oxytocin lied significantly more about the coin flip than the placebo group only if doing so gained money for their fellow group members. And they lied for the group even if they thought that the favor wouldn't be reciprocated.

To find out how participants would react if they thought they’d benefit individually, the researchers put another group through the same testing conditions but told participants that the results of their predictions would only win or lose them money, with no group benefit or loss attached. The results showed that oxytocin did not influence participants to lie any more than those in the placebo group.

In other words, oxytocin promoted lying for group but not individual benefit.

The study has a few limitations, the most obvious of which is that it used only male participants. Whether or not oxytocin would influence females toward group dishonesty is impossible to tell from these results.

But, at least for men, it seems that higher levels of oxytocin potently affect decisions to lie for the group’s benefit. This may help explain the “you go, I go, we all go” nature of fraternal groups. And the results highlight the role of group bonding in forging hard-to-crack corruption. Last year's hit movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, a true tale about a group of corrupt stock brokers making an obscene amount of ill-gotten money, and lying to ensure that no one got caught (at least for a while), comes to mind as a vivid illustration.

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.