Monthly Archives: January 2010

Helping Hands: Sharing Among Survivors

Earlier this week the search for survivors of the devastating earthquake in Haiti ended. Current estimates suggest that upwards of 200,000 people may have perished, and efforts now turn to the approximately 3 million Haitians affected by the quake. They are in need of everything from medical care to housing, but most importantly food. Despite the outpouring of both monetary and other aid internationally, getting help to those in need has proven difficult. New York Times columnist Damien Cave highlighted Hatian’s struggle to find food in a recent article emphasizing that even in such dire circumstances sharing and fairness are held in high regard among survivors.  Stealing food is a capital offense and those who are able to find food no matter how much or how little are expected to share. Some have taken an even larger role in the recovery process setting up makeshift soup kitchens.

Some suggest that no act is every truly selfless since donors receive positive psychological benefits (e.g., boost in self-esteem, positive affect, etc.) among other possible rewards. Current research indicates that altruistic actions  are motivated by empathic concern intended to end the suffering of others as opposed to reducing negative arousal in the self (Stocks, Lishner, & Decker, 2009). Whether there are intrinsic or extrinsic benefits to helping others, survivors are showing that there is an alternative to the “every man for himself” attitude. Either by sharing what little they have or pooling their remaining resources to help as many as possible Haitians are embodying a community spirit in which altruism thrives. One can only hope that these efforts will continue and that much needed resources will reach those much in need.

Fighting Starvation, Haitians Share Portions

Altruism or psychological escape: Why does empathy promote prosocial behavior?

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Underdog-matic: Loyalty to Conan Brings a Nation Together!

American culture has always rallied around the underdog – perhaps because we can always see a little bit of ourselves in anyone who is not expected to win. After all, we are a nation of immigrants who had to fight against all the odds to make the American Dream a reality. And although we may have long forgotten about our ancestors’ particular struggles, that sense of longing for fairness and justice, that desire to take on “The Man” and win, remains an essential element of the American psyche.

Although the research is in its infancy, the underdog effect has found support. In short, we pull for underdogs and give them a relatively steadfast sympathy, so long as their fate has little bearing on our own personal lives and when the impact, in the larger scheme of things, is relatively minimal; indeed, backing an underdog financially is a completely different beast!

Given the recent Conan O’Brien-Jay Leno-NBC late night drama that happened right before our eyes on live TV, we find ourselves yet again anecdotally substantiating what Americans have been known for all along – loving those underdogs. Robert Lloyd of the L.A. Times reports that, towards the very end of Conan’s stunted seven-month run as “Tonight Show” host, the audience – including non-regular Conan lovers – chanted his name and guests starting appearing on the show just to show support, with nothing to sell. As Lloyd laments that “[Conan] is the picked-upon odd kid in all of us… lovable, where Leno [is]… a creature of the establishment,” we truly understand why so many of us cheered for Conan: as an underdog, he represents a possibility – that eventually he’ll get back on track, on some network, and will be better than ever. And if he can rise out of this mess and end up winning – then by golly, so can I.

Late Night Watch: Conan O’Brien, NBC and the storm before the calm

Rooting for (and Then Abandoning) the Underdog

Social order in Haiti

After early reports of post-earthquake chaos, news agencies are reporting instances of Haitians creating social order. The New York Times reported that starving Haitians are sharing their intermittent meals, as “new rules of hunger etiquette are emerging.” A portion of chicken, once appropriate for two people, might now be shared with 20.

This may be a sign of failings of the aid community, or of problems at the airport that prevent incoming planes, loaded with food, to land. But in any case, no matter how desperate they are, Haitians are following new unwritten rules about how to deal with their traumatic state, about how to get along with others who are equally desperate.

However disorderly Haiti may appear, Haitians are not in a state of chaos. Following the insights of Harold Garfinkel and ethnomethodology, Haitians are engaged in the everyday co-production of order, in this case including the collective but bottom-up process of dealing with being in a food crisis. There are no doubt myriad other examples of how life in Haiti, even now, continues to be orderly and functional. Now, if only the food would arrive.

The Situation with The Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore, a reality show on MTV that experienced high ratings and a great deal of media attention, wrapped up its first season last week and the cast is already negotiating salaries for a second season. The show involved 8 roommates who worked, lived, and partied at Seaside Heights in New Jersey. And while the series was met with disapproval from advertisers and the media for a number of reasons, including excessive drinking and violence by and against cast members, one of the strongest criticisms has been the perpetuation of the Guido stereotype.

Throughout the series, the cast members frequently referred to themselves as guidos and guidettes, a term considered derogatory by many Italian-Americans. Moreover, the roommates frequently reinforced and placed a great deal of value on what are considered negative and stereotypical qualities (for instance, Snooki – who is pictured above – describes her perfect man as “Italian, dark, muscles, juice-head, guido”). While endorsement of negative in-group stereotypes may seem problematic to some, the social psychological literature can help us to understand why people might engage in this process.

Much research has shown that negative stereotypes can have detrimental effects on stigmatized individuals, including losses of self-esteem and poor test performance. However, more recent work has shown that stigmatized individuals may endorse negative in-group stereotypes in order to buffer their self-image. Specifically, rather than letting stereotypes affect the self in a negative way, stigmatized individuals may combat the damaging effects of stereotyping by justifying the existence of these labels or reframing them as something positive. This strategic behavior, while not always conscious to the individual, is thought to be a way to manage threats to self-esteem and performance.

The controversy surrounding The Jersey Shore may be somewhat deserved but as a psychologist, I can’t help but hope the series returns next year. Each episode is rich with behaviors that can be understood using personality and social psychological theory. So until next year, don’t forget The Situation and Pauly D’s advice: GTL – Gym, Tan, Laundry.

Companies Pull Ads from Jersey Shore

Italian-American Group Angered over Jersey Shore

Jost, J. T., Ledgerwood, A., & Hardin, C. D. (2008). Shared reality, system justification, and the relational basis of ideological beliefs. Social and Personality Psychology Compass

Women with hairy legs – an oxymoron?

The Daily Telegraph (and other media channels) reported that the actress Mo’Nique caused quite a stir at the Golden Globe Awards, not only for winning an award, but also for her ‘fashion faux pas’. That is, she had hairy legs. Such reactions tell us something about gendered identities and specifically about cultural notions of what is means to be a woman.

The negotiation and representation of women’s identities centre around what is called ‘emphasized femininity’ (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). That is ‘emphasized femininity’ is a normative femininity, which is oriented to accommodating the interests and needs of men. It presents as the current most honored way of being a woman, even though most women do not enact it. However all women are required to position themselves, and are positioned by others, in relation to this ideal form (Giddens, 2009). Specific practices associated with ‘emphasized femininity’ include presenting oneself as ‘sexually attractive’ by being ‘well-groomed’. In other words, removing body hair other than on the head (and perhaps the genitalia). Those that fail to conform to this norm tend to be held accountable.

Hairy moment for Golden Globes winner

Emphasized femininity

Femininity and Feminine Values

Conscious or Unconscious Aromas?

People go to great lengths to conceal bad odors or enhance pleasant ones. For example, a store shelf will reveal a myriad of deodorants while upscale name brand perfumes may be “designed to capture the essence of a garden on the Nile”. In fact, celebrities are capitalizing by adding their names to the bottle of perfume. An NPR news report cites rapper 50 Cent, as selling the “smell of success” in a bottle.  Even more, markets not normally associated with perfume are beginning to introduce their own products. The implication of these developments is the importance of others noticing the “smell of success” or the scent of “a garden on the Nile” when near you.

However, if the purpose of wearing perfume is to look favorably in other people’s eyes then according to research by Li, Moallem, Paller, and Gottfried (2007) people are taking the wrong approach. It appears that the best way to influence someone’s social preference is to wear perfume that is perceived outside of consciousness. The researchers found that pleasant odors presented unconsciously produced more favorable ratings of faces. Contrary to general perception, favorable ratings were not found when presenting pleasant scents consciously. It remains unclear, however, if the findings will hold in social interactions.  If so, how close would people have to stand next to each other for the effect to occur?

Read more: Money in a bottle

Hear more: Russian perfume

Li, W., Moallem, I., Paller, K.A., & Gottfried, J.A. (2007) Subliminal smells can guide social preferences.

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Why people choose to kill? The allure of terrorism.

The 23-year-old Nigerian who boarded an international flight for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear on Christmas Day reminded many people of the important lessons they learned from Sept. 11. Terrorism attracts worldwide attention again. Many people, especially the psychologists, start to think more about the motivation of terrorism and solution to it. What do the terrorists who attempted to strike U.S. territory in common? What is the allure of terrorism? Is religion the only reason?

Without systematic testing and empirical data it would be hubris to conclude that any social psychological model offers a solution in the fight against terror. Nevertheless, psychologists are trying to understand the motivation of terrorism from different perspectives. For example, in seeking to understand terrorism as an outcome of group identities and intergroup conflict, psychologists seek to understand the dynamics of heroic self-sacrifice and loyal commitment among actors who at the same time direct horrific violence to unwitting targets. They seek to evaluate terrorists’ motivations by solidarity with in-group members under threat, by passionate struggles against injustice, by complex learned and intuited political calculations, and by emergent group identities and norms.

For example, according to social identity theory, individuals are proposed to have not only identities as individuals but also identities as social groups. As people identify themselves as group members they can become motivated to see that group as distinct from and better than other groups. When people identify with a group in conflict, a self-sacrificing action may be seen as psychologically beneficial even though the action leads to harmful consequences on an individual level, because the action benefits the group which is a part of themselves. It is group norms for appropriate behavior which in turn shape beliefs about the benefit or cost to the group of actions such as terrorism (Louis, 2009).

The Allure of Terrorism (The New York Times)

Louis, W. R. (2009).Terrorism, Identity, and Conflict Management. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 433–446.

Louis, W. R. (2010).Teaching and Learning Guide for: Terrorism, Identity, and Conflict Management. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 89-92.

Kids Tomorrow!

The implications of the fast-paced technological advances in the last decade reach further than what they allow us to do, changing the very nature of social interaction. New York Times columnist Brad Stone addresses this issue citing that children today are growing up in a completely distinct technological world relative to those just ten years older. Such rapid advances could create generation gaps in skills and aptitude as small as 2 to 3 years apart. Stone cites entertainment and communication as two major areas where technology has impacted behavior (e.g., teenagers send more texts and play more online games than people in their twenties). Some worry that this environment could create a generation of children who will come to expect instant access to everyone and everything potentially harming their ability to perform in school.

Research by Campbell and Park (2008) focuses on the increased mobility of technology in recent decades. They propose that a shift to a  ‘personal communication society’ is occurring that has symbolically changed the meaning of technology, created new forms of social networking, personalized public domain, and made the youth culture more mobile. Given the vast technological advances we have seen in the first decade of this new century it is almost impossible to imagine what changes are ahead and how fast they might come. Take heart though, if you can’t figure it out just ask the nearest eight-year old. She’ll know exactly what to do.

The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s

Campbel & Park (2008)

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The evolution of language

Doctor John Dolittle satisfied a nagging curiosity for young readers: What are animals saying? Even scientists can appreciate the premise behind Hugh Lofting’s children books, though not many likely seek the secret language of squid. For social psychologists, the evolution of language has been a fascination at least since the pragmatists.

The New York Times reports efforts to decipher early traces of language development among non-human primates. The review comes over 30 years after a Times reporter allegedly used sign language to communicate with a chimpanzee. More recently, scientists differentiated alarm calls by vervet monkeys, each one indicating a specific predator. Others suggested that baboons understand social hierarchy based on the order of sounds among their peers. And Campbell’s monkeys seem to add suffixes to alarm calls to signify whether a threat has been directly or indirectly observed.

Given that many non-human primates are physically able to generate human language sounds, the findings beg the question: How do we develop language while our relatives fail? Or in the words of the article author, Nicholas Wade, “What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?”

George Herbert Mead suggested that language development stems from a child’s ability, through early role-playing games, to take on the role of the other. The development of the self relates to the ability to recognize how others’ actions affect one’s own. Contrary to Wade’s suggestion that non-human primates simply cannot communicate their thoughts, Mead suggests that communication is at the root of, and in some sense precedes, human thought.

While the presence of primitive communication does not necessarily mean that Campbell’s monkeys are able to think like humans, we can still learn about language development by observing, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, how the words are used.

Run for the hills?

Many non-affiliated runners this year may be considering joining one of the many local running clubs in order to gain valuable support and knowledge for races later in the year. So what can social and sports psychologists tell us about the benefits/costs of joining a running club (or any other sports club or group)?

One of the main areas of interest for both sport (Widmeyer et al., 1992) and social psychologists (Forsyth, 1999) is group/team dynamics and cohesion. Research has identified a number of important factors that can influence the level or type of cohesion (e.g. task or social) and its effect on performance. These include: group size, propinquity (physical proximity between members), joining costs, leadership style(s) of the group, in-group competition and group success and similarity (Bray and Whaley, 2001). However what it is still unclear from the research, is to what extent these determinants encourage cohesiveness or indeed inhibit group development and performance. For example, research by Janis (1982) found that group similarity had a negative effect on performance.

For those who are contemplating joining a running or sports club it may prove more beneficial to shop around by attending a few (normally free) taster sessions to gain an insight into the club/group structure and dynamics and how that may effect their future running performance.

Joining a running club

Group cohesiveness

Group structure