Headlines From Psychology, Part 5

Here’s part 5 of the stuff I learned in my undergrad in psychology that I thought should have been headlines. If you missed them, here are part 1part 2part 3, & part 4. As always, if you are interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll give you my sources.

If You Punish Your Kids, Use the Mildest Effective Punishment: Do the mildest thing you can that stops the behavior you don’t want. The reason is that a punishment that is harsher than necessary takes the child’s initiative for stopping the behavior out of the picture. If you say “Hey, don’t do that,” and the child responds, they come to think that they didn’t really want to do that thing anyway, since such a mild rebuke got them to stop. Psychologists call these principles “insufficient punishment” and “self-persuasion.” These are research findings, not just speculation. If you sit on and beat your child to get them to stop doing something (as suggested by Mike & Debi Pearl), they will believe something more like “That activity was so great that I’ve only stopped because of that horrible punishment.” In other words, the form of the punishment affects the identity of the child–do they behave well because they think of themselves as well-behaved, or do they behave well only because they fear punishment?

You May Want Your Kids To Be Less Blindly Obedient Than Most People: One of themost famous psychological experiments of all time found that most people risked killing someone they barely knew, given an institutional setting and an authority telling them to do it. The Nazis were mostly not evil, just obedient, like most of us.

Humans Can Be Conformist to the Point of Doubting Their Own Senses:

Each Ethical Decision You Make Affects Your Future Ethical Decisions and Your Identity: If you, say, decide to cheat on a test, you will be more likely to cheat on tests in the future, think of yourself as someone who cheats on tests, and form permissive attitudes about cheating. The opposite is true if you decide not to cheat on a test.

Complement Your Kids For the How Hard They Work, Not How Smart They Are:Getting attention for being smart tends to make kids want to appear smart, which makes them choose easier challenges and lighter competition; it’s the success that matters. Getting attention for hard work does the opposite. This means that these kids will end up smarter than the kids who got attention for being smart.

Teach Your Kids to Think About Intelligence as a Fluid Property: That is, teach them that they can become more intelligent by trying. The more they believe it, the more it will be true for them.

If Your Kids Read, Don’t Reward Them For Reading: They will be more likely to stop, if you do, because they will start to think of reading as something they do to be rewarded, not because they like it. If they don’t read, reward them for reading. This goes for other activities, too.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, March 4,2010.]

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Headlines From Psychology, Part 1

Going though my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was often surprised about information that was well known by the field that should have hit the headlines but never made a dent. In the end it was one of my reasons for going into therapy instead of experimental psychology. At one point I asked my social psychology teacher for an example of basic social psych research that had had a real impact on mainstream society. He could not give me one. I know that basic research is done to find stuff out, not to directly help people, and I support that. I also know that psychology is a baby science, and tackling a very complex set of phenomena, and doing a pretty good job. Still, I was disappointed. It is too bad, because a lot of useful and sometimes very important stuff has been discovered by experimental psychologists, and it is mostly just ignored.

Here are a few things I came across in my classes and reading that I thought should have been mainstream headlines. If you are interested in references, leave a comment and I will get them to you.

It Is Important to Talk to Your Baby, Even in the Womb: Your baby can hear and recognize your voice in your womb, is already learning your language, and wants to hear yourvoice.

It Is Important to Sleep With Your Baby: Babies are not born fully self-regulating. One way this shows up is that babies do not breath out enough carbon dioxide–sleeping with parents provides them with a pool of carbon dioxide that keeps the baby breathing deeply enough. Another benefit is that their 90 minute hunger cycle (waking and nursing each 90 minutes) helps establish their 90 minute REM sleep cycle, which they are not born with, and also keeps them from getting into deep, delta wave sleep, which is dangerous for babies because they can stop breathing.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Decisions: Your brain has mechanisms to ensure that you will think you made the right decision, regardless of what you decide. This can be undermined, however, by thinking of reasons for your decision before you make it. In many cases, your coming-up-with-reasons ability can get in the way of your decision-making ability. As long as you get all the relevant information, you may have a better chance making a good decision without deliberation.

It Works to Ask People to Watch Your Stuff: People who you do not specifically ask to watch your stuff will do nothing while your stuff is stolen. People who you do ask, will go to great lengths to keep your stuff from being stolen.

The Normal Are Not Detectably Sane: The methods of this study were not well laid out, so I do not know how strong this evidence is, but it was quite clever. Normal people got admitted into mental hospitals by saying they had heard a voice say the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” Other than that they behaved as usual. None were discovered to be sane by the staff, no matter how long they stayed hospitalized.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, January 16, 2010.]

My Three Favorite Versions of Free Will

Free Won’t—Some argue that the executive function of our brain, the part of us that is most like a “will,” gets to deflect impulses as they come up out of our non-conscious processes. That is, if we’re paying enough attention to what we are about to do, we get to say “no.” (Look up Benjamin Libet and the controversy around his work, if you’re interested.) This idea has some intuitive appeal, and I do have experiences that feel like I’m exerting myself to avoid doing something, like eating a piece of candy. On the other hand, I also feel like I’m exerting myself when I do math, but I know that sense of exertion has to be coming from flexing extra muscles or something, because there are no sensory nerve endings in the brain.

Focusing—Jeffrey Schwartz, an OCD expert, argues in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which is definitely worth reading though at times frustrating to baffling), that in moments of deep concentration, we get to choose to focus—basically that we can choose to pay attention. Again, this has intuitive appeal, and again, I have experiences while doing some kinds of schoolwork or while meditating that feel like I’m exerting myself to bring myself back to the task at hand. Again, I’m suspicious of the “exertion” part of it, but I like the idea that when I’m really calm and concentrating, I can intentionally examine.

Choosing that which we are compelled to do—This one’s from some existentialist philosopher, I think, though I first heard it from Brad Blanton. The Landmark Forum people present it well, too. Again, it requires something of a meditative state, where you (hopefully) have minimized the influence of your past and your habits, and can (hopefully) really grok the situation that you are in. In that state, you can choose to be in that situation. It’s kind of like the “Yes” to Free Won’t’s “No.” I like this one because I do feel most free when I’m in that kind of a state, when I’m not contracting away from reality, so to speak. In that state it feels like I can be really creative and spontaneous. I don’t know if it has anything to do with “will,” but it’s nice.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, November 25, 2009.]