Science of the Spirit


Why Some People Blame Themselves for Everything

© Roland Zahn, University of Manchester
In people who have experienced depression, these two brain regions communicate less effectively during feelings of guilt than in people who have never been depressed.
People prone to depression may struggle to organize information about guilt and blame in the brain, new neuroimaging research suggests.

Crushing guilt is a common symptom of depression, an observation that dates back to Sigmund Freud. Now, a new study finds a communication breakdown between two guilt-associated brain regions in people who have had depression. This so-called "decoupling" of the regions may be why depressed people take small faux pas as evidence that they are complete failures.

"If brain areas don't communicate well, that would explain why you have the tendency to blame yourself for everything and not be able to tie that into specifics," study researcher Roland Zahn, a neruoscientist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, told LiveScience.

The seat of guilt

Zahn and his colleagues focused their research on the subgenual cingulated cortex and its adjacent septal region, a region deep in the brain that has been linked to feelings of guilt. Previous studies have found abnormalities in this region, dubbed the SCSR, in people with depression.

The SCSR is known to communicate with another brain region, the anterior temporal lobe, which is situated under the side of the skull. The anterior temporal lobe is active during thoughts about morals, including guilt and indignation.

The researchers suspected that perhaps the communication channels between the SCSR and the anterior temporal lobe help people feel guilt adaptively rather than maladaptively: "I messed up and shouldn't do that again," versus "I fail at everything, why do I even try?"

The researchers recruit 25 participants who had a history of major depression but who had been symptom-free for at least a year. The participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scan that reveals blood flow to active areas of the brain. As their brains were scanned, the participants read sentences designed to illicit guilt or indignation. Each sentence featured the participant's name as well as the name of their best friend. For example, "Tom" might read a sentence like, "Tom acts greedily toward Fred," to elicit guilt. The sentence "Fred acts greedily toward Tom" would trigger indignation.

The researchers compared the brains of these once-depressed volunteers with the brains of 22 healthy, never-depressed controls, matched to the depressed volunteers on age, education and gender.

Men's Porn Use Linked to Unhappy Relationships

© ZINQ Stock, Shutterstock
What's on his computer could cause relationship problems.
Young women who report that their romantic partners look at porn frequently are less happy in their relationships than women partnered with guys who more often abstain, new research finds.

The study bolsters some anecdotal evidence that men's porn use can shake the self-esteem of their girlfriends or wives, though certainly not all couples have conflicts over pornography, said study researcher Destin Stewart, a clinical psychology intern at the University of Florida. Stewart decided to investigate the effect of porn on relationships after some of her clients revealed that they were struggling with the issue.

Discovering explicit material on a partner's computer "made them feel like they were not good enough, like they could not measure up," Stewart told LiveScience.
Brick Wall

Liberals vs. conservatives: How politics affects charitable giving

© Rice University/
Americans are more likely to donate to a charity that reflects the values of their political affiliation, according to a new study from Rice University, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Pennsylvania State University.

"The political divide not only impacts political actions, but everyday actions such as donating to charity," said Rice University Professor Vikas Mittal, co-author of the research paper. "When you ask people if their donation behavior to a charity helping children will change because of their political leanings, most say, 'Of course not!' We wanted to see if that is true or not."

The paper, which will appear in the International Journal of Research in Marketing: Special Issue on Consumer Identities, is based on three studies, two of which comprised nationally representative samples of adults and another based on a randomized experiment with students. The researchers asked why liberals or conservatives would donate more or less to a specific charity.

Fantasies May Lead to Biased Decision Making

Hamoa Beach in Maui
© Maui Convention and Visitors Bureau
Hamoa Beach in Maui. Fantasizing about your beach vacation may make you inclined to ignore the negative considerations while gathering information about it, research indicates.
Fantasies may influence people's eventual decisions by prompting them to overlook the negative considerations that arise farther down the road, a study says.

After researchers gave their study volunteers a chance to fantasize about one of three things: a dream vacation, wearing glamorous high heels or making a pile of money on the stock market.

Afterward, the participants were more prone to focus on the positive aspects than the negative aspects of such an event actually happening. In other words, the researchers found, fantasizing makes one more likely to focus on how fabulous her calves would look when wearing stilettos, rather than the calluses and bunions that might follow.

The finding has implications for how people get information when they are in the early stages of planning an event, according to the researchers, who point out that this bias ultimately may affect decision making later on.

"Our work suggests that before getting to this point, positive fantasies might lead people to acquire biased information - to learn more about the pros rather than the cons," Heather Barry Kappes of New York University said in a statement. "Thus, even if people deliberate very carefully on the information they've acquired, they could still make poor decisions."

Generation Wii... or Generation We?

On May 14, 2012, Greater Good Science Center Faculty Director Dacher Keltner delivered the commencement address for graduating psychology students at the University of California, Berkeley. We are proud to present the text of his speech.

© John Walker/Creative Commons
In 1986, Ivan Boesky, of insider trading fame, gave a graduation speech on this very same Berkeley campus of free speech and Nobel laureates. That day he declared, "Greed is healthy."

A year later in the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously turned that phrase into, "Greed is good." This battle cry was part of a pendulum swing seen before in history, one that expressed a certain view of who we are as a species. We are selfish gratification machines. Happiness is found in material pursuits. Other people's concerns are not our own. Altruism is an illusion. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good.

That phrase and its accompanying ideology was the mantra of my generation, and scientific studies show it brought us:
  • Rises in loneliness and a loss of friends;
  • A loss of trust in our communities and institutions;
  • Increases in narcissism and decreases in empathy;
  • Spikes in anxiety, to the point where 75 percent of Americans now say they are too stressed;
  • and Humvees, Enron, the recent economic collapse, an insulated one percent, and levels of inequality in the United States that are literally shortening the lives of our citizens.
Our graduates have been trained in a discipline - psychological science - that applies the impartial rigors and open-minded inquiry of science to hypotheses like, "Greed is good." And in any fashion that we test that hypothesis, it fails. Instead, we bring into focus a much different picture of human nature.

Parenting & The Human Baby

Tenderness appeared in man's mammalian ancestors eons before he learned to preserve fire or shape a stone.
- Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life
human baby
© Wikimedia Commons
The human infant is a helpless creature at birth. He is virtually immobile, he cannot creep, walk, or speak, and is greatly limited in his ability to act with purpose. Unlike other primates, he cannot even hold on to or cling to his mother. He must be carried if he is to go from one place to another. Seventy-five per cent of his brain develops after birth. He cannot continue to live without the efforts of another human. He requires years of development before he can care for himself. A baby's helplessness and immature development requires a source of care. Nature has provided a source to match this need - the human mother.

Mothers are biologically and genetically designed to nurture their babies. A newborn's mother has everything a baby needs - arms to hold him, breasts with human milk to feed and comfort him, a human body to share with him, a person to protect and be there for him. She is someone who has evolved with the power and specific resources that will allow her baby to continue to live and to develop normally after he is born. Mother and infant did not evolve separately, but together. The mother is the other half of the human nurturing process, a process which begins at conception and which continues for many years after birth. Although a mother and her baby are from the moment of conception structurally separate, they evolved to function together as a unit. Donald Winnicott, the English psychologist, has said that, "There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone." This statement captures the reality of the human baby - a reality which is often overlooked in our society because babies are inaccurately perceived from the moment of birth as separate individuals.

Seeing Black and White Makes People More Judgmental

Black n White Thinking
© Alta Oosthuizen | Shutterstock
Participants who read vignettes on a background of black and white became more judgmental than when reading the story on a plain background.
Chicago - Black-and-white judgments may be more literal than you might expect. A new study finds that people who view information on a black-and-white background are less likely to see gray areas in moral dilemmas than those who get the information alongside other colors.

The background, which participants weren't aware was of interest in the experiment, did not push people to become either more lenient or more severe, researchers reported Friday (May 25) here at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. Instead, it took people's natural tendencies toward leniency or severity and intensified them - in other words, their judgments became more black-and-white.

The findings add to a number of studies that find metaphors can often translate to literal, real-world behavior. For example, people who are holding a warm beverage view strangers as warmer. And when people remember a time they got the cold shoulder, they feel, you guessed it, physically colder.

"We now find that judgment style can also be influenced by metaphors such as black-and-white thinking," said study researcher Simone Schnall, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge.

Moral dilemmas

Schnall and her colleagues conducted a series of five experiments investigating both the black-and-white metaphor and the effect of "balance." In the first, they recruited 111 participants online through Amazon's crowd-sourcing website Mechanical Turk. Each participant read the fictional story of Heinz, a man forced to steal life-saving medication for his wife's cancer because he couldn't afford the drugs. After reading the story, the participants rated how moral Heinz's actions had been.

In some cases, participants saw this tale bordered by a black-and-white checkerboard. Others say a gray border. A third group saw a yellow-and-blue checkerboard.

The results revealed that people reported stronger judgments - both on the moral and immoral sides of the rating scale - when they had read the story against a black-and-white background. There was no difference between the gray and the colorful checkerboard.

"People gave more polarized judgments when they saw some black-and-white checkered background that was in principle irrelevant and incidental," Schnall said.

In a second study, the researchers used the same checkerboard backgrounds and asked questions about the morality and immorality of various behaviors, such as smoking. A new group of 130 online volunteers participated. They, too, made stronger judgments when they answered the questions against a black-and-white background.
Arrow Up

Major Discovery: Evolutionary Psychology Confirms that Many Men Are Cads

Woman on Bench
© sekundo/Flickr
When the age-blighted bricks that hold up House Darwin start to topple, it may look a bit like what's happening now to the Darwinian sub-specialty of evolutionary psychology. This pseudo-science attracts skepticism and eye-rolling -- albeit usually tempered and mild -- even from many Darwinists.

At Slate, psychologist Jesse Bering writes about a new study in Evolution and Human Behavior that would sure seem to be predictable media catnip, a confection of evolutionary storytelling about the human past spiced with large doses of cynicism about male and female sexuality.

The study used the customary small sampling of students from the local college whose preference in a sexual partner was the subject of inquiry. It discovered a tendency among the males to prefer photos of women who appeared vulnerable to being sexually exploited, including if the women appeared close to being unconscious. The young men disclosed that the pictures they found enticing disproportionately showed women who looked sleepy, inebriated, or simply stupid.

When asked about choosing a woman as a girlfriend or spouse, however, the men were drawn to ladies who seemed more alert, lively, and intelligent.

What in the world is surprising about this? Many men -- most men? -- have a bit of the cad in them, or worse, or much worse. That sleep or intoxication makes people vulnerable is no news either. The insight goes back back to the Bible and no doubt well beyond that. (Though interestingly all the stories of it in Scripture that I can think of involve men, not women, being victimized or taken advantage of when asleep or drunk.)

Why You Should Smile at Strangers

© AISPIX by Image Source | Shutterstock
C'mon, smile, it may make others feel more connected.
Chicago - Next time you're out walking about, you may want to give passers-by a smile, or at least a nod. Recent research reveals that these tiny gestures can make people feel more connected.

People who have been acknowledged by a stranger feel more connected to others immediately after the experience than people who have been deliberately ignored, according to study reported here today (May 24) at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Motivation.

"Ostracism is painful," said study researcher Eric Wesselmann, a social psychologist at Purdue University in Indiana. "Sometimes, colloquially, I like to say ostracism sucks. It's not a pleasant experience."

Isolation and connection

The pain is psychological, but it can also extend to the physical. Studies have linked loneliness to a weakened immune system and a hardening of the arteries, for example. And a variety of laboratory experiments have shown that when a person is excluded, even if for a brief time in something as inconsequential as a silly computer game, they feel worse about themselves and experience an all-around sour mood.

Researchers suspect that this response is evolutionary. Humans are social animals, adapted for group living, Wesselmann said.

"If you depend upon others for your survival, if you are culled from that group, you are as good as dead," he said.

If that's the case, people should be very tuned-in to clues about social acceptance and rejection. Wesselmann and his colleagues decided to conduct a subtle experiment to find out. Their participants, 239 pedestrians in a busy campus area, didn't even know they were part of a study. They simply passed by someone who acknowledged them politely, acknowledged them with a smile or stared straight through them as if they weren't even there. The researchers were aiming to create a feeling the Germans call "wie Luft behandeln," or "to be looked at as though air."

(Psychology has also explained another German expression, "schadenfreude," or the joy we sometimes get when others fail.)

Immediately after this encounter, the unknowing participants got waylaid by another person who asked them to fill out a survey on social connectedness. The participants had no idea that the stranger who had just passed them was part of this study. A fourth group of participants filled out the survey without ever encountering the stranger at all.

Strong emotions synchronize peoples' brains

© Lauri Numminmaa
Emotions synchronize brain activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and emotional processing.
Experiencing strong emotions synchronises brain activity across individuals, research team at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre in Finland has revealed.

Human emotions are highly contagious. Seeing others' emotional expressions such as smiles triggers often the corresponding emotional response in the observer. Such synchronisation of emotional states across individuals may support social interaction: When all group members share a common emotional state, their brains and bodies process the environment in a similar fashion.

Researchers at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre have now found that feeling strong emotions makes different individuals' brain activity literally synchronous.

The results revealed that especially feeling strong unpleasant emotions synchronised brain's emotion processing networks in the frontal and midline regions. On the contrary, experiencing highly arousing events synchronised activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and sense of touch.