Busted Halo

In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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October 21st, 2010

millennial-disconnect-flashCommon phrases I hear from my students:

That exam was so gay.
Oh, come on, dude, don’t be gay about it.
… and then she totally queered the deal.

In a recent discussion about social changes in minority acceptance, I assigned a reading by C. J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag.

It prompted an interesting discussion: Saying someone or something is “gay” – in a specific tone of voice – is describing that person or thing in a negative context. As a loser, uncool or otherwise unfortunate. Is that an acceptable slang use of a word that is also used as a description of sexual preference?

Yes: It’s so commonly used that saying something is “gay” has lost any connotation with sexuality, many of my students contended.

“It’s just like saying something is retarded,” said a young woman.

Well put, but not in the way she intended. That’s yet another an example of a denigrating, but socially acceptable, term.

I was surprised: These are liberal-minded, elite, educated Millennials — members of a group that, surveys repeatedly show, has tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality, favors legalizing gay marriage, repealing don’t-ask-don’t-tell rules in the military etc. And yet their …

October 20th, 2010

family-in-way-flashI’m a big fan of dark humor. So this headline

Family Gets In The Way Of Work For Materialistic Individuals

seemed right on the money.

The more materialistic individuals are, the more likely they are to view their family as an obstacle to work, finds a Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology study published online recently.

Can’t buy me love? Right… because it might get in the way of making more money.

(Academic side note: It’s a small study – sample size of only 274 – so let’s not go too nuts over the results. But many other studies have linked materialistic personalities to myriad other bad things. Want to see how you fare on an academic scale of materialistic tendencies? Take this online test.)…

October 14th, 2010

manly-men-flashHere’s some weird research from the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Nearly 5000 women, most of whom were in their early 20s, were asked to participate in a quick online survey where they choose which male face they found to be most attractive. The photos were very similar – but one was made to be more “masculine” with a stronger jawline and bushier eyebrows – while another was given slightly finer features. Apparently, “manly men” are less attractive to women in healthier, modern countries. Reports the Freakonomics bloggers

In short, women in less healthy countries preferred more masculine men, perhaps for their evolutionary advantages (testosterone is linked to health).  So if you’re blessed or burdened with a short, broad face and a strong jawline, you might want to think about moving to Argentina.

Jena Pincott, author of Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the phenomenon, too — and outlined some of the study’s limitations. It’s well-worth reading.

I’m a skeptic of evolutionary psychology, generally. The women-want-a-caveman-to-protect them argument never seemed to jive with contemporary sociological research (including my own mate-preferences research) Socialization is a powerful force. …

October 12th, 2010

contagion-meme-flashSlate offers an interesting spin on the “contagiousness” research that I’ve been writing about recently, including a history of the concept of contagions. Yes, you are more likely to act in ways of virtue and vice depending on the behavior of friends and family.

Writes Dave Johns:

Perhaps the only thing more irresistible than these social germs is the contagion meme itself-in September, Christakis and Fowler’s work was featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and their book Connected made Oprah’s fall reading list. The scientists seem to have hit on a simple recipe-socially contagious transmission, three degrees of separation-that has proved remarkably catching.

And, by the way, meme is now my new favorite word. Right behind solipsism. Just wait until I can get them both in a sentence together.…

October 7th, 2010

iffriendsdrinktoomuch-flashOne more to add to the series of social network studies out there: If your friends drink a lot, you will, too.

Writes Time.com

After a statistical analysis of social connections and alcohol consumption patterns, the researchers found that, like so many other things, drinking habits can be contagious: if a close connection (friend, relative, coworker) drank heavily-defined as an average of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men-participants were 50% more likely to drink heavily themselves; if someone connected by two degrees of separation (a friend of a friend) drank heavily, participants were 36% more likely to do so.

We’ve already seen that loneliness, happiness, obesity, self-control, voting habits and more are “contagious.” This most recent study was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Clearly a group of social scientists are building a career on studying the effects of friends and family on our behavior. And it’s interesting stuff. But the results are the same every time. Is everything contagious? If so, does any of this research matter past what our parents (and numerous Biblical passages) always told us?

Pick your friends wisely. And for a rather …

October 5th, 2010

family-time-onrise-flashAccording to a recent working paper presented at Brookings, Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California at San Diego report that

Parents are spending more time with kids, even when both parents work outside the home
College-educated parents are now spending twice as much as time with their children than less-educated parents
The gap between well-educated and less-educated parents providing childcare is widening

Why the change-especially among college-educated parents? Drs. Ramey attribute the increase in time educated parents are spending with their children to an effort to get their kids into elite colleges. But oddly, the New York Times coverage of this report makes no mention of that focus nor does the Times really focus on the increasing educational disparities for the different in one-on-one time with children.

It’s not news that parenting strategies among the educated are very different. (For more on this, I recommend Annette Lareau’s research in Unequal Childhoods.) And by saying that parents want to get their kids into good colleges, what we’re really saying is that college-educated parents realize that this is important in ensuring a bright future for their children. That’s what all parents want.

But it’s what’s …

September 30th, 2010

economy-shapes-morals-flashI totally missed when it came out a few months back… and in case you, did, too, check out this Economix blog about whether the bad economy might reshape our collective morality.

My colleague Jesse McKinley has a fascinating article today about how legal-marijuana advocates are promoting the fiscal virtues of their cause. Not coincidentally, another banned substance was legalized in the wake of major economic upheaval: alcohol, during the Great Depression. The “Noble Experiment” known as Prohibition ended in 1933, when a legalized alcohol market promised more job opportunities and additional sales tax revenues for governments under stress.

I’m curious how much today’s economic pressures will eventually reshape Americans’ thinking on other “social issues.” After all, many states desperate for revenue have already started expanding state-sanctioned gambling, whose perceived sinfulness no longer appears to outweigh its fiscal usefulness.

But what’s weird to me is that legalizing pot has become a moral issue. Yes, self-harm is immoral. And if getting high makes you unable to uphold your responsibilities, that’s not good either. But for the vast majority of pot smokers, we’re not in either territory.…

September 28th, 2010

homogenized-beauty-flash2“If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other,” sang Groove Armada. Are we in danger of that happening?

Photographer Zed Nelson thinks so. In a series of photographs, he documents what he sees as a world-wide spike in plastic surgery to make everyone look alike.

He told The New York Times:

“Globalization hasn’t just given us Starbucks in Beijing and shopping malls in Africa… It is also creating an eerily homogenized look.”

“The worldwide pursuit of body improvement has become like a new religion… I imagined the project in some way like a body of evidence, perhaps for a future generation, to see a point in history where the abnormal became normal, or at least normalized.”

Might our nearly pathological will to “improve” ourselves – through self-help, through surgery, through diets – be reaching a fever pitch?

Maybe. But what isn’t mentioned in this discussion is money: Only those wealthy enough to afford improvement procedures can have them, leaving the vast majority of the population further marked – in an increasingly visible way – by their lack of resources. So, the better question is: Will the affluent of the world all begin to …

September 23rd, 2010

SJ-AE182_28LEDE_NS_20100326214203In the Wall Street Journal and then featured again on their terrific blog, The Juggle, there’s a great discussion about financial lessons children should learn. Here’s the list (see graphic) of 15 Money Rules parents should teach children.

These are terrific, and ones that big kids should (re)learn, too.

Millennials are a generation of young-adults raised during a time when the savings rate for households dipped below zero and where credit card debt spiked. Some young adults watched as their parents gambled on state lotteries or were taken for a ride by pay-day loan agencies separating the less savvy (or desperate) from their cash, while others learned terrible lessons about easy-credit as their families accepted promises of no down-payments on cars and homes luring even the wealthiest into spending beyond their means. Millennials were raised to consume-and consume on borrowed money if necessary.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that on the first day of the semester, in a self-help class I taught at the University of Iowa, the vast majority of students couldn’t define the word “thrift.”

After a few seconds of blank stares, I suggested that they had heard this word in conjunction with “thrift stores.”

“So thrift …

September 20th, 2010

notschool-life-flashIn an excellent piece by David Brooks in the New York Times a while back, he mentioned the plethora of research that says that happiness comes from our relationships, not our material possessions or economic wealth.

Most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.

One solution he mentions is education — using college as way to teach good decision-making and social skills rather than simply focusing on landing a high-paying job at the end. I fully agree, as do the students in my class on Social Change, who objected to the University’s focus on career over personal fulfillment.

The purpose of a liberal arts education-as …

September 16th, 2010

trust-gap-flashInteresting piece on PsychCentral about the “trust gap” in America: In lab settings and in opinion polls, we tend to report thinking that other people are less trustworthy than we are. But a recent study in Psychological Science suggests that we just don’t have enough practice trusting people because we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of cynicism.

Write authors Fetchenhauer and Dunning of their study:

Participants saw short videos of other people and had to decide whether to trust each person in an economic game. Participants overall underestimated the trustworthiness of the people they viewed, regardless of whether they were given financial incentives to provide accurate estimates. However, people who received symmetric feedback about the trustworthiness of others (i.e., who received feedback regardless of their own decision to trust) exhibited reduced cynicism relative to those who received no feedback or asymmetric feedback (i.e., who received feedback only after they trusted the other person).

Bottom line: When people are shown the trust of others, their trust increases. So show some trust to others, and they are more likely to behave in a kind and trusting way toward you.

While this is interesting, there’s a wide and varied sociological literature on trust… …

September 14th, 2010

magnetic-morality-flashA team of neuroscientists claim that it’s possible to alter a subject’s moral judgments using a large magnet to temporarily disrupt normal brain activity, according to new findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, led by Rebecca Saxe, MIT assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and lead author on this paper, Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate, find that subjects make different decisions about whether a person’s behavior hypothetical scenario is permissible or forbidden after exposure to this magnetic field.

Says Dr. Young:

“It’s one thing to ‘know’ that we’ll find morality in the brain … It’s another to ‘knock out’ that brain area and change people’s moral judgments.”

Here’s how it worked, according to LiveScience:

When people hear news of a crime like a shooting, they likely need more information before they can judge the offender’s actions as right or wrong – was the crime accidental or intentional? If it was an accident or if the shooter was defending him or herself, people are likely to see the act as much more morally acceptable than if it was deliberate and unwarranted.

The study results show that stimulating a specific brain region …

September 9th, 2010

ruleofrules-flashI recently came across a fascinating piece on NPR from a few months back in which Alix Speigel interviewed Larry Nucci, a research psychologist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley about what rules children believe are good, and what rules they think are stupid.

Rules can be broken down into four categories, Dr. Nucci says:

Moral rules: Don’t hit, do share.
Safety rules: Don’t cross the street alone, don’t run with scissors.
Social convention rules: You must say “sir” and “madam.”
Personal rules: Rules about friends and how to express themselves… which is where things get tricky.

According to the NPR report, Dr. Nucci says

“Kids don’t argue at all with parents – or very little argument with parents – when parents come up with reasonable safety rules or rules about not stealing from other children or not hitting other kids… Virtually all of the conflicts that parents are having with kids are over these personal areas.”

Children object to moral rules only about 10% of the time, he finds in his observational studies. But 70% of the “no”s fall into categories of personal rule formation… or at least areas …

September 7th, 2010

daily-affirmations-flashOK, I know I’m a little obsessed with self-control research (see my recent posts on Dogging Self-Control and Commitment Strategies 101) but PsyBlog recently posted a fascinating tidbit: Positive affirmations can replenish your self-control.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology, participants were asked to write a short essay about something that was important to them-their core values, their relationships etc. But half of the participants had to write this essay without using the letters ‘a’ and ‘n’ while the other half could use the entire alphabet.

Proving yet again that self-control is a resource that gets depleted over time, when folks were then asked to submerge their hands in a bucket of ice-water, those that didn’t have to previously exert self-control were able to hold their hands in the freezing, painful water for longer.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Among the group that had exerted self-control in their essay writing, some were instructed to reaffirm good things about themselves – thinking about what makes them proud, focusing on the positives – and for those folks, their self-control recovered quickly and they were able to hold their hands in ice-water …

September 2nd, 2010

halt-flashIn a recent issue of Psychological Science, researchers find that man’s best friend reacts just like we do when posed with a challenge of self-control: If a dog is tired, or has been asked to exert self-control for a long time in a previous test, it is less likely to succeed in the next test of self-control.

These findings provide the first evidence that self-control relies on the same limited energy resource among humans and non-humans.

We’ve seen similar findings in humans for years: Self-control is like a muscle.

What happens when you go to the gym and do a really hard workout-and then someone asks you to lift a very heavy box? You might not be able to heft it up as high as you could have before your workout. Your muscles are tired and they need a break.

Your ability to make good decisions works the same way. Next time you’re feeling frazzled, or about to do something that goes against your goals, purpose and decisions that you’ve outlined above, HALT.

Are you

H Hungry

A Angry

L Lonely

T Tired

If so, fix those problems before you can ask yourself to exhibit self-control of any …

August 31st, 2010

hmmmm-flashA round-up of oddly compelling bits of news:

Us heathen college professors aren’t as devoid of faith as some might think: According to a new article in the Sociology of Religion, three-quarters of college professors report some belief in a higher power. Ten percent of professors are atheists and 13% are agnostic. As the good folks at Contexts.org report, that’s more than the 4% that told the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life researchers that they were atheist or agnostic, but the two studies didn’t ask questions in exactly the same way.

A bad hair day can have a serious impact on a woman’s self-esteem, reports USA Today. Indeed, 44% of women in a telephone survey conducted by ShopSmart magazine reported that “their mood has been effected by a bad hair day.” Some 26% have cried after getting a bad hair cut. Bottom line: Buy more hair products and you can buy happiness. Oh, wait, studies show exactly the opposite…. I hate it when sales-promotion “research” gets reported as news.

And another map to add to my list of transfixing social change images: For several years, I’ve been obsessed with this CNN map of the

August 26th, 2010

vv-lovetrustonline-flash2bTrust is a crucial element of a successful relationship, experts tell us. But sometimes, as President Ronald Reagan said, “trust but verify.”

According to a new nationally representative study of nearly a thousand British married couples, nearly half the time, at least one member of the couple is snooping on the other’s internet and email activities.

Reports PsyBlog, respondents told researchers it was unacceptable if

their partner fell in love online (90%)
had cybersex with someone else (84%)
flirted with someone else (69%)
or communicated relationship troubles with someone else (70%)

And perhaps unsurprisingly, women were more likely to be concerned about potential online transgressions, and more likely to do the snooping.

Most common ways to snoop?

Reading emails
Reading text messages
Checking web browser history and trolling the cache

Now, remember, this might be a vast under-reporting, because if you’re stealthy enough to do all this snooping, you’re clever enough not to go telling people-even researchers-about the details.

So are you being watched by someone who claims to love and trust you? Probably. Does that weird you out? Join the club.…

August 24th, 2010

sweatlodgeIt’s been nearly a year since three people died and dozens more were injured during a self-help retreat led by the now-infamous James Arthur Ray. At the time, I wrote a piece in The Washington Post and was outspoken about the fact that, although we’d like to write them off as New Age wackos, the folks who stayed in a steamy sweat lodge well past when it was physically safe were just like you and me: Seekers who were smart, educated and interested in pushing themselves to achieve greater things.

In this month’s SELF magazine Shepelavy has a terrific piece about the lessons we can all learn from last year’s deaths. Roxanne and I logged in several hours of talk time over the last few months as she crafted the piece, “When Self-Help Harms,” and she did an excellent job. (Yes, I’m quoted extensively, but I don’t rave about all the pieces that quote me, lemme tell ya!)

Check it out here—and, because it’s always more fun to read glossy magazines than words on a screen, buy the September issue in hard copy.

Self-help doesn’t have to be harmful, but too often gurus lead enthusiastic people astray. I …

August 19th, 2010

market-morality-flashAre Shoppers Fairer? asked John Tierney in his New York Times column and blog.

Do markets and morality – as we like to definite fairness in modern societies – reinforce one another? Does shopping at Wal-Mart, as the fair-minded people in Missouri do, strengthen one’s tendency to follow the golden rule in dealing with strangers?

Turns out that in a multi-country anthropological experiment, Americans shoppers scored higher in a test of fairness toward strangers than those surveyed in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The researchers played the game “dictator” with folks around the world: The person who is in the “dictator” role is given a sum of money and told they can keep it all, give it all away or share some part of it with another player, whose identity remains secret.

How much would you give? Half? A bit less than half?

That’s what standard American ideas of fair would suggest… but that’s not necessarily everyone’s definition of equity. Some nomad communities would only share a quarter of the prize. Indeed, the study finds, “most hunter-gatherers, foragers and subsistence farmers were less inclined to share.”

Why? Tierney explains:

In explaining attitudes toward fairness, Dr. …

August 17th, 2010

narcissism-flashAre college students today more narcissistic than their peers from previous generations?

Based on the results of the narcissistic personality inventory, a standardized test that has been given to students at the University of South Alabama over the last 15 years, the answer is a resounding yes.

“I’m extremely confident,” San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge told Discovery News. “I think these analyses end the debate completely. It’s clear narcissism is rising.”

But is this inventory the best judge of narcissism-and what does that really even mean? Narcissistic personalities are usually defined as people who think very highly of themselves, are self-absorbed and have unrealistic views about their own qualities and little regard for others.

Sounds like every Millennial you know, right? Well, you may fit the bill, too.

Take the inventory for yourself here and here.

Narcissism is most certainly not a virtue. But as a vice, it may be one of most common throughout history. Younger Americans, however, have been raised on a steady diet of self-esteem boosting. After getting a gold star for every effort, no wonder young-adults are tipping the scales of this inventory.

Regardless of your age, if you’re a true …

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