Archives for April, 2011
When I see people who are painfully crammed into their clothes or inappropriately dressed for their size, I wonder what they saw when they looked in the mirror. Did they really look at themselves and think, "Man, I look hot." Maybe. According to new research published in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity one in four overweight/obese people don’t try to lose weight because they don’t realize they need to. “Weight misperception” is when people think they look just fine even though, in reality, they need to drop a few. Not surprising, really. How are we supposed to know what we should weigh when weight perception has become a sort of fun-house mirror? Look this way, we’re fat. Look that way, we’re svelte.
You know that old technique for measuring creativity, where you’re supposed to come up with as many uses for a paper clip as you can? I like to play a version of that game when I see interesting research. I've been puzzling over the new research about how the happiest places in the United States have the highest suicide rates. Curious, eh? The researchers speculate that this is because we all tend to compare ourselves with others, and people who are unhappy find scant comfort in comparing themselves with others if everyone is having a grand time but them. In other word, being unhappy in a happy place makes unhappy people unhappier. That’s feasible. But just for fun, let’s brainstorm some others possible reasons for this surprising finding.
A recently published study finds that as we age, we become more content and have more stable and yet more complex emotional lives. We begin experiencing more “poignancy,” which the researchers define as having positive and negative emotions at the same time. Boy oh boy. Poignancy. There’s a lot of that to life, isn’t there? The lead researcher behind the study is Stanford University developmental psychologist Laura Carstensen, who in the 1990s proposed one of my favorite theories. Socioemotional selectivity theory posits that as we age and start feeling the pressure of time, we allow less important things to drop away and focus on the people who matter most. Numbers have been crunched on this theory here and there, and it holds up well. Actually, the consolidation of relationships appears to start happening pretty early—in a 1992 study, Carstensen found that socializing with acquaintances drops off most dramatically between the ages of 18 and 30. (Of course, she acknowledged, those are years when people get busy with career and family.)
New research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that sharing negative views of a third party brings two people closer together than sharing positive views. It seems that expressing a mildly negative opinion will make another person feel that he or she knows you—perhaps because positivity is a default in polite society and may or may not be the truth. A little negativity seems like a peek inside your private thoughts. (This has limits: mild negativity worked, very negative feelings were a turn-off.) I’m pretty cool with negativity and believe there’s a place in the world for pessimism.
In possibly the most appalling letter Dear Abby has ever published, a woman wrote that her sister brags about how popular her teen daughter is because she gives boys oral sex. Naturally, this brought a flurry of mail from outraged readers, and among the responses was this, from Barbara in Kalamazoo, Mich.: In my opinion, that mother wants her daughter to be popular for all the wrong reasons. Mom sounds like someone who sat on the sidelines in high school and never understood that what makes a person popular is the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation, get good grades, provide community service and so on. Pity! If only. Actually, popularity is a good deal more than that, and not necessarily things to which you want your kids aspiring. At one time, researchers thought they knew what “popular” meant: being a good egg that everybody liked. It was positive status and power. But as sociologists and psychologists delved deeper into the subculture of adolescence, they realized that “popularity” among school-age kids is far more subtly shaded, with some dark sides.
New research out of Cornell University finds that people can identify criminals simply by looking at photos. The researchers did all they could to make all things equal about the photos. Participants saw head shots of “Caucasian males, ages 20 to 28, with similar attractiveness and facial expression." Half were just guys, the other half were guys who had committed violent (forcible rape, murder, assault) or nonviolent (forgery, theft, arson and drug dealing) crimes. Nobody had tattoos, facial hair, or a menacing expression. Backgrounds were edited out. Even so, according to research published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, participants could spot the bad guys.
I’ve never been a fan of the guilt trip. My mother could fit a lifetime of disappointment and regret into a barely audible sigh. It was her way of letting her loved ones know we had failed her. (It was then up to us to guess how.) My mother learned this skill from her mother, whose sighs were a melodic downward trill concluding with a muttered Oy, Gutenu (Oh God, in Yiddish). This early and frequent exposure to guilt trips has had the curious effect of making me both less and more susceptible to guilt. I can spot a guilt trip a mile away and I've developed a deflection shield. On the other hand, I also walk around carrying a vague sense that it’s all my fault and I should do better. Either way, guilt doesn’t feel like my friend. But in a recent study by cardiologists at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, 65 of 100 heart patients reported that they were motivated by guilt to make healthy lifestyle changes; having kids had a lot to do with this. The researchers suggest that guilt could be a good motivational tool to get recalcitrant heart patients to clean up their acts. Honestly, this was the first time it had ever occurred to me that guilt trips could be used for good.
“Why do women like bad boys?” is the frustrated refrain of nice guys everywhere. I don’t pretend to have the answer to that question, though I do have my own pet theory: That being “bad” requires self-confidence and that’s what women are attracted to, not the “badness” per se. Whatever the reason, a study in press for the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, titled "Effects of popularity and gender on peers’ perceptions of prosocial, antisocial, and jealousy-eliciting behaviors" found that even girls as young as 12 and 13 have a soft spot for bad boys.