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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March 19th, 2011

virtuesBIGsmallI usually write about news events and the latest research, but virtue is all around us — and our best chance of character development comes in our relationships with our families. So here’s your to-do list for the day:

(1) Check out this website:

A college friend recently sent me a link to For Your Marriage, a website run by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s been around since 2007, but recently received a design overhaul to attract more readers.

It has tips on strengthening relationships, the importance of premarital preparation and — right up my alley — a section on marital virtues, updated each month.

I instantly liked the site because the lead story cites research from author and journalist Tara Parker-Pope on the myth about the all-too-often-quoted statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce. While that may have been true for marriages in the 1970s, the statistics are a lot more promising for couples — especially college-educated couples — getting married today.


(2) Remember this bit of cocktail party conversation:

Have a college degree? You’ve taken a big step toward a healthier, happier marriage: College graduates are less likely to …

March 12th, 2011

funA recent study suggests that some 30% of Americans has trouble relaxing and putting work aside to enjoy vacation – and a handful of us suffer from more acute “leisure sickness” and “weekend headaches” from our attempts at fun.

Reports the Wall Street Journal

Only 53% of working Americans say they come back feeling rested and rejuvenated after vacation, and 30% say they have trouble coping with work stress while they’re away, according to an Expedia.com survey of 1,530. Some try to cram in so much activity that they come back more exhausted than when they left. Others stay so plugged on Blackberrys and cellphones that colleagues and clients don’t even suspect they’re away.

“It’s been my experience that an ‘out of office’ response means nothing anymore,” says Edward T. Creagan, a medical oncologist who writes the Mayo Clinic’s stress blog. “We’re driving ourselves wacko with no time to power down.”

Attempting to relax even makes some people sick. Some 3% of the population suffers from “leisure sickness” when they go on vacation. Symptoms include fatigue, muscle pain, nausea and flu-like symptoms, according to a 2002 study in the Netherlands. And a phenomenon of “weekend headaches” accounts for roughly one-third …

March 9th, 2011

divorceceremonies-flashWhen you plan a wedding, you might select the specific readings or poems to commemorate your love at the ceremony. You’ll invite friends and family to witness the event, sanctify the union and celebrate your commitment. There might even be a wedding planner to get all the details in place.

In Japan, that’s one of two possible ceremonies a couple can now have: First you get married in a symbolic ceremony.  And then you can end your marriage with a similarly elaborate event — divorce ceremony planner and all.

According to Reuters, businessman Hiroki Terai came up with the idea “to help couples celebrate their decision to separate after one of his friends was going through a bitter divorce.” He said 

“I started this ceremony in April last year thinking that there should be a positive way to end a marriage and move on by making a vow to restart their lives in front of loved ones,” Terai said.

Jezebel had more details:

Divorce ceremonies typically begin with friends and family traveling together in a procession to the mansion. Though some choose to dress up (one woman even wore her wedding gown), most divorce ceremonies are somewhat less …

March 4th, 2011

unplugA while back Tara Parker-Pope wrote a New York Times piece about the high toll of technology over-dependence that’s worth mentioning: With immediate access to information and online storage galore, are we getting more impatient… and more forgetful?

Typically, the concern about our dependence on technology is that it detracts from our time with family and friends in the real world. But psychologists have become intrigued by a more subtle and insidious effect of our online interactions. It may be that the immediacy of the Internet, the efficiency of the iPhone and the anonymity of the chat room change the core of who we are, issues that Dr. Aboujaoude explores in a book, “Virtually You: The Internet and the Fracturing of the Self,” to be released next year.

Dr. Aboujaoude also asks whether the vast storage available in e-mail and on the Internet is preventing many of us from letting go, causing us to retain many old and unnecessary memories at the expense of making new ones. Everything is saved these days, he notes, from the meaningless e-mail sent after a work lunch to the angry online exchange with a spouse.

I know I am — and these are issues …

March 2nd, 2011

opinions-others-flashA few weeks back, I blogged about new research that found, when searching for a relationship partner, we tend to gravitate toward people who are like us — because we’re looking for approval from our peer-group… and perfect strangers. The conclusion was that social information cues matter: We don’t live in a vacuum, and community matters. Researchers in England and Denmark just released even more research to support the idea that the opinions of others matter.

Reports medicalnewstoday.com

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) in collaboration with Aarhus University in Denmark have found that the ‘reward’ area of the brain is activated when people agree with our opinions. The study, published today in the journal Current Biology, suggests that scientists may be able to predict how much people can be influenced by the opinions of others on the basis of the level of activity in the reward area.

We all like to think we’re mavericks, even though decades of experiments have shown that humans are often more like lemmings. What’s most interesting about this research is…

That brain scans seem to be able to see where the reward area for agreement “lives”

February 24th, 2011

bffWhen I was a ‘tween and teenager, I had two best friends. The three of us were our own little clique — inseparable and bonded in a sisterly way. Having two best friends instead of one caused some problems, sure, because there was often a tension between who was closest to whom, but generally, it worked. We were the Three Muskateers. We were Heuy, Dewey and Louie. We sat in the same place in the hallway of our middle- and high-school, we helped each other with homework, we had sleepovers and weekend adventures our albums are now filled with photos from confirmations to graduations to weddings.

As an adult, however, I’m blessed to have expanded that friendship circle to at least six women (not to mention a husband) with whom I confide my deepest, darkest secrets and joys. Which is better? A New York Times article on whether the “best friend” is something to be discouraged among children grabbed my attention.

While kids want a best friend, their helicopter parents and well-meaning educators are concerned that socializing as a pack might provide more emotional support, especially when emotions run high. Writes Hilary Stout

Most children naturally seek close …

February 23rd, 2011

partner-friends-likeOpposites attract, right?


It’s one of the myths marriage and family sociologists love to shatter: While Hollywood has romantic notions of maids in Manhattan finding love among the affluent, the truth is that assorative mating–the idea that we pair up with people quite similar to ourselves in terms of education, race, class and religious background–still rules.

New research in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior takes this one step further: The reason why we tend to gravitate toward people who are like us is that we’re looking for approval from our peer-group… and perfect strangers.

Reports ScienceDaily

Many people like to think they have discriminating tastes when it comes to romantic interests. An Indiana University study, however, found that men and women are greatly influenced not only by what their friends think of their potential fling or relationship partner, but also by the opinions of complete strangers.

“Humans don’t exist in a vacuum. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we have evolved mechanisms that let us take advantage of the additional social information in our environment,” said Skyler Place [for his previous research, click here], a researcher in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain …

February 19th, 2011

trying-or-not-flashChildbearing outside marriage is on the rise, with some 40% of all births to unwed mothers. And more than half of unplanned pregnancies occur among women who were not using any form of contraception the month they conceived. Were all of those women just being careless?


According to new research, led by Julia McQuillan at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, some women are trying to conceive, others are trying not to conceive — but a significant proportion of women, both unmarried and married, don’t fall into either category: They’re OK with either outcome. And to understand the new realities of American fertility means learning more about these women and their choices.

McQuillan and her coauthors, Arthur L. Greil of Alfred University and Karina Shreffler of Oklahoma State University, found that women who plan pregnancies tend to married–and a bit older, wealthier and more educated than the average American woman. Those who are trying to avoid a pregnancy tend to be in a cohabiting relationship, or have several children and/or step-children already.

Using data from nearly 5000 women ages 25-45 collected by the National Survey of Fertility Barriers, the researchers, whose findings are forthcoming in Maternal and Child

February 16th, 2011

trustyourhormonesHere’s a plot of a future James Bond movie: The evil female character is lulled into trusting Bond after he spikes her drink with oxytocin, a brain hormone that gives her the warm-and-fuzzies. When her partner in crime realizes what’s happened, he drops the antidote-testosterone-into her mouth and she’s off to attack the world once more.

In 2005, Swiss researchers found in that a squirt of oxytocin would make players in an investment game more trusting. And recently, researchers at Utrecht University in Holland report that they have identified an antidote: Testosterone.

Reports the Independent of London:

The researchers found that when testosterone is administered as a small, one-off dose to female volunteers, their sense of trust towards strangers changes, but only if the women tend to be trusting in the first place.

Jack van Honk of the University of Cape Town in South Africa said the findings suggested that testosterone generated mistrust in more gullible individuals as a way of protecting them against the deceitful behavior of a competitive world.

He suggested that testosterone may work in opposition to the “love” hormone oxytocin, which is produced for instance in women during childbirth and promotes social bonding and trust …

February 14th, 2011

womensmagazines-flashWriting about the repetition in men’s magazines earlier this week made me look back at my research on men’s and women’s magazines from more than a decade ago. A few points to note:

1) Repetition isn’t anything new in the gendered magazine world. Cosmopolitan has been doing it for ages. In the January 1990 issue, a cover story announces: ‘Go North Young Woman! Alaska is Teeming with Eligible Men.’ The article features AlaskaMen magazine, a catalog of eligible bachelors hoping to find a mate. As Cosmo explains, “America’s last frontier is teeming with bachelors.” Just five years later, it seems the lonely guys in Alaska put in another bid. In April 1995 issue, Cosmopolitan called: “Go North, Young Woman! (Alaska is Where the Men Are).”

2) Gendered magazines offer highly stylized guides to the good life-and play on our insecurities. Stories of romance, love-at-first sight and mind-blowing passion abound. Few readers will have a great deal of experience with events like these, but they wish they did, and read avidly. While the average 31-year-old, middle-income Cosmo reader does not lead a life of threesomes, micro-mini-skirts, office affairs and celebrity-run-ins, the particular insecurities about men and relationships are noteworthy: As relationships …

February 9th, 2011

Gawker recently reported that Men’s Health magazine was recycling cover stories – and selling readers nearly identical covers – with messages of physical inadequacy. Men’s Health has four topics that it routinely features, Gawker proves with terrific graphics: “Six Pack Abs,” “Lose Your Gut,” “Get Back in Shape” and “Flat-Belly Foods.”

In an age of obesity, that’s as good of a sore spot as any to poke and prod relentlessly: Your abs are not flat, so you are a bad person.

Comments the sociologists at Contexts.org

“The degree to which cover lines can be reused, and content is interchangeable, underscores the degree to which these types of magazines – whether aimed at men or women – are selling us the same story, month after month. That story is: you aren’t good enough, your body isn’t good enough, but we have the secret to fixing it (lose weight, gain muscle), getting great sex (or, in the case of women, pleasing your guy), and improving your life in other ways (men = make more money, women = deal with a difficult coworker). The magazines are selling you slightly modified versions of that story because that story is what advertisers want you to …

February 5th, 2011

Think you’re too busy to read a good book, have a quiet hour with your spouse or go to the gym five days a week? You’re not, you just choose to spend too much of your time on unimportant and less rewarding activities, argues Laura Vanderkam in her book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

Every week, you–and everyone else–get 168 hours in which to work, sleep, exercise, do chores, run errands, spend time with your kids and save the world. Let’s say you work 50 hours a week and then sleep for 8 hours a night, that still leaves 62 hours to do other things. Sure, you’ve got to commute, bathe and do chores, but 62 hours is a lot of time. What exactly are you doing with it?

Odds are, you have no idea. The first part of the problem is that we lie on time-use surveys. We tell researchers we work longer hours and spend more time on chores than we actually do. And then we under-report our sleep and leisure time. It’s not that we mean to fib: It’s human nature to overestimate the hard stuff and underestimate the good stuff. But, …

February 2nd, 2011

newgendergap-flashFor years I’ve written about the increase in women’s college and professional school graduation rates. But never have I seen the data so starkly displayed as it is on Prof. Mark J. Perry’s blog, Carpe Diem.

He rightly notes that

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of University and College Women’s Centers across the country, here is a partial list. A Google search of “College Women’s Centers” finds almost 6,000 links on the Web. A Google search of “College Men’s Centers” finds almost no links on the Internet (a few hundred, now including this post), and asks the question: Did you mean: “College Women’s Centers”?

And he goes on to ask

Now that women completely dominate higher education at almost every degree level and men have clearly become the “second sex” in U.S. higher education, isn’t there a greater need for thousands of “Men’s Centers” on college campuses than “Women’s Centers” to help address the challenges males face completing college and help improve the quality of men’s experiences in college?

Yep. Yep it does. But good luck with that. In the meantime, I’ll just keep teaching my students the definition of misandry and asking …

January 29th, 2011

sparehalfologue-flashScientific American has a fun podcast on one of the more irksome elements of modern life: Hearing half of the inane conversation of a fellow passenger on mass transportation.

Researchers have found that it is more distracting to listen to half of a conversation — dubbed a halfalogue — than it is to listen to two people chatting in front of you. Although, as someone who spends a lot of time working at coffee shops, it’s really distracting to a) listen to someone get fired; b) hear to one woman offer bad dating advice to another woman; and c) try to focus when two men are discussing their weight-lifting regimens – and the importance of interspersing yoga three days a week – in very loud voices. But I digress.

Reports FoxNews.com

Whether it is the office, on a train or in a car, only half of the conversation is overheard which drains more attention and concentration than when overhearing two people talking, according to scientists at Cornell University.

“We have less control to move away our attention from half a conversation (or halfalogue) than when listening to a dialogue,” said Lauren Emberson, a co-author of the study that will be …

January 26th, 2011

sendingmessage-flashI don’t have a BlackBerry or an iPhone. I know, I know, it’s absurd that I’ve gone this long without the pacifier-tether that is a handheld device. So when I complain about friends and family who use these gadgets at dinner, the theater, in meetings and beyond, I usually get written off as a Luddite.

Which is why I love when others kick up a fuss about this issue, too. Christine Pearson’s New York Times piece was picked up by newspapers nationwide this weekend, and I caught it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Electronic devices lead to more incivility because of their powerful ability to claim our attention — no matter where we are or what we’re doing. No one likes to be snubbed, of course, but the offense can take on a new edge when the winner is a machine.

CrackBerry.com offered its etiquette guidelines a few years back:

Most e-mails can wait and turning that BlackBerry off during meetings or at least putting out of sight might be good for your nerves and your career.

Peter Post weighed in on the etiquette on mobile devices at public events

The one specific place where I advise people to turn …

January 21st, 2011

ideashavesex-flashI was predisposed to like this piece in Scientific American based on its title alone:

When Ideas Have Sex: How free exchange between people increases prosperity and trust

But it’s not just a provocative title. The parallel between the benefits of intermixing genes to create new life and the benefits of sharing ideas to create prosperity makes a lot of sense.

Writes Michael Shermer:

the free exchange between people of goods, services and especially ideas leads to trust between strangers and prosperity for more people. Think of it as ideas having sex. That is what zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley calls it in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (HarperCollins, 2010). Ridley is optimistic that “the world will pull out of the current crisis because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialize honestly for the betterment of all.”

Sex evolved because the benefit of the diversity created through the intermixture of genomes outweighed the costs of engaging in it, and so we enjoy exchanging our genes with one another, and life is all the richer for it. Likewise ideas. “Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex …

January 19th, 2011

goodresultsbadhabits-flashIf you’re reading this in the midst of a stressful day at the office, here’s some good news: When you go home to do what I know you’ll probably do — drink, smoke, use drugs and binge eat — you are actually triggering a biological response in your body that helps prevent depression. Hello Oreos and Ativan.

According to an article published in a recent 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, University of Michigan social scientist James S. Jackson and colleagues argue that

“People engage in bad habits for functional reasons, not because of weak character or ignorance,” says Jackson, director of the U-M Institute for Social Research.

But before you grab the K2 and cake, there’s a downside, and, like with so many downsides, there’s a race and class implication: Jackson and his colleagues use this argument to explain health differences in African American and white populations.

“Over the life course, coping strategies that are effective in ‘preserving’ the mental health of blacks may work in concert with social, economic and environmental inequalities to produce physical health disparities in middle age and later life.”…

January 14th, 2011

simulatedethics-flashGuys, just an FYI: Next time a simulated image of a woman asks you to make a moral or ethical choice about sexual infidelity, know that your decisions might be impacted by whether she’s real-looking or not.


Yep, welcome to cutting-edge social science. According to a study by researchers at the Indiana University School of Informatics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, men — but not women–are more likely to think that infidelity is wrong when the computerized chick outlining the scenario looks like a real (presumably hot) woman.

Explains study co-author Karl F. MacDorman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Program at the School of Informatics

a simulated female character presented participants with an ethical dilemma related to sexual conduct and marital infidelity. The character’s human photorealism and motion quality were varied in four ways. The changes had no significant effect on female viewers, while male viewers were much more likely to rule against the character when her visual appearance was obviously computer generated and her movements were jerky.

“Although it is difficult to generalize, I think the general trend is that both men and women are more sympathetic to real human characters than to simulated …

January 12th, 2011

charitymorality-flashEver wondered why, after you give a small gift to a charity, you get a request for another gift almost immediately? Or how all these charities find you — even though you’ve just moved a few weeks earlier?

Writes Ann Kadet in the Weekend Journal

When your favorite nonprofit isn’t busy saving the whales, chances are it’s making a serious behind-the-scenes effort to know you better — using increasingly sophisticated technology. It can survey your salary history, scan your LinkedIn connections or use satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool. If it’s really on the ball, the charity can even get an email alert when your stock holdings double.

But when your hospital does all this research on you, while you lie sick in their bed, is it unethical? If they find out that you are a potentially big donor, will you get preferential treatment?

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says it’s hard to justify “golden runways” that whisk donors past waiting lists. During treatment and recovery, he adds, patients may feel too vulnerable to refuse a solicitation.

I’m not bothered by this too much: Charities and non-profits struggle …

January 7th, 2011

In the buzz around Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court last yearorganizationkids-flash, New York Times columnist David Brooks likened her to the Organization Kids he researched at Princeton back in early 2001: He wrote

She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

My sister-in-law emailed me about the op-ed, and gave me a link to the 2001 Atlantic piece in which David Brooks coined the term, “the organization kid.” Since she was still in college in 2001, this is the first time she’d seen the 22-page treatise against a group of uber-motivated, focused, optimistic and elite kids who didn’t challenge authority and believed that concepts of virtue and accomplishment were interchangeable.

I’d read the piece back in 2001, but decided to read it again this week. And I encourage you to do the same because, wow, does that piece stand out as an historical artifact only nine years later.

In describing the environment into which the Organization Kids had been born, Brooks writes

There have been no senseless bloodbaths like World War I and Vietnam, no crushing …

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