Science of the Spirit

Bad Guys

Suffer the psychopath

© 4RealLeaders
It seems that empathic leadership is increasingly being devalued in organizations. While the great minds of leadership extol the virtues of engaged, supportive "show me that you care" approaches, it appears that many organizations want to embrace a much different set of values.

Psychopathic leadership seems to be the new shiny thing that is taking some public and private sector organizations by storm. In tough economic times, it would appear that the answer lies with having leaders that exude a bullying narcissism instead of empathy and trust.

The question is why?

It's been shown for decades that truly great organizations are led by individuals who care deeply about the people working for them as well as the bottom line. CEO Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines is often held up as an example of this approach to empathic leadership. Stephen Covey, in his seminal 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, taught that great leaders are those who have integrity, character, empathy and lead by principles such as honesty and transparency.

I am perplexed how the psychopaths even get a job interview, let alone the job.

Part of the answer is surely the increasing push to short-termism. The need for an immediate financial or productivity turnaround to satisfy shareholders or government overseers often leads organizations to find someone with a clear, "take charge" personality.


The power of concentration

© Time Life Pictures/Mansell via Getty Images
A drawing of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget from 1891 in The Strand Magazine.
Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world's greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of "throwing his brain out of action," as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.

Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.

Now we're learning that the benefits may reach further still, and be more attainable, than Professor Langer could have then imagined. Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think - and it does so at a basic neural level.


Fake mission to Mars leaves astronauts spaced out

Trip to Mars in pretend spaceship on Moscow industrial estate affects sleep, activity levels and motivation of six-man crew
© Agence France-Presse
Members of the Mars500 crew relax on the fake spaceship in Moscow.
As the cheerless skies and grim economy sap all will to return to work, take heart that even on a trip to Mars, it is hard to get out of bed in the morning.

The drudge of interplanetary travel has emerged from research on six men who joined the longest simulated space mission ever: a 17-month round trip to the red planet in a pretend spaceship housed at a Moscow industrial estate.

Though chosen for the job as the best of the best, the would-be spacefarers spent more and more time under their duvets and sitting around idle as the mission wore on. The crew's activity levels plummeted in the first three months, and continued to fall for the next year.

On the return leg, the men spent nearly 700 hours longer in bed than on the outward journey, and only perked up in the last 20 days before they clambered from their capsule in November 2011. Four crew members suffered from sleep or psychological issues.

"We saw some problems," said Mathias Basner, of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effects of sleep-loss on behaviour. "There were no major adverse events, but there could have been if the stars were aligned in a certain way."

The $10m (£6.2m) Mars500 project, run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, launched, metaphorically, when the hatch to the mock-up spaceship closed behind three Russians, two Europeans and a Chinese man in June 2010. The men spent the next 520 days in windowless isolation. Their only contact with the outside world was over the internet and by phone lines that carried a delay of up to 20 minutes, to mimic the time it takes radio waves to reach Mars from Earth.


Study: Racial stereotyping linked to creative stagnation

© Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
New research suggests that racial stereotypes and creativity have more in common than we might think.

In an article published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researcher Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University and colleagues find that racial stereotyping and creative stagnation share a common mechanism: categorical thinking.

"Although these two concepts concern very different outcomes, they both occur when people fixate on existing category information and conventional mindsets," Tadmor and her colleagues write.

The researchers examined whether there might be a causal relationship between racial essentialism -- the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities -- and creativity.


Mapping the emotions we don't have language for

That sort of painful, sort of bittersweet, sort of wistful feeling you get looking out the window or driving at night or listening to a far-off train whistle? There's a word for that in Japanese.

Few of us use all--or even most--of the 3,000 English-language words available to us for describing our emotions, but even if we did, most of us would still experience feelings for which there are, apparently, no words.

In some cases, though, words do exist to describe those nameless emotions--they're just not English words. Which is a shame, because--as today's infographic by design student Pei-Ying Lin demonstrates, they often define a feeling entirely familiar to us.

Lin solicited the list of "unspeakable" words from colleagues at London's Royal College of Art, and found that their definitions in English usually came down to something like, "it is a kind of (emotion A), close to (emotion B), and somehow between (emotion C) and (emotion D)."


We may all be psychic: Data from 14-year Global Consciousness Study released

© Who Forted
The original title of this post was going to "Highly Significant Data of 14 Year Global Consciousness Study Shows Evidence of Synchronicity", but that was kind of a mouthful. Besides, I actually wanted people to read this, because the results of this study can't really be understated: there is "highly significant" evidence that we may all be psychically linked.

Researchers for the Global Consciousness Study just released their data collected from August 1998 to this, the first month of 2013, and their findings, while nowhere near complete, show hugely significant evidence that we all may be far more connected than we think. The data (which can be read here), might be a little intimidating to make sense of at first, but here's the basic gist of how it all works and what it all means:

14 years ago the creators of the Global Consciousness Project began placing random number generators all across the world. They call these generators "eggs". As of now, there are around 60 of these eggs located in Europe, the US, Canada, India, Fiji, New Zealand, Japan, China, Russia, Brazil, Africa, Thailand, South America, and Australia. The purpose of these eggs is to constantly spit out random numbers. Meanwhile, devices are also spitting out "guesses" to what those random numbers could be. They call this the "expected randomness" and they're figured using some crazy math I couldn't possibly understand. The researchers then measure how often the random numbers and the guesses match.


Five universal personality traits? Not always

© iStockPhoto
An elderly woman from the lowlands in Boliva.
In recent years, psychologists have zeroed in on five big personality traits that appear to be universal.

No matter what culture people come from, a number of studies have suggested, everyone incorporates some degree of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

But after considering the indigenous and mostly illiterate Tsimane forager - horticulturalists of Bolivia, researchers are challenging the idea of the "Big Five." Instead, they argue that the Tsimane have just two main personality traits: socially beneficial behavior and industriousness.

The findings call into question the universality of human personality traits. Instead, the specific demands of various societies may affect which quirks of character become most significant to different groups of people.

"Individuals in all human societies face similar goals of learning important productive skills, avoiding environmental dangers, cooperating and competing effectively in social encounters, and finding suitable mates," the researchers wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Life Preserver

Self-control instantly replenished by self-affirmation

© PsyBlog
When you feel weak, stating core values can be a quick and easy self-control booster.

People are rightly obsessed with self-control because they intuitively understand what studies have proven: that it is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes in life, like satisfying relationships and academic achievement.

Failures of self-control, however, have been linked with addiction, overeating, interpersonal conflict and underachievement.

Self-control can be hard to maintain, as most of us know to our cost. One study has found that exercising self-control is such hard work, it measurably depletes our glucose levels (Gailliot et al., 2007). The same study also found that having a glass of lemonade afterwards can restore us to full power.

But not everyone appreciates the calories gained from a sugary drink or wants to wait while it is digested, so what other, quicker methods are there?

Life Preserver

10 step guide for making your New Year's resolutions

© PsyBlog
Are you tortoise or hare? For New Year's resolutions it pays to go slow and make sure you get there.

One of the main reasons that New Year's resolutions are so often forgotten before January is out is that they frequently require habit change.

And habits, without the right techniques, are highly resistant to change, as I explain in my new book 'Making Habits, Breaking Habits'.

But because habits work unconsciously and automatically, we can tap into our in-built autopilot to get the changes we want.

So here is my quick ten-step guide to making those New Year's resolutions, based on the hundreds of psychology studies I cover in the book.

Magic Wand

Seeking seat of consciousness in dark side of brain

The brain may be most active when doing nothing at all.

Imagine a human brain sitting in a chair, laughing at our clumsy attempts to figure out how it works. It's an image that comes to neuroscientist Dr. Georg Northoff, as he writes books and plays about the brain, when he's not busy investigating its neural mysteries.

"I always imagine when I do these plays, there sits a brain beside us, and I'm sure the brain would smile and say 'they're so stupid,' " he said.

It's a pretty cheeky attitude for a mass of neural tissue Northoff describes as 'pulp.'

"You'll see in my play, I describe it as 'gruesome grey pulp.' If you consider the brain from the outside, if you just take it out of the skull, it's just grey, jelly matter," he said. "Inside the brain, it's a collection of neurons, a collection of molecules...I would argue it is some spatial, structural, temporal template which is continuously changing, like a grid. I hope that in 10 years, I can tell you more."

Northoff holds the Canada Research Chair in Neuropsychiatry at the University of Ottawa and he's also part of the Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics Research Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. As he studies the biochemical basis of mental illness, Northoff believes he's also on the trail of the elusive seat of consciousness, the part of the brain that creates our unique sense of self.