Category Archives: Psychology

Make new friends – share a toilet today!

love-your-loo-2Here’s some advice for all new undergraduates who’ve started their programmes over the past few weeks…  One of the most daunting aspects of starting university, aside from the debt and the challenges of studying, is the prospect of making new friends.

This is really important. Students who develop quality networks also perform better and maintain their well-being.  But, where to start?  Well, many new friendships begin with chance encounters in communal spaces and environmental psychologists have been studying the characteristics of effective social areas for decades.

A recent study by Easterbrook and Vignoles examined this issue in the specific context of a university and found confirmatory evidence of what we have long known – many new undergraduate friendships begin with regular chance meetings in fairly obvious social spaces such as the communal kitchen, the common room and the college gym.  So far, so good.

What’s interesting about this study, which focused on over 400 new undergrads, was that a more unusual site for the development of new friendships emerged; the shared toilet!  In fact, this unexpected arena for new relationships proved as reliable a venue as all of the other spaces in terms of predicting friendship formation, durability and quality.  But why?

Easterbrook and Vignoles believe that the shared bathroom is a natural place for barriers to break down.  Nothing like regularly encountering a dorm mate with a loo roll in his or her hands to remove interpersonal walls and thereby allow bonds to be formed!  No sure what I think about this explanation, but it seems as plausible as any.  Motto: the en suite doesn’t just cost you more money, it makes you a lonelier student too!

Of course, the one problem with a shared toilet is that it also carries with it a whole series of shared smells!!!  So, for those sensitive to such matters, here is a real product you may wish to check out…

Doctor Who and the Aerobics

TIMEA female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit.  For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations!  Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?”  Good call!  That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.

The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”.   The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born.  So far, so good…  Well my functional age is ##   (nope, not telling you!).  Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent.  Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least.  Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!).  But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?

Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice.  Ok, what about the idea of biological age?  Now that’s a very tricky concept!  Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments.  Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is.  Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure.  So, what can we do instead?

Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code.  This is based on the idea of fitness age.  Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves.  If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.

So, what do we know so far?  Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die.  That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect!  In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc.  And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…

Alas, it is not quite that simple.  There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!).  Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health.  Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!

So, where does all this leave us?  Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is.  Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all!  Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…

BOGOF takes a holiday

santaSanta is soon due to end his 364-day holiday and pay an annual visit to his workplace.  I could tell that today by all the Christmas posters and stuff littering the shop windows in Durham.  Halloween is upon us, so “trick-or-treat” will soon give way to “penny for the guy”, closely followed by carol singers.  Then, sure enough, it is mid-December and the Easter eggs are back in the shops!

Remember, though, Christmas is a time of giving…especially to retailers!  We will all spend a disproportionate amount of money relative to our monthly income as the “festive” season approaches and the retail industry knows that.  As a consequence, the behavioural economists will be out to get our hard-earned cash with their psychological tricks.  Buyer beware – indeed!

This piece published by Chicago Booth is quite timely in this respect.  It highlights the ways in which retailers exploit our heuristics and biases to increase sales, especially in the run up to the big day.  We typically discount the future, for instance, so this time of year sees a growth of enticing offers on larger items to “buy now, pay later”, the logic being that it seems less expensive if we don’t part with our cash until April 2015.  Similarly, we can also expect to see all of the cosmetics counters in department stores offering free gift sets when we buy a standard purchase, even though this desirable free item is simply a cheap bag full of samples (still, we can wrap it for someone we don’t like that much, can’t we?).

The “special offer” that almost completely vanishes soon until the new year is the “buy one, get one free” (BOGOF) deal.  I find these fascinating as they are a relatively recent invention in the scheme of things.  When I was younger, the same offer was simply called “half price”!  BOGOF off is a much clever development though because, although economically the same, it means we have to buy double the quantity in order to get the item at half-price.  Smart!

BOGOFs are hard to find from early November, however, except in the supermarkets.  They typically go on holiday until January.  Why?  Because retailers want us to work just that little bit harder to find the best deals, thereby increasing their profits during a crucial sales period.  This is the reason we see items in Boots with the little green Christmas trees on them – we buy three items with the trees, the cheapest item is free.  More a case of “buy two, get one free” (BTGOF).  Oh now that is clever…..!

New perfume darling… or is it just my wine?

man-sniffing-wineThe human sense of smell is quite amazing.  We can distinguish the distinctive odour of our blood relations in a room full of strangers, for instance, and we can out-perform the very best mechanical nose in distinguishing between a huge range of scents.  But are we using this amazing ability as well as we could?

New research by Endevelt-Shapira and her colleagues, however, suggests we may not be even coming close to maximising our sense of smell – but a drop of the hard stuff can help!  In a series of experiments looking at olfactory performance at increasing rates of blood-alcohol content (BAC), the researchers found that our skill at identifying a variety of odours improves after a glass or two of wine. The reasons for this remain unclear, but it seems the effects of alcohol on the brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a significant role.  The prefrontal cortex “dampens” our sense of smell under normal circumstances to avoid us becoming over-whelmed with inputs, but this suppression is impaired by rising levels of BAC so our sense of smell improves.  

So, next time you feel your partner is wearing a new brand or perfume or cologne, pause a moment – it may be just that glass of Shiraz you’ve consumed and it’s the regular brand after all – useful advice if, like me, you have a tendency to get into those “you never notice what i’m wearing” conversations!

Why my physiotherapist should walk the plank!

elbow-plank-with-donkey-kicA year ago this week, I was in a golf buggy accident.  Ironic really as it had nothing to do with golf, I was simply being shown around a tea plantation when the accident occurred, but that’s life I guess.

Could’ve been worse and I’m fine now, more or less, but the main injury was a broken arm and it took almost the full year to heal – something the doctors just love attributing to the fact that I’m getting older, I smoke, or both.   One of the indignities of a broken bone, of course, is that hospitals afterwards feel compelled to send you for physiotherapy.  Yuk!

For someone like me who avoids exercise at all costs (other than regular walks to the smoking area, obviously), physiotherapy is a particular ordeal as you’re not used to stripping off in front of strangers and being bent around into strange positions, so the whole thing becomes something of a nightmare and you end up with the strange feeling that this is designed to do nothing more than subject you to ritual humiliation!  Doesn’t help that sometimes, just like other professionals, physiotherapists seem to speak their own language and assume you know more about exercise than you actually do.  And of course, we go along with it rather than admit we don’t know what they’re talking about for fear of looking stupid.

The exercise depicted in the illustration is apparently called the plank.  It’s an exercise designed to strengthen abdominals, the back and shoulders, and good at helping develop a six-pack apparently (whatever that is!).  I know this not because I’m turning into some kind of fitness fanatic, my mid-life crisis has long since passed, but because when the physio asked me what I thought of the plank, he was somewhat puzzled by my reply when I said I rated it as one of Eric Syke’s finest pieces of work. Embarrassing!

Anyway, like all embarrassing things we want to forget about, we inevitably keep encountering reminders of them over and over again!  Tonight, while looking for an article on something entirely unconnected to exercise, golf-buggies or broken limbs, I came across a new paper by Priebe and Spink that uses the plank in an experiment designed to explore the psychological power of expectations.

In the study, the experimenters took around 70 regular gym-goers and asked them to perform the plank to the point of exhaustion.  After a suitable rest, they then asked them to perform the plank a second time.  Under normal circumstances, individuals perform better on the first attempt and, indeed, in this study the control group averaged a performance drop of around 18% in the time they were able to hold the position.

Here’s the intriguing thing, though… a second experimental group were falsely told that 80% of people in their age group normally hold the position for 20% longer on the second attempt.  The outcome?  Well, the group given false information achieved a 5% increase in the average time they were able to hold the plank position!  So, simply being told that most people do better second time around led them to buck-the-norm and conform to their false expectations.  Mind over matter?  Not really… this is a great example of social norms messaging at work.  Although some of us like to think we are rebels, we aren’t in practice.  We want to be different, but not too different, so we tend to conform to social norms (or what we believe the norms to be, in this case).

Ever stayed in a hotel and seen the little sticker asking us to “help the environment” by only washing towels if absolutely necessary?  Some people go along with that request, most don’t.  I personally go one step further and make sure every towel is washed every day, whether I’ve used it or not, just to annoy the hotel by not helping it reduce its operating costs!  Messages stating how many people have helped the environment by reusing their towels work far better, while messages stating the percentage of people staying at that specific room reusing towels will work best of all.  The power of the social norm at its best.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, if you’re involved in coaching in any type of sport, Priebe and Spink’s work suggests a “little white lie” about average performance levels can go a long way in helping boost individual performance. Similarly, the work on hotel towels suggests that messages crafted around social norms can be very effective in changing behaviour in a social marketing context, whether we want to encourage people to take more exercise, quit smoking or eat their greens.

I’m probably a lost cause on all these healthy counts, alas, and my embarrassment over the Eric Sykes movie simply means I’ve never been back to physiotherapy since!  So, I guess I will just build up my upper arm strength in other ways (probably my lifting the TV remote) and watch the only video on the plank I ever want to see…..

“Trust me, I’m the Doctor”

DrWhoAlthough by no means a new area of research, the subject of parasocial relationships has suddenly become quite topical again in recent months.  For the uninitiated, a parasocial relationship is one we share with a fictional character, rather than a real person.  The sudden resurgence of interest probably tells us a great deal about how we live our lives today and our retreat into the digital world as real-life becomes ever more grim!

 

A particular trend has been the growth of personality tests that liken us not to some stereotype determined by traits and states but, rather, according to how we compare to someone who doesn’t really exist anyway.  Fans of the St Trinians movies, for instance, may be classified according to whether they are “geeks”, “chavs”, “emos”, “posh totty” and the like.  The underlying logic is that these fictional types not only classify us as individuals, they also provide considerable insight into the role models we draw on to help us decide what to do in particular situations and to generally help us lead our lives.  It’s an interesting idea, but does it actually hold true?

A recent paper in the journal Self and Identity seeks to answer this question and provides at least a degree of supporting evidence.  In a series of experiments, students presented with a series of situations (e.g. taking part in a competition) were asked not only what they would do, but who they would look to in deciding how to respond.  While close friends and family still represent the main role models in our lives, it seems that fictional characters we like (and often even those we don’t like at all!) still represent better sources of behavioural inspiration than casual acquaintances and work colleagues.  Interesting!

So, if I was seeking a fictional role model, who would I choose?  Well, the clue is in the accompanying picture but, just in case you are still in doubt, here’s a trailer for the greatest TV programme ever which just happens to be returning to BBC1 this coming Saturday evening!

Want people to ‘share’ more on Facebook? Scare them, turn them on, or take them jogging

frank-arousedIt’s a basic fact of social media marketing…the more your content is shared, the more likely it is people will buy.  We’ve known for some time that content that connects with a viewer in some way is more likely to encourage them to hit the ‘share’ button, as does amusing or novel content.   A recent paper by Jonah Berger in Psychological Science  gives us a deeper insight into how this all works, however.  Here’s the thing, it seems to be all about how aroused we are at the time we originally view the content.

In a series of experiments, Berger found that participants in an aroused state are more likely to share content on Facebook and other social media channels than members of a control group who are less aroused.  For instance, those shown a stimulating video hit the ‘share’ button far more often than those who’d viewed a more neutral  or calming video.  Similar results were obtained for participants who’d just finished physical exercise in comparison to  couch potatoes who’d just been relaxing with their feet up.  So, what’s going on here?

Cortical arousal is beneficial (like stress) up to a point.  If we weren’t aroused when crossing the road, for instance, we’d get hit by a truck pretty quickly!  Arousal keeps us alert and, in small doses, is a crucial survival mechanism.  As the literature on stress and illness tells us very clearly, however, sustained arousal can be damaging and emotions soon become harmful.  Raised levels of cortisol and adrenaline secretion, for instance, can seriously impair the immune system if left unchecked.

In the case of Berger’s sharing experiments, this is a classic demonstration of the psychological need to disperse arousal and allow the brain to “settle down” again.  Prolonged arousal in uncomfortable, so we engage in a behaviour designed to relieve the discomfort.  Berger’s experiments suggest that ‘sharing’ in part serves this function because, subconsciously, we feel we are transmitting some of our current arousal to other people in the process.  This explains why emotion-inducing content (e.g. funny advertisements) are shared at a much higher rate, something we’ve known for a very long time, but also – crucially – why seemingly neutral content can be too.  If we are aroused by something else (e.g. a good workout), we still ‘share’ even if the content in itself is dull-as-dishwater!

Ok, what’s the rub for marketers here?  Well, content that induces states of high cortical arousal promotes sharing, so carry on making those funny, sexy or scary ads, but remember too that people aroused by something totally unconnected will also be more likely to share your content.  My advice, if you want to improve your sharing rates on Facebook, find a way to target users just after they’ve seen the latest horror movie or, better still, while they’re out jogging – in Berger’s experiments, the latter worked best of all because joggers share content at three times the rate humble couch potatoes like me do!