Category Archives: Psychology

Do spoilers really ruin stories?

Game of Thrones

Spoilers give away endings before stories begin and the conventional wisdom is that they diminish suspense and ruin a story, but here’s the twist…

Research by UC San Diego psychologists find that spoilers make reading stories more enjoyable (Story spoilers don’t spoil stories).

How they tested it: Participants in the study were given a series of short stories that they hadn’t read before (covering a variety of genres: an ironic-twist story, a mystery, and a more evocative literary story).  Some participants were given a story with a paragraph that spoiled the story, while others were not.  They then rated the story in terms of enjoyment.

It turns out that most of the people for whom the story was “spoiled” reported enjoying it more than those who read it unprepared.

This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end (e.g., that the condemned man’s daring escape is just a fantasy as the rope snaps taut around his neck) or solved the crime (e.g., Poirot discovers that the apparent target of attempted murder was in fact the perpetrator). It was also true when the spoiler was more poetic.

What it means: Spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading — which is consistent with the idea that we can re-watch a movie or re-read a book and still enjoy it.

Read more about the research at NPR

She loves you, she loves you not

Whether in fiction or history, women have often gotten a bad rap for being fickle. But it may just be evolution. A landmark meta-analysis suggests that ovulating women have evolved to prefer mates who display ‘sexy traits’ (think muscular build, dominant behavior, symmetrical facial features). UCLA psychologist Martie Haselton, who is one of a handful of pioneers in research on behavioral changes at ovulation, explains that sexy traits are not typically desired in long-term mates.

“Women who were partnered with men, who at one point in the study they rated them as very satisfying long-term partners, but not the sexiest guys around –  those women experienced increases in attraction to men other than their partner on fertile days of the cycle. So, it’s as if women on fertile days place a premium on male partners’ sexiness and if their male partner isn’t sexy, then women start to notice other men.”

While these findings may seem depressing, Haselton argues that just understanding this can help couples improve their relationships when in conflict.

“Once you understand how your mind works, what the mechanisms are that might otherwise be passing under the radar of conscious awareness, you can ‘mind hack’ and do things to achieve whatever your goals are – so, to maintain a happy relationship with your partner, or maybe it’s to have a wild sex life, but whatever it is, if women understand that there are these patterned changes across the cycle, then they can probably make better sexual decisions.”

The mere notion that a woman’s mate preferences could shift at high fertility has been a source of debate since the late 1990s, when the first studies that hinted at such a change began to appear. Since then, several papers failed to replicate the early studies’ results, casting doubt on the hypothesis.

“Until the past decade, we all accepted this notion that human female sexuality was radically different from sexuality in all of these other animal species – that, unlike other species, human female sexuality was somehow walled off from reproductive hormones. Then a set of studies challenged conventional wisdom.”

One hypothesis for why this mate preference shift occurs is that it may be an evolutionary adaptation that served our ancestors’ reproductive interests long before modern medicine, nutrition and sanitation greatly reduced infant and child mortality rates.

This is a declarative sentence?

“Men don’t think they do it, but they do,” explains Amanda Ritchart, a linguistics grad student at UCSD.

‘It’ is uptalk, the oft-mocked conversational style that uses a rising pitch at the end of utterances. Here’s a classic example:

A coffee shop barista asks a person for his or her name. The person says their name almost as if it were a question (Mike?, Isabelle?), even though we know that this person is not actually questioning his or her name.

Although it’s associated with the caricature of valley girls (as seen in the 1995 movie Clueless)some linguists date it to the 1950s, while others argue it is centuries old.

To investigate the phenomena of uptalk, Ritchart and Amalia Arvanti gathered 23 undergraduates (who were native speakers of SoCal English*) and gave them two tasks:

  • Use a map to give directions to a listener.
  • Describe a sitcom clip they had just watched. (Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother were the chose sitcoms, in case you were wondering…)

“For young speakers in Southern California, no matter the gender, the ethnicity, the socioeconomic background, everyone uses uptalk,” Ritchart says.  The researchers found that uptalk could also serve a strategic purposes such as confirmation (“are you following me on this?”):

When giving directions, a non-uptalker would use a declarative sentence, without a rising inflection. But uptalkers did use rises, as if they were implicitly asking the listener to confirm that they were being understood: “Go all the way to the right in the middle where it says Canyon Hills?” Both the men and women in the study used uptalk 100 percent of the time in these so-called “confirming” statements.

In such instances, uptalk suggests confidence or paternalism (maybe even coercion).  Another technique the researchers identified was ‘floor-holding’ — where a speaker, anticipating being interrupted by the listener, tries to fight it off by using a rising tone at the end of the statement:

In the study, women spoke with the floor-holding rise nearly 60 percent of the time: “O.K., so go toward Warren” (pronounced as a high-rising “Waa—REN?”). Men used it only 28 percent of the time, tending instead to maintain steady voices, in a plateau. Amalia Arvaniti, a co-author of the study who is now head of the English language and linguistics department at the University of Kent in England, said, “It could indicate that young women were generally interrupted more than men and so it’s a defense mechanism.”

It’s easy to dismiss uptalk as the language of airheads, but in fact, it appears that it can be quite useful.

Arvanti added that the research doesn’t imply that Uptalk doesn’t happen outside of Southern California or that young men have only recently picked up uptalk:  ”The primary motivation was to document the form and function of uptalk in SoCal because there was so little systematic research on this particular variety compared to, say, Australian and New Zealand English uptalk and even UK varieties that uptalk.”

*11 male and 12 female. 15 monolingual and 8 bilingual. 12 self-identified as Asian, six as Hispanic, 5 as White.  Using the MacArthur Scale, the speakers were grouped into socioeconomic status classes: Lower (4), Middle (13), and Upper (6).

 

Experiments in Happiness

Being happy isn’t always easy.  Humans are complicated creatures and although our brains might be capable of performing wildly complex tasks, they can also sabotage our well-being.

“Not everyone is going to be naturally happy all the time,” Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests. As a professor of psychology at UC Riverside, she has devoted her career to the study of happiness: what is it, what it does, and why does it exist.

Her studies have investigated two components of happiness: cognitive (a sense of satisfaction with life) and emotional (the raw experience of joy). For many of us, experiencing these two components simultaneously is rare, but according to Lyubomirsky, “there are certain strategies we can all use to maximize our happiness.”

To uncover these strategies, Lyubomirsky and her team designed a series of experiments called “happiness interventions.”

In one of these studies, one set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another set was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness – but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore or, worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.

In fact, much of Lyubomirsky’s work explodes common myths and misunderstandings about happiness.

Read More →

The science of love …and why some couples last for life.


[Listen to Robert Levenson’s full interview with Science Today.]

Love can be a battlefield. So what makes a successful relationship?

Psychologist Robert Levenson (known for his work on the “marry me” gene) and his team at UC Berkeley had a hunch that the key to a relationship’s stability was the ability to deal with conflict.

So they gathered 156 middle-aged couples who had been married a long time. Every five years, these couples came to the lab and the researchers watched them interact and resolve arguments (while monitoring different physiological markers):

“When we started, we were convinced that it was all going to be about regulating the husband’s [emotional] temperature because men tend to get uncomfortable with conflict and want to solve it quickly. That was our hunch, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Couples who seemed to get happier over the 20-year study were those who could regulate the wife’s emotions.” [1]

The interesting thing was that it didn’t matter how quickly the husband cooled down after an argument, but it made a lot of difference how quickly the wife cooled down.

So is this a gender thing? Levenson isn’t certain that the results indicate gender differences.  The BIG caveat is that this is only a group of 156 couples (of a particular place and generation, with particular educational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds):

“In these groups there tends to be a confounding of gender with power.  So in many of these marriages the husband has more power.  In the older group they may have that because they’re the one who is more likely to have had a career.

And so we’re often not sure with these kinds of findings whether it has to do with women or it has to do with the person in the relationship who has less power.”

Levenson has also done research with same-sex couples (some of the only studies of this kind). In male/male and female/female couples, he noticed a similar pattern where the more powerful person ended up looking like the male in heterosexual relationships. Power and the desire to change a relationship were more powerful factors than a person’s gender.

The person with less power tends to want more change in the relationship. They tend to be more frustrated and less satisfied when the issues they raise aren’t resolved. ”It would be quite reasonable to think that the less powerful person would be the one for whom cooling down would be more critical,” he explains.

A whole new meaning to “Deadhead”

Picture 2013-09-17 at 3.33.11 PM
Above is a representation of former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s brain.  It will be used on his upcoming tour as both a visual and as a way for his mind to power the stage’s lighting.  Hart explains:

“I was just looking at it and watching it fire, and you see the colors moving and the different rhythm patterns and realizing, that’s me!”

We specify “representation” because the visuals are part of a collaboration between Hart and UCSF researcher Adam Gazzaley.  Gazzaley is quick to say that the images are stylized for the sake of special effects, but the method in which to read Hart’s brain in real time has much larger scientific and medical implications.

Read more here

Can a video game rejuvenate an elderly brain?

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Although there are a lot of video games out there that claim to help your brain, most have not been evaluated for this purpose.  A new study at UCSF finds that playing a brain training game for one month can rejuvenate cognitive control for people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley worked with video game developers to create NeuroRacer, a game which has users perform two task simultaneously (using a joystick to navigate a car and hitting a button whenever the player sees a particular road sign).

After training, their multitasking ability improved beyond the levels of 20-year-olds.  They also got better at remembering information and paying attention.

As people get older, they tend to adopt “more conservative strategies” when it comes to evaluating information and taking action (according to David Meyer, University of Michigan). But they haven’t necessarily lost the ability to act quickly: the video game may help in part because it simply encourages older people to adopt a less conservative strategy.

Read more on NPR