Happiness hyped, ethnic competition and power poses

Aiming for happiness can stress you out. White and Asian students feel at a disadvantage in college admissions. And striking powerful poses before a job interview (hands on hips, feet spread, chin up) can make you come across as more hirable.

UC Berkeley psychologist Iris Mauss has found that the pursuit of happiness can backfire
UC Berkeley psychologist Iris Mauss has found that the pursuit of happiness can backfire

These are among the UC Berkeley findings that psychologists will share at this week’s annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas. More than 3,500 scientists and scholars have registered for the Feb. 12-15 conference that is popular with UC Berkeley psychology faculty, researchers and students.

A key theme at this year’s conference is the growing relationship between psychology, big data and social media. Speakers on that topic will include Facebook social psychologist Adam Kramer, Microsoft computer scientist Eric Horvitz and Google and Harvard University data researcher Jean Baptiste.

“Some of the most exciting and important discoveries about social and personality psychology are now the domain of computer science, engineering, and communication,” says the promo for the event’s Presidential Symposium. “Rather than marvel on the sidelines, it’s time to jump into the fray and work with colleagues in computer sciences, engineering, and other disciplines.”

The downside of the pursuit of happiness

On the more fundamental topic of how we manage emotions, UC Berkeley psychologist Iris Mauss and fellow researcher Maya Tamir of Hebrew University will present their newest findings on the paradoxical question of why aiming for happiness can be detrimental to one’s sense of well-being.

In two previous studies published in the journal, Emotion, the researchers found that people who placed a higher premium on happiness reported higher rates of stress, discontent and even depression than those who did not set a happiness goal. The results suggest that the proverbial pursuit of happiness can actually heighten awareness of how one is falling short of that goal. Their newest research expands on this irony.

“People who strive for greater happiness will evaluate their own emotions more negatively, even if they are relatively happy,” Mauss said. “Conversely, people who accept their own emotions for what they are will evaluate them less negatively, even if they are relatively unhappy. ”

Ethnic competition in admissions

As for the pursuit of diversity, Victoria Plaut, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, will present findings on how bringing up diversity on university admission applications can intensify a sense of ethnic competition.

In an experiment, Plaut and fellow researchers Michelle Rheinschmidt of UC Berkeley and Kimberly Rios of Ohio University directed more than 430 white, Asian and Latino undergraduates to fill out mock graduate school applications. While some wrote about student diversity, others wrote about personal creative influences. The students then rated the applications according to how much they felt they favored or handicapped their own particular ethnic group.

The results suggest that when whites were more attuned to diversity (by writing an essay about it), they perceived themselves to be at a greater disadvantage in the admissions process than both Asian and Latino applicants. Asian students sensed that Latino students had an edge over them in admissions while Latino students thought the application was equally fair to all applicants. Surprisingly, white students were more likely to support diversity initiatives after writing about the issue.

“The finding that students are reading advantage or disadvantage to their racial group into these applications, based simply on a diversity essay prompt, reflects our larger societal sensitivity about these issues,” Plaut said.

Power poses can help land a job

Another intriguing area of research to be presented at the conference is how striking “power poses” can enhance one’s performance in a job interview, among other stressful situations.

In one study — conducted by UC Berkeley assistant business professor Dana Carney, Harvard social psychologists Amy Cuddy and Carolyn Wilmuth Maarten and MIT’s Andy J. Yap — subjects prepared for a mock job interview, with half adopting  expansive poses (hands on hips, feet apart, chin up), and the other half keeping their gestures constrained.

Next, they were videotaped as they delivered  speeches, and their presentations were rated for overall performance and hireability. As predicted, those who prepared for the job interview by adopting expansive poses performed better and were more likely to be chosen for the job.

Scientists Call for Screening Mammography Every Two Years for Most Women

Adoption of new guidelines recommending screening mammography every two years for women ages 50 to 74 would result in breast cancer screening that is equally effective, while saving the United States $4.3 billion a year in health care costs, according to a study led by UC San Francisco.

The study compares three possible mammography screening strategies with a model of current U.S. screening practices.

The article appears in the Feb. 4 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine.

The authors call for the adoption of guidelines developed in 2009 by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Under those guidelines, in addition to biennial screening for women age 50 to 74, women age 40 to 49 would be screened according to other risk factors, and women 75 and older would be screened depending on the presence or absence of other diseases.

The study was led by Laura J. Esserman, MD, MBA, professor of surgery and radiology at UCSF and an internationally known leader in the field of breast cancer.

“The USPSTF guidelines are based on the best scientific evidence to date,” said Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Care Center. “What we need now is a better way to assess breast cancer risk and implement a more risk-based approach to screening. We have demonstrated that the resources for doing this are already in the system. We should redirect them to learning, enabling change and improving outcomes.”

$7.8 Billion in Breast Cancer Screenings

According to the authors’ estimate, approximately 70 percent of women in the U.S. were screened for breast cancer in 2010, at a cost of $7.8 billion. Some women are screened annually, some biennially, and some are screened on an irregular basis.


The scientists compared this current picture of breast cancer screening with three simulated models:

1. Annual screening of 85 percent of women age 40 to 84, in accordance with recommendations from the American Cancer Society and many other policymaking organizations, at an annual estimated cost of $10.1 billion;

2. Biennial screening of 85 percent of women age 50 to 70, in line with guidelines used in many European countries, at an annual estimated cost of $2.6 billion; and

3. Screening in accordance with USPSTF recommendations, which the authors estimate would cost $3.5 billion per year at a screening rate of 85 percent.

“Over the last decade, in study after study, it has become very clear that – apart from limited, specific high-risk groups – biennial screening is as effective as annual screening mammography,” said Esserman. “At the same time, annual screening is associated with a greater likelihood of false positive results, which have an adverse impact on women’s well-being and quality of life. From the viewpoint of women’s health, the USPSTF screening recommendations make sense.

“We can go one step further and learn who is at risk for what kind of breast cancer, and over time, further tailor screening by adjusting the age to start and frequency as well as include recommendations for prevention,” Esserman said.

Lead author Cristina O’Donoghue, MD, currently at the University of Illinois at Chicago but with UCSF at the time of the study, noted that the billions of dollars saved from avoiding less-effective mammography screening could be used to improve women’s health.

“We could increase women’s participation in screening, improve routine assessment of breast cancer risk and referral services for women at high risk, offer better genetic counseling for women with a family history of breast cancer and work on improving the quality of screening, with an emphasis on higher-quality mammography read by specialized mammographers,” said O’Donoghue. “These would be only some of the potential benefits of using our health care resources more intelligently.”

Co-authors of the study are Martin Eklund, PhD, of UCSF and Elissa Ozanne, PhD, of Dartmouth College.

The study was supported by the University of California and the Safeway Foundation.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.