Keeping a diary has been found to be "a valuable therapeutic means for relieving emotional distress and promoting well-being." A study asked adolescents to write a blog:

"The field experiment included randomly assigned adolescents, preassessed as having social–emotional difficulties, to 6 groups (26–28 participants in each): Four groups were assigned to blogging (writing about their difficulties or free writing; either open or closed to responses), a group assigned to writing a diary on personal computers, and a no-treatment control group. Participants in the 5 writing groups were instructed to post messages at least twice a week over 10 weeks.... Results showed that participants maintaining a blog significantly improved on all measures. Participants writing about their difficulties in blogs open to responses gained the most."


How Will I Do It?

Will I? or I will? The interrogative versus the declarative. It turns out the difference is in the distinction. A study by Ibrahim Senay, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows how.

His study asked a group of people to prepare to solve anagrams by thinking either, “Will I work on anagrams?,” or “I will work on anagrams.” Those that asked the question solved more anagrams than participants who repeated the statement.

Why? Apparently when we pose a question of ourselves we give ourselves the ability to choose - we are empowered. Senay notes, “people are more likely to engage in a behavior when they have intrinsic motivation” or “when they feel personally responsible for their action.”

Further, Senay's findings have applicability to how we engage and teach children. From the report:

"Instead of encouraging kids to say to themselves, 'I can do it!', this research suggests that we should be telling young people to ask, 'Will I do it?' or 'Can I do it?' Better still, we can teach children to inquire of themselves, 'How will I do it?' The difference is subtle but powerful: The first is a potentially empty affirmation, while the second gets kids started on what they really need to make it happen: a plan."

Cats and Crazy

I have to admit, I love these types of articles. The article is basically about the role of parasites in our lives. It features the work of a scientist that has long gone unnoticed. The scientist, Jaroslav Flegr, has been tracking how an organism carried by cats may affect human brains and therefore, their personalities.

The author of the article wraps up by asking who is "running the show?" Meaning are humans really in charge of their own behavior? It's an interesting question, but I still think my mantra holds: it may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. It being anything - your health, your finances, your behavior, etc.

What do you think? Is your cat making you crazy?

How Much Does Beauty Pay?

Beauty Pays, a book by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Austin, uncovers statistics about the importance of looks in the workplace:

  • Obese women earn about $14,000 less per year than their average-weight sisters, or about 12% if you are Caucasian and 7% if you are African-American. On the other hand, remarkably thin women earn $2,000 more each year than the average woman on the job.
  • Thin men’s salary averages $9,000 less per year than their average or big-boned brothers.
  • A six-foot tall man earns more than $5K more annually than a man who is five foot five. Taller women earn 5-8% more than average women.
  • Blonde women earn $870 more on average than brunettes and redheads. Sixty-three percent of bald men report earning less than guys with a full head of hair.

How to Live: Visualize Dying

Researchers from Eastern Washington University and Hofstra University in the Journal of Positive Psychology discovered that "people who simply wrote about death in a more abstract way didn’t feel any more grateful afterward; the people who just imagined a day in their life seemed very slightly less grateful. But the gratitude scores of people who actually visualized their own deaths skyrocketed. These people seemed deeply affected by confronting their own mortality 'in a vivid and specific way.'"

But this isn't advice that you should think about your death all the time. The researchers found that even just imagining something you value being taken away from you heightens your appreciation for that thing. In essence, you can get the same benefits by thinking of things for which you are grateful or said another way - keep a gratitude journal.

It's All in Your Head

Inspired by a Stanford Law symposium, Stanford researchers are developing a tool to more objectively measure pain. Self-reporting of pain is very subjective and can make diagnosis difficult and there are a number of legal issues surrounding the presence of pain or not. The tool uses brain activity to measure pain. The researchers hope to be able to eventually distinguish between pain and emotions like anxiety.

Can You Be Too Confident?

Yes. Because, according to Daniel Kahneman, author of the new book "Thinking Fast and Slow," "people are blind to their own blindness." In this great NYTimes article excerpt from his book, he demonstrates how people, even when faced with evidence that their conclusions are incorrect, will continue to insist that their process yields good results. Which immediately makes me think about all the nonsense out there around hiring.

And entrepreneurship - how does anybody predict who will be a good entrepreneur/CEO? It's difficult. As Kahneman puts it, "True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. ...To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes."

Who's Afraid of Math?

You don't need to be. The first step is understanding the anxiety and fear that math can provoke. Recent research located the emotions math provokes using fMRIs. The researchers found that "the key to boosting students' math performance isn't through remedial teaching, but through providing students tools to cope with their fears." Or said another way, teaching students to strengthen their pre-frontal cortices.

How do you do that? Meditation is a great way to learn to manage your anxiety and fear.

How Bacteria Can Help With Anxiety

The bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1 helps ease anxiety or at least in lab tests made mice less afraid, more willing to take risks. The bacteria is one of many good types of bacteria we have in our stomachs or as they are better known today: pro-biotics. Finally, science is paying more attention to the mind/body connection!

For more see The Psychology of Yogurt.

The Knobe Effect

What is it? An experiment conducted by Professor Josh Knobe of Yale University in 2003 tested the intentionality ascribed to actions. Here's how it went: Scenario 1: A business executive is told that a new product will increase profits but hurt the environment. He responds that he doesn't care about the environment, just profits. The product is released and results in higher profits, but the environment is hurt. When asked if the business executive hurt the environment, 82% of participants answered yes.

Scenario 2: A business executive is told that a new product will increase profits and help the environment. He responds that he doesn't care about the environment, just profits. The product is released and results in higher profits, and the environment is helped. When asked if the business executive helped the environment, 23% of participants answered yes.

The Knobe Effect states that "people are more likely to assign blame for things that go wrong than to give credit for things that go right."

Interesting, but isn't that our evolutionary need to focus on the negative to ensure survival? Which of course highlights the debate around experimental philosophy AKA X-Phi.


ACE is a test you don't want to ace. ACE is an abbreviation Adverse Childhood Experience. The ACE study focuses on how childhood trauma affects adult health. A pioneer doctor who integrates the study into her clinical practice is Dr. Nadine Burke here in the Bay area. Here are the questions.

Growing up did you experience any of the following conditions in the household prior to age 18:

1. Recurrent physical abuse 2. Recurrent emotional abuse 3. Contact sexual abuse 4. An alcohol and/or drug abuser in the household 5. An incarcerated household member 6. Someone who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized, or suicidal 7. Mother is treated violently 8. One or no parents 9. Emotional or physical neglect

Exposure to one category equals one point (not a point per incident). See the study for what your score means.

For Shame

Shame, it seems, does nothing to deter certain human behavior. A new study out of USC states that "the more we anticipate wagging fingers, public pillory and guilt, the worse we're likely to do when it comes to self-control. If we focus on the pride that comes from good behavior, we make better choices." How did the researchers come by their results? With cake, of course. (My kind of scientific study!). Researchers offer study participants chocolate cake. The participants who focused on the pride they would feel in resisting the cake, fared better - they ate less of the cake. Said more scientifically: "when it comes to self-regulation, anticipated pride outperformed anticipated shame as well as unconsidered, heedless consumption."

Why should this be so? "Simply put, anticipating pride makes us feel good, and anticipating shame makes us feel bad."

Focusing on the positive effects of our actions can help us to act in the ways we want to.

Hmmm. I'm going to think of how proud I'll be of my abs when I skip a cupcake. I'll let you know if it works!

What to Believe

Are we ever in the right? Scientists say, no. When we argue a point, scientists say our reasoning may just be rationalizing.

When we attempt to win our case, no matter how reasoned it may seem, it is invariably biased. We just can't help ourselves. It's called a "confirmation bias" - meaning we give greater credence to evidence and arguments that support our beliefs and "disconfirmation bias" - meaning we argue harder and spend more energy trying to disprove arguments that don't support our beliefs.

It seems humans have other goals besides being right. Like, protecting our sense of self, to name one. Even when the evidence suggests we should change our beliefs.

So what do you believe?


Subtle Signs

What's a smile got to do with it? A lot apparently. There are studies that show a subject's smile in a picture is highly predictive of longevity and even likelihood of divorce. Abel and Kruger from Wayne State University studied the "smile intensity" of baseball players as depicted in their baseball cards. Those with larger smiles, also known as Duchenne smiles (meaning a full smile where the corners of your mouth are raised and you have creases near your eyes), lived the longest.

Another study done by Matthew Hertenstein from DePauw University measured the smiles of individuals taken from college yearbooks. He found that 31% of the frowners divorced compared to only 11% of those with smiles.

The Benefits of Difficulty

That's right. When things are difficult we learn more. So say the scientists behind a study that compared the effect of fonts on the participants ability to recall studied material in an exam. The experiment had half the participants read text in 16-point Arial font and the other half in 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT. These last two were deemed to be harder to read fonts. Those participants who studied the material in the more unfamiliar fonts did better on their exams. Why? Because their brains had to work harder to process the material. The finding: "difficulty builds mental muscle, while ease often builds only confidence."

Further: “For example, we know that if you study something twice, in spaced sessions, it’s harder to process the material the second time, and people think it’s counterproductive,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “But the opposite is true: You learn more, even though it feels harder. Fluency is playing a trick on judgment.”