Category Archives: Psychology

Do Spoilers Actually Ruin Stories?

Dodging spoilers on the internet is no easy task, especially if your ex is using them as a form of revenge. Many of us live in fear of reading a spoiler about our favorite TV show or an upcoming blockbuster.

But should we be working so hard to avoid spoilers? Do they actually ruin stories?

We’ve long assumed that the suspense makes a story interesting and the reason we keep on watching (or reading) is because we don’t know what happens next. Removing the element of surprise intuitively seems like it would make fiction less enjoyable.

Yet people rewatch their favorite movies all the time and read classic stories like “Romeo and Juliet,” even though they know what’s going to happen.

UC San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld wanted to put spoilers to the test in the most straightforward way possible: by spoiling stories for people.

According to his research, spoilers should really be called “enhancers”: people consistently enjoyed spoiled stories more than unspoiled stories in experiments.

But this doesn’t mean that plot doesn’t matter.

“The plot is in some ways like a coat hanger, displaying a garment,” said Christenfeld. “If it’s just a crumpled heap of fabric on the floor, you couldn’t admire the garment.”

Knowing the ending can be useful because it allows you to focus on other aspects of the narrative (characters, themes, style, symbolism) and to more easily understand how the story is unfolding.

Do high fives help sports teams win?

Hugs. High fives. Fist bumps. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychology professor, examined NBA games to see if there is a relationship between a team’s success and how often they touch.

FEATURING: Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley
and founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

The research highlighted in this video has been supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Fetzer Institute, and the John Templeton Foundation.

How we feel someone else’s pain

A neuroscientist from UC San Deigo —V.S. Ramachandran— recently spoke with the Greater Good Science Center about the relationship between empathy and mirror neurons:

“For example, pretend somebody pokes my left thumb with a needle. We know that the insular cortex fires cells and we experience a painful sensation. The agony of pain is probably experienced in a region called the anterior cingulate, where there are cells that respond to pain. The next stage in pain processing, we experience the agony, the painfulness, the affective quality of pain.

It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked—but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons.

So these [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”

Learn more about mirror neurons and the evolution of empathy with UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner:

 

Is The Secret To A Happy Marriage In Your DNA?

Are some people genetically predisposed to stay happily married? Researchers at UC Berkeley have found a major clue in our DNA.

Robert Levenson and his team have found a link between relationship fulfillment and a gene variant — known as the “short allele” — of the serotonin transporter gene. The gene is involved in the regulation of serotonin in the brain and can predict whether a person is attuned or oblivious to the emotional climate of their marriage.

In the study, Levenson found that participants with the short alleles were most unhappy in their marriages when there was a lot of negative emotion —like contempt— but were also happiest when positive emotions like humor were present. (About 30% of the population has this gene variation.)

On the other end of the spectrum, participants with long alleles were satisfied with their marriages regardless of the emotional atmosphere.

The influence of fatherhood on the science of Charles Darwin

There are drawings in Charles Darwin’s manuscripts that defy explanation — until we remember that Darwin and his wife Emma had a huge family of ten (rambunctious) children. Scholars believe that a young Francis Darwin —the naturalist’s son— drew this on the back of Darwin’s manuscript for On the Origin of Species.

UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has noted that Darwin’s family life may have inspired some of his scientific writing. When his daughter Annie died at age 10, Darwin started to have deep insights about the place of suffering and compassion in human experience.

That led him to argue, in The Descent of Man, that sympathy is our strongest instinct, sometimes stronger than self-interest, and he argued that it would spread through natural selection, for “the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

This point was totally forgotten by evolutionary science for quite some time. Well, given all the awful things humans do to each other, how could you make the case that sympathy is our strongest instinct?

The answer lies in the dependence and vulnerability of our children. Little baby chimpanzees eat by themselves; human babies can’t. Baby chimpanzees sit up on their own; you sit up a human baby, and they go, “Watch out, man, my head’s really big!” Boom!

Their heads are so big because their brains are so big. To fit their big heads through the human birth canal—which narrowed as we started to walk upright on the African savanna—our babies were born profoundly premature and dependent upon people to take care of them.

In fact, our babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the face of the Earth. And that simple fact changed everything. It rearranged our social structures, building cooperative networks of caretaking, and it rearranged our nervous systems. We became the super caregiving species, to the point where acts of care improve our physical health and lengthen our lives. We are born to be good to each other.

Watch how the vulnerability of our children transformed human relationships and made compassion essential to our survival:

 

 

 

We are built to be kind

Greed is good. Competition is natural. War is inevitable. Whether in political theory or popular culture, human nature is often portrayed as selfish and power hungry. UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner challenges this notion of human nature and seeks to better understand why we evolved pro-social emotions like empathy, compassion and gratitude.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, born from the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Keltner adds nuance to this concept by delving deeper into Darwin’s idea that sympathy is one of the strongest human instincts — sometimes stronger than self-interest.

Want to see more? Subscribe to Fig. 1 on YouTube

Exploring Urban Trends through Selfies

Vintage Selfie

The term ‘selfie’ took on a life of its own in 2013, especially after the Oxford English Dictionary selected it as the ‘international word of the year’. The Internet and mobile phones were awash in self-portraits as consumers purchased more smartphones with front-facing cameras – turning the selfie into a truly worldwide phenomenon.

Now, the Software Studies Initiative –– led by UCSD Comp Sci professor Lev Manovich –– has been working on a project called selfiecity, which investigates selfies using a mix of quantitative, theoretic and artistic methods.  Looking at five cities around the world, they randomly select 20,000-30,000 photos per city, per day.

Here are some of their findings:

  • People take less selfies than often assumed –– depending on the city, only 3-5% of images analyzed were actually selfies.
  • Moscow is at the bottom of the selfie smile index. (Bangkok is at the top.)
  • In every city analyzed, there are significantly more women selfies than men selfies.
  • Men over 30 share more selfies than women over 30. “Women may take them, but they don’t post them.”
  • And it’s a young person’s game. The median selfie age is 23.7 years.

What will they look at next? Perhaps Manovich will compare selfies taken in cities with those taken in suburbs or rural areas … or selfies that have professional polish with those of a more casual nature.

[The image above is from the Museum of the City of New York.]