Archive for the ‘Random Life Things’ Category



August 27, 2013

It is embarrassing that my last post was 366 days ago… and I wrote about motivation. Pretty clear how that worked out for me. I won’t offer much in the way of excuses (although I do have a long list to draw from), but instead I will refocus on using this blog as a place to think through (and share) some psychological issues that I feel deserve some consideration.

For now, I will share a quick thought about my failure to maintain my writing. I started this blog with a rather simple goal – to share with my students (and friends) ideas. I also wanted an excuse to write more – I like to write, but often find that all the other obligations in my life seem to overwhelm me and writing (especially for fun) is one of the first tasks I set aside. Last year, I lost sight of these goals. So, I thought I should share a little bit about why I might have struggled with maintaining this goal.

I’ll share a couple of ideas from Dr. Timothy Pychyl – he is a professor of psychology at Carleton University and has his own blog over at Psychology Today (Don’t Delay) where he writes about various issues related to procrastination. There is a lot there (he has authored a couple of books and many academic papers on the topic), but I’ll cherry pick a few ideas I think are worth sharing:

  • How you define the goal matters. When I thought about adding to this blog, I unfortunately got into the mindset that it was something I had to do and my goal shifted to “I have to avoid looking bad when my students check in on my blog” (bummer – an avoidance goal). I plan this year to consider this blog as an opportunity to think and write and share – all things I want to accomplish (voila! – an approach goal).
  • Maintain a reasonable number of goals.  This one really got me this year – trying to maintain a full teaching load and introduce some new elements to my classes, crank out a couple of papers, start a new line of research, be an involved father and husband, run (and rehab), renovating an entire basement on my own – and I suffered. I still have a very busy life (the basement still isn’t completed a year later…), but I can recognize the multiple draws on my time and focus on a subset of goals instead of trying to do everything at once and feeling overwhelmed.
  • Meeting a goal means more than just an opportunity to cross it off your to-do list.  Taking the time to write a little something here every week is not a huge task – it is quite doable. Being able to achieve this goal each week will have some real benefits for my personal well-being – reaching our goals, even small ones like this, make us happy. And I like to be happy.

getting motivated for another semester…

August 26, 2012

As I was making my way up the hill today, I was thinking about motivation. What motivates me to spend a gorgeous Sunday afternoon planning psychology lab experiments? What motivated me to renovate my basement on my own this summer (and fall. and winter) given my own paltry building skills? How can I better motivate my students to be more active participants in their learning? I had already decided to address the topic of motivation earlier in the semester in my Introduction to Psychology classes this semester, because I think a better understanding of the drives behind what we do will allow the students to better situate later information about social influences, the brain, development, cognition, etc.

why am I doing this?

Anyhow, as I was piecing together resources on the topic for my students, I came across an article titled “Tough Track: How—and why—an average guy became an ultramarathoner”. I don’t think there is anything terribly profound in the article about motivation, but it did get me thinking about my own running and how some of the motivations I have “cultivated” in my running carry over into my more work-a-day life. As I have written other places here, I run for a number of reasons. Sometimes when I am tired, or it is dark and raining, or other activities consume my time, I consciously think about why I run. The satisfaction I gain from simply moving through the world at my own pace. The increased strength and fitness I feel (at least when I am not exhausted from running). How I have incorporated “runner” and all that it entails into my self-concept. Endorphins. When I find myself in a tough spot at work – I am “not-quite-as-interested-in-the-topic-at-hand” as I could be, I’m worried about the potential of rejection of a paper I am writing, or it just seems like so much work to get a line of research off the ground – I think about the motivations that get me out the door on a run. It helps me re-engage at the office and work through the things I have to do. I mention that I do this consciously – however, I do think there are many times that this “adoption” of motivation occurs outside of my awareness as well. The fact that I am motivated to run, and this motivation has been a consistent aspect of my life in the past decade, makes a difference for how I deal with initiating behavior in all situations. Of course, that idea opens up a whole new crop of questions and ideas that I can’t address right now because I need to get back to those lab preparations…


creativity… going it alone or with the herd?

January 18, 2012

So, this week begins a new semester, and with it a certain resolution to more frequently add to the information I share through this little portal. Hopefully, I can maintain that focus and make a this a useful stopping point for my students (and others) who have some interest in various matters of a psychological nature. This semester, I am teaching a seminar (“Creativity & Cognition”) and a section of Research Methods. This may flavor the topics I choose to pick up on for this blog.

Case in point – with impeccable timing, the New York Times ran an opinion piece this past week looking at creativity and collaboration (The Rise of the New Groupthink). Susan Cain argues that the shift towards an emphasis on collaborative work (as evidenced by brainstorming meetings, shared work spaces, etc.) in the classroom and corporate office has been counter-productive because it stymies the endeavors of people who feel more comfortable and productive working on their own. Her new book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” would seem to further develop this idea (although I haven’t read it and don’t see much of an opportunity to do so arising anytime soon). I just wanted to point out a few things in the opinion piece that caught my eye.

I think Cain’s closing idea is right on. In the second to last paragraph, Cain says, “… we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a nuanced approach to creativity and learning”. Creativity is complex – once you begin considering “why” and “how” it occurs, you realize that it involves the interaction of various components, none of which is sufficient alone to explain “why” or “how” creativity occurred. This means that there are no easy answers to either the “why” or the “how”, and most current theories of creativity reflect that idea. What I see as being the most complete theories of creativity engage with the notion of convergence in some way – the attributes and experiences of the individual interact with the current state of the domain that person is working within and the resulting ideas get picked up and transmitted by others if they are sufficiently novel and appropriate to the issues at hand. Cain’s comment in the closing reflects that complexity, but the main point of her article (that being forced into these group collaborations gets in the way of the creative individual) actually works against recognizing that complexity. She emphasizes the experience of the creative/introverted individual (e.g. Steve Wozniak of Apple), working alone, tirelessly endeavoring to create the breakthrough that will change things forever… (what in her last sentence, she appears to call “the real work”). But this ignores that fact that all of the hard work of the individual is for nothing if it is not situated properly within the domain (e.g. having the opportunity to start Apple with Steve Jobs who seemed to provide a vision for Wozniak’s tireless brilliance) and subsequently picked up by the others involved in developing home computers (from the computer “Homebrewers” she mentions to the consumers who provide a market for the yet to developed pcs). Her deference to the creative individual is reflected in the mention of Gregory Feist (who focuses on studying creativity as arising from a cluster of personality traits – a clear focus on the individual) at the start of her piece. More curious is her mention of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same point – Csikzentmihalyi has proposed a “systems view” of creativity that takes the notion of convergence mentioned above to heart. In one chapter, Csikzentmihalyi (1999) states very clearly his dissatisfaction with a focus on the individual as of critical importance in the creative endeavor:

“What the present chapter seeks to accomplish, however, is to point out that creativity cannot be recognized except as it operates within a system of cultural rules, and it cannot bring forth anything new unless it can enlist the support of peers. If these conclusions are are accepted, then it follows that the occurrence of creativity is not simply a function of how many gifted individuals there are, but also how accessible the various symbolic systems are and how responsive the social system is to novel ideas.” (p. 333)

Csikzentmihalyi is proposing that we distort our understanding of creativity by putting too much emphasis on the role of the individual, something that Cain appears to be doing in her proposal. And because she identifies the “creative” individual as being of a certain type (introverted), she fails to recognize the potential interactions between the person and the situation that are truly critical in understanding creativity. It could be that bustling and rich environments keep introverts from their creative potential, but it may benefit others. With a quick search, I found several studies that found positive correlations between extroversion and creative potential (Borod, Grossman, & Eisenman, 1971; Khosravani & Guilani, 2008; King, Mackee Walker, & Broyles, 1996), and these other creative types might just flourish in that environment.

If classrooms and workplaces are becoming as chaotic and socially focused as Cain proposes, it may not be an ideal environment for some people to create within. However, it may be the right kind of environment for others, and moving back to everyone sitting in neat rows and individual offices is hardly going to be the solution. There is a lot of interesting and meaningful research being done to better understand creativity (and much of it is focused specifically on the classroom and workplace environment), and I think we are better able to determine how different environments affect different kinds of individuals and their ability to create than Cain’s opinion piece suggests.


a brief blog post about someone else’s blog post…

November 4, 2011

There is a blog titled “Research Digest: Blogging on brain and behaviour” that is affiliated with the British Psychological Society (but you already knew that based on the “funny” spelling of behavior in the title of the blog). Anyhow, they do a much better job than I at keeping up with interesting psychological findings and providing snappy, yet pithy, commentaries on the various topics they post about.

I wanted to point folks over to their page for two reasons. First, this has been an absolutely overwhelming semester in terms of time spent shaping the young minds of my students, so I have been severely hobbled in my efforts to make this a worthwhile stopover during your internet wanderings. Second, I saw they had this fun little collection of posts – comments from “famous” psychologists that expressed how psychology had impacted their lives (in less than 200 words). Reading through the various submissions is quick and fun. You get an insight on love from Robert Sternberg. Howard Gardner chimes in about creating an effective research team (hint – don’t look for mini-mes). Susan Fiske notes that a little status envy is ok as long as it is tempered with a sense of cooperation. There are quite a few of these vignettes, each providing a unique insight into the thoughts of a psychologist (even the one who said psychology was essentially useless in his day-to-day life).


finding a niche and doing some good…

May 12, 2011

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Successful Aging – Science Careers.

Point One:

This morning we had the Senior Psychology Brunch –  a chance to drink some coffee, eat some snacks, and chat with the graduating psychology students. It is an exciting time for the students as they embark on the next phase of their lives. It is also exciting for those of us who have played some role in their development the past four years. A recurring topic during the event was – “What next?”. Some of the students had very specific plans for graduate school or a job, others were less sure. Regardless, I emphasized that the critical thing to do was to “stay alert” to both opportunities and interests that develop over the course of the coming years. We tend to applaud those who have it “figured out”, who are ready to tell us exactly how their lives will play out in the future. However, from my own experience and seeing examples like the one reported in this article, I have come to believe that this hypothetical state of “having it figured out” is an illusion. Our lives and the world around us is constantly changing, so the best thing to do is ready yourself for this state of flux and make the most of the challenges and opportunities that arise. This article made me think about this because “the psychology of aging” was a very small domain thirty years ago when Dr. Steverink began her journey. Her academic studies and the research career she has pursued emerged along with the field. Now, there seems to be a much greater awareness of and interest in adult development and aging. The work being done in this area is interesting (see below) and important, and if she had sat down thirty years ago and “figured it all out” she may not have had the chance to be doing the interesting and important work she is currently engaged in.

Point Two:

The work being done on the psychology of aging is fascinating stuff. I have always been captivated by developmental studies that examined the cognitive and social growth of children – becoming a parent early in my graduate studies had something to do with this. I am more and more appreciating the other end of the developmental spectrum. I don’t have much to say specifically about the work being done by Dr. Steverink on aging and well-being (although it seems to be helping people which is always a positive), but I do like the inter-disciplinary nature of much of the work being done on aging. I think I’ll have to find some more specific work to comment on at a later date, but if you are interested in the psychology of aging, below are a few links to explore:


getting all meta…

April 19, 2011

I haven’t been posting much to this site as I have been on leave this semester. I had to share this article though – hopefully some future students will browse back through this collection and take a moment to read this… Even if you aren’t a student of psychology, it is worth a read.

“Come on, I thought I knew that!”

The premise of the NY Times article linked above is fairly simple – we often misjudge how well we know something and we can increase the likelihood we will remember it at a later point in time if we work a bit more at the point we initially encode the information.

The first issue deals with meta-memory, the way in which we think about our memory. For instance, I know I have a difficult time remembering names, so when I meet someone new I spend a few seconds rehearsing the name, looking for distinctive cues about the person’s mannerisms or face, and trying to make connections between the name and other information about the person. At that point, I am thinking about my memory ability (or lack thereof) and trying to use that awareness to augment the encoding process. Meta-memory also comes into play when we make judgments about our memory, like when I recall the name of a person I met recently and my darling wife asks “are really sure that was his name?” (and I am typically not very sure). The article mentions the work of Dr. Robert Bjork who has spent years studying human memory – it worth stopping by his research site to learn some more about the work he has done and is currently involved in.

The second issue, has to do with cognitive fluency – how difficult a task seems to be during the course of processing (check out the article linked to the term for lots more info). Fluency plays a very interesting and important role in meta-cognition (and thus meta-memory). Basically, the easier it is to process information, the more comfortable we are with it and thus the greater influence it can have in our thinking and subsequent behaviors. In the article, the author discusses some of the work of Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer – go check out some of his other research; he has done quite a bit examining fluency effects among other topics, and it tends to be quite interesting. The NY Times article summarizes a few studies that have explored how fluency plays a role in memory, particularly a role in the type of encoding and retrieval we associate with “studying for a test” (although it would have effects on a myriad of the interactions we have during the course of the day). Although it may be counter-intuitive, and even seem counter-productive, making the processing more difficult at the time of encoding (studying) can actually increase the likelihood the material will be available at retrieval (at the test). Much of the research involves manipulating seemingly extraneous variables (like the font the information being studied is written in). However, these changes create disfluency, a sense of effort in the processing, and this means more cognitive resources are brought into play during the encoding which then increases the likelihood of successful retrieval later. Personally, I thought it was interesting that they proposed that providing extra study sheets and outlines to students might be a detriment to learning:

“Even course outlines provided by a teacher, a textbook or other outside source can create a false sense of security, some research suggests. In one experiment, researchers found that participants studying a difficult chapter on the industrial uses of microbes remembered more when they were given a poor outline — which they had to rework to match the material — than a more accurate one.” (of course, this finding is not linked to a particular study in the article, just the assertion “in one experiment” – c’mon, show me the citation… luckily I had a vague recollection of the study and was able to hunt it down: Mannes, S. M. & Kintsch, W. (1987). Knowledge Organization and Text Organization. Cognition and Instruction, 4, 91 – 115.)

It is worth thinking about – I really do sometimes try to make it easy for students to study by providing lots of support and trying to organize the material “optimally”. I sometimes forget the value of the hard work (which is associated with a sense of disfluency) that goes into true learning… I think that it comes down to a balancing act. Too much disfluency and the student is likely to shut down because it is just too difficult to encode the information. Too little disfluency and the student develops a false sense of mastery of the information. There is a middle ground where the information is provided in an accessible and useful way, but the onus is on the student to work with that information by developing their own outlines and other ways to organize the material, weighing the value of the information, and finding ways to relate the information to what they already know. There are many ways to relate fluency to issues outside of the classroom (political discourse, religion, relationships), but we’ll have to save that exploration for another day…


case study – ourselves…

February 8, 2011

The New York Times picks up on this story about a social psychologist who is creating some hubbub by suggesting that psychologists (he was focusing on social psychologists) are a rather homogeneous bunch. He specifically notes that most social psychologists identify themselves as politically and socially liberal, while very few (openly) identify themselves as politically and socially conservative. Numerous conservative commentators have made a career out of lampooning academics and their “liberal biases”, so this is not exactly a new claim. However, he develops an argument focusing on the fact that this shared moral framework within the field creates a situation where theoretical assumptions may go unnoticed (and untested) and those with a different viewpoint may find themselves shut out of the conversation. Given that science is supposed to encourage an open and multifaceted exchange of ideas, this would be a not good situation… Here is a link to a narration of the presentation he gave, so you can get a sense of his ideas – listen to it, it is interesting. Go. Now.

John Haidt is the psychologist at the center of all this. He is a Professor at the University of Virgina  and has studied issues related to how people make moral judgments for the past 25 years. He has proposed the social intuitionist model (Haidt, 2001) – focusing on unconscious processes as opposed to explicit moral reasoning as the basis for how people decide what is right and what is wrong (those of you who are students of psychology can compare his ideas to those of Kohlberg to appreciate the significance of this notion). So, even though academic psychologists may have the best intentions of developing an understanding of human nature, if we begin with a shared set of implicit preconceptions they will shape our subsequent theories and research.

Briefly, I think Dr. Haidt is correct to have the concerns that he does. However, there are several passages in the NYT article that I found disconcerting. These issues are really tough ones to work through, and I thought the author leaned a bit too heavily on the dramatic “statistics” and anecdotes. There are some fundamental issues that should be addressed, but the article instead looked to some high-profile, lightning rod episodes that do more to polarize than engage with the real issues. There are a whole host of reasons why social psychology might be overly-liberal, but the article misses these (although Haidt addresses them somewhat in his talk). Regardless, it is worthwhile for psychologists to be open to this issue and to actively find ways to address the problems it creates.

Here is a link to a short interactive survey you can take to learn more about your own moral perspectives.

By the way, you can check out the interesting literature developing that examines these liberal/conservative personality differences (a good example is Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008 published in Political Psychology). You can check out work by John Jost to get a sense of what is happening in this sub-field of psychology.