Author Archives: Sara Moeller

Going for the Gold

The Winter Olympics have been a huge draw for many people this year. In fact, for Americans and Canadians, they have dominated the television ratings since opening night. Given the excitement of many of the sports, it’s not surprising the games have garnered so much attention. In fact, when comparing these games to the Summer Olympics, it seems that many of the featured sports are considered rather extreme and dangerous. There is snowboarding, which landed one American Olympic hopeful in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury prior to the games. Then there are the high speed sports of skeleton and luge, which involves athletes sledding on a track either head first (in the case of skeleton) or feet first (in the case of luge) with no protection other than a helmet. The danger of these latter two sports has been especially apparent following the death of a Georgian athlete during a training run in which he was traveling at an estimated 89 miles per hour.

So why is it that so many athletes not only choose to participate in a sport with such risk but seem to be constantly pushing themselves to more extreme levels? One possible answer comes from the personality psychology literature and is related to a trait called Sensation Seeking. This individual difference, which is thought to vary from person to person, is often characterized by 4 behaviors: Thrill and Adventure Seeking, Experience Seeking, Disinhibition, and Boredom Susceptibility. Not surprisingly, individuals who score high in this measure are more likely to engage is risky behavior that is known to be thrilling and provide high levels of excitement. Also not surprisingly, athletes who participate in extreme sports (such as skydiving) rate especially high on this measure. What’s also interesting is some researchers have argued that sensation seeking involves addictive-like components. Namely, high sensation seekers experience a “rush” when engaging in risky behaviors but often need to engage in even riskier behavior soon after to experience this same feeling.

It’s no wonder then that so many athletes who participate in the Winter Olympics are returning every 4 years with bigger and faster maneuvers. When competing in a sport filled with people who are always looking for their next rush, the words “Go big or go home” become a way of life.

The Danger of Winter Olympic Sports.

Meertens, R. M., & Lion, R. (2008). Measuring an individual’s tendency to take risks: The Rick Propensity Scale. Journal of Applied Psychology.

The Look of Young Hollywood

This month Vanity Fair magazine released their Young Hollywood issue, featuring celebrities that they proclaim are the new wave in Hollywood. However, a quick glance at the cover reveals that their selections seem to be particularly homogenous: all of the picks are attractive, thin, white, and female. Undoubtedly some of the recognition is deserved – the issue features actresses from Oscar nominated films (Anna Kendrick) and incredibly popular movie franchises (Kristen Stewart). But notably missing are minority actresses such as Gabourey Sidibe, who is an Oscar nominee for her starring role in the film Precious, and Zoe Saldana, who was widely acclaimed for her roles in Star Trek and Avatar.

The so-called “white-washing” of the Vanity Fair cover may be due to a number of factors. One possible reason is the selections may simply reflect the lack of diversity that has been present in Hollywood for decades. Another possible reason may be the “halo effect”.  Particularly, as has been seen in the impression formation literature, attractive individuals are often attributed with a number of other positive qualities (i.e., warmth, competence, intelligence). Thus, it might be the case that celebrities such as Sidibe and Saldana, who do not meet the traditional Hollywood standards of beauty, are not appropriately recognized for their talent while actresses who do meet these standards are praised before they’ve actually had a chance to prove themselves.

What is particularly surprising is that past issues of Vanity Fair have featured a more diverse set of actors, including minorities and a mix of men and women. It has only been in the past few years that those recognized have begun to look more and more similar. It remains to be seen whether the magazine, and Hollywood, will continue this trend into the next decade.

USA Today: Vanity Fair criticized for the lack of diversity.

Fiske, S. T. (2000). Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination at the seam between the centuries. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Kruglanski, A. W., & Ajzen, I. (1983). Bias and error in human judgment. European Journal of Social Psychology.

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

What Striking The Harp And Joining The Chorus May Say About You

The holiday season brings with it a number of traditions, including (my personal favorite) around the clock radio play of Christmas songs and music. And while one’s preference for Christmas carols may simply reflect an abundance of Christmas spirit, recent work has shown that your taste in music may also reflect certain aspects of your personality. Peter Rentfrow and Sam Gosling have found that traits from the Big 5 trait taxonomy relate to preferences for different musical styles. For instance, individuals high in Agreeableness and Extraversion are fond of upbeat and energetic music, those high in Emotional Stability and Openness to Experience listen more to styles that are musically complex, and those high in Conscientiousness prefer conventional music.

Based on these findings, Rentfrow and Gosling continued to investigate how musical preferences may relate to personality and social processes. In 2006, they found that individuals were able to accurately infer the personality of a stranger based on their music preferences. In this study, published in Psychological Science, when judging the personality of unknown others, people were most accurate in determining levels of Openness to Experience and Extraversion. Moreover, when making their judgments, observers used some of the musical attributes (i.e., energy) discussed above.

In other words, your musical tastes may inform both you and others about certain aspects of your personality. And because people use different musical attributes to make these judgments, your song selection may influence how others view you. When hosting your holiday celebrations, if you want to appear more sociable, you might want to choose songs that are especially upbeat and cheerful. I recommend starting with A Very Merry Chipmunk.

Alvin and the Chipmunks – The Chipmunk Song

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2006). Message in a ballad: The role of music preferences in interpersonal perception.

Never Gonna Give You Up

800px-StudyingIt is generally assumed that telling friends and family about your current goals is beneficial. A great deal of research has shown that when people explicitly state their intentions, they are more likely to follow through. This might be for a number of reasons including the need for self-consistency and the benefits of social support.

However, a recent investigation showed that publicizing your goals may actually lead to a lower likelihood of working toward them. In 4 studies, Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues (2009) asked people to report how important certain goals were to them. These responses were then turned into the experimenter who read them over (making them socially known) or set it aside without looking at them (making them private). Following this, the students completed tasks that were related to their goals. In all studies, they found that while both groups were made up of people strongly committed to their goals, it was people who kept their goals private that were more likely to actually engage in behaviors that were consistent with their intentions.

This finding, while somewhat surprising, is actually consistent with work done by classic theorists such as Kurt Lewin. Namely, the act of stating one’s intentions publicly is symbolic and creates a premature feeling of success, leading people to feel as if they’re already on their way to achieving their goals. In turn, this false sense of accomplishment makes people less likely to engage in the necessary behaviors for achieving those goals. And with this, I’m off to work on some of my own goals, none of which I can or should tell you about.

square-eye Does announcing your goals help you succeed?

square-eye Gollwitzer et al. (2009). When intentions go public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?

Benevolent Sexism and Hollywood

HannahmileyThis week some people in Hollywood have drawn attention to a double standard regarding photos of two teenage stars. In 2008, the 15 year old teen singer and actress Miley Cyrus appeared in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine in which she was shirtless and wrapped in a sheet. Shortly after these images were released, many criticized the photographer and magazine for taking advantage of the young star and sexualizing her to sell magazines.

taylorlautner

A similar phenomenon is currently occurring, but this time with Taylor Lautner, one of the teenage stars of Twilight. Many of the promotional images and videos for the film have featured the 17 year old start appearing shirtless. However, unlike with the situation involving Cyrus, there has been little criticism or media attention about his photos and whether the marketing campaign unfairly sexualizes him to promote the movie.

This double standard, that a young male can appear shirtless to help publicize his movie while his female counterpart is criticized for similar behavior has brought attention to the differential treatment of men and women in Hollywood. Consequently, many are left wondering why only the Miley Cyrus pictures brought such staunch criticism while the Lautner ones have not. One possible explanation is that of benevolent sexism (Glick & Fiske, 1997). Ambivalent Sexism Theory states that sexism may exist in two forms: hostile or benevolent. Hostile sexism seeks to relegate women to subordinate roles typically through overt and derogatory characterizations. Benevolent sexism, while problematic because it also relegates women to subservient roles, is often more covert. This form of sexism typically views women as weak or objects that need to be protected.

From this perspective then, widely held benevolent views may prompt people to act protective of the female Cyrus  and characterize her as being otherwise unable to take care of herself. Conversely, the male Lautner is not viewed as helpless and escapes any potential scandal. Such behavior, or in this case the lack of action, may be at least one illustration of modern sexism.

square-eyeA Hollywood Double Standard?

square-eyeGlick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1997). Hostile and Benevolent Sexism.

The Dangers of Thin Being In

Cp_LOreal_fashion_weekOne of the top stories this past week has been the model whose image was digitally altered to appear slimmer. The 5’10”, 120 pound model, Filippa Hamilton, was also fired by designer Ralph Lauren earlier this year for reportedly being “too fat”. She was shocked to see the retouched image, in which she looks to be emaciated with her waist appearing to be smaller than her head. While Ralph Lauren claimed the image was mistakenly released, Hamilton fears that the effect of the picture will have a lasting impact on women and their image of what a woman should look like.

Hamilton’s fears are legitimate and supported by a great deal of empirical data. In one study, Shorter and colleagues found that women who felt that their body-shape was discrepant from their favorite celebrity were more likely to report dysregulated and bulimic eating patterns. Moreover, Glauert et al. found that women who internalized a thin Western ideal reported being less satisfied by their body.

This relationship between celebrity ideals and body dissatisfaction is troubling given that many female celebrities and models are considered underweight. In an effort to create a more positive public image, as well as help protect the health of many models, some designers have started to use larger models. Last month, designer Mark Faust featured plus size models in his collection and Glamour magazine has pledged to feature more normal and plus sized models. By changing the standard for beauty, some hope to curb the unrealistic ideals held by many women.

square-eye New York Daily News. Model fired for being too fat.

square-eye London Fashion Week and Mark Faust

square-eyeShorter, Brown, Quinton, & Hinton (2008). Relationships between body-shape discrepancies with favored celebrities and disordered eating in young women.

square-eyeGlauert, Rhodes, Byrne, Fink, & Grammer (2008). Body dissatisfaction and the effects of perceptual exposure on body norms and ideals.

Texting and Scare Tactics

TextingA recent Welsh video that addresses the dangers of texting while driving has become an internet phenomenon with over 7 million views to date. The video, which will be shown in schools in this fall, features a teenager texting while driving, resulting in a graphic car crash that kills her passengers.

The creators of the ad argue that in order to capture the attention of teenagers, it is necessary for the video to be shocking and violent. However, some critics are skeptical about whether the ad will actually reduce the behavior, especially in the long-term. Health and social psychological research has looked extensively at the efficacy of fear arousing messages when it comes to changing behaviors.

In a recent article, Cameron and Chan (2008) discuss what persuasive elements may help in promoting health behaviors. It is commonly assumed that messages that evoke fear will prompt action; however, many studies have shown that highly evocative messages may actually lead to avoidance and fail to change behavior. In the health communication field, they find that fear arousing messages can be effective but only when coupled with other factors. For instance, when joined with an implementation plan, these messages have a better chance of changing behavior. Moreover, imagery may be effective in persuasive messages but only to the extent that it can directly relate the threat to the recommended plan of action.

While the commercial may be successful in garnering attention, ongoing research brings into question how effective it will be in terms of permanently changing behavior.

square-eye New York Times: Driven to Distraction

square-eye Cameron, L. D., & Chan, C. K. (2008). Designing Health Communications: Harnessing the Power of Affect, Imagery, and Self-Regulation.

A Time to Repay

800px-Credit-cards

In tough economic times, financial experts often recommend reducing debt as much as possible. For many people, this debt stems from credit cards. The credit card industry has been scrutinized in recent months due to a number of questionable practices, such as dramatic raises in interest rates and reductions in credit limits with little to no notice. To combat these issues, the U.S. government has passed a bill to better protect consumers from actions that they feel are unfair and burdensome. Many hope that these protective measures will better allow consumers to get out of debt.

However, a recent study in Psychological Science highlights how less overt factors may be at least partly to blame for the credit card debt that plagues many people. Classic work by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) has shown that people tend to anchor to arbitrary numbers when making decisions. Additionally, a recent study shows that anchoring is particularly problematic when it comes to credit card statements. In his work, Neil Stewart (2009) gave participants a mock credit card bill that featured a minimum repayment amount or an identical statement with no such repayment amount. He then asked them to state how much of the credit card balance they would pay off.

Stewart found that people anchored to the minimum repayment amount and stated that they would pay less of the credit card balance when compared to people who were not given a repayment amount. From this work, one might conclude that changes to billing practices, particularly the presentation of billing information, may go a long way in reducing mental biases and help consumers get out of debt.

square-eyeThe Real Problem With Creditholders: The Cardholders

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Stewart, N. (2009). The Cost of Anchoring on Credit-Card Minimum Repayments.

Feeling the Weight of our Decisions

ClipboardThe embodied cognition perspective has gained notable attention in the last few years by demonstrating the powerful relationships between the mind, body, and environment. At the center of this perspective is the idea that cognition is grounded in sensory processes, such that bodily sensations can affect cognitive processing. Evidence for this idea has been found in physical warmth affecting ratings of interpersonal liking (Williams & Bargh, 2008), as well as head movements influencing agreement with arguments about university issues (Wells & Petty, 1980).

Most recently, Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert (2009) found that the concept of importance can be understood in sensory experiences related to weight. Jostmann and colleagues predicted that individuals who had a physical experience that involved more weight would consequently judge issues as being more important. They found support for this idea across 4 studies. In particular, they found that people who held a heavier clipboard rated issues relating to money, justice, and policy as being more important when compared to individuals who made the ratings using a lighter clipboard. Moreover, in a study where participants made ratings about subway construction in the city, they found that people holding the heavier clipboard (and thus viewing the issues as more important) engaged in more cognitive elaboration and were more confident in their decision compared to those who held a lighter clipboard.

Work of this type gives us a deeper appreciation for the relationship between sensory experiences and cognition, and how easily our judgments might be influenced by our physical states.

square-eyeJostmann, N. B., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. W. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance.

$1.99 Balcetis, E., & Cole, S. (2009). Body in Mind: The Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation.