Science of the Spirit


Truth or consequences? The negative results of concealing who you really are on the job

Watch Clayton Critcher talk about his research.

Most know that hiding something from others can cause internal angst. New research suggests the consequences can go far beyond emotional strife and that being forced to keep information concealed, such as one's sexual orientation, disrupts the concealer's basic skills and abilities, including intellectual acuity, physical strength, and interpersonal grace - skills critical to workplace success.

"With no federal protection for gays and lesbians in the work place, our work suggests that the wisdom of non-discrimination laws should be debated not merely through a moral lens, but with an appreciation for the loss of economic productivity that such vulnerabilities produce," says Clayton R. Critcher, assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Critcher, a member of the Haas Marketing Group, conducts research on consumer behavior and social psychology, including questions of self and identity.

Critcher's paper, "The Cost of Keeping it Hidden: Decomposing Concealment Reveals What Makes it Depleting," forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and co-authored with Melissa J. Ferguson of Cornell University, details multiple negative consequences of concealment. The findings, says Critcher, stem from the difficulty of having to constantly monitor one's speech for secret-revealing content that needs to be edited out.

Forget delayed gratification: What kids really need is cognitive control

"The children take a favorite small stuffed animal, lie down on the floor and put the animal on his or her belly. Then they count one-two-three as they breath in and their belly rises, and the same as their belly falls on the out breath."
By now, we've all heard about the famous marshmallow test in which 4-year-olds are told they can either have the juicy one in front of them now, or two later. The 40-year-old experiment, which has been replicated using a variety of enticements, purports to prove that children who can delay gratification will meet with the most success in life. But fighting off impulses is just a one part of a much broader and more predictive mental skill, one that scientists call "cognitive control," or the ability to manage your attention.

Cognitive control plays a central role in mental skills ranging from plain concentration and focus (on your homework, not that text from your BFF) to calming down after you get upset (say, when you finally read that text). A study published in 2011 tracked 1,000 children in New Zealand after rigorously testing them in elementary school for cognitive control. By their early 30s, their ability to manage attention predicted their financial success and their health better than did their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.

The brain's prefrontal circuitry for managing attention develops from birth onward into the 20s. Some children naturally have more cognitive control than others, and in all kids this essential skill is being compromised by the usual suspects: smartphones, TV, etc. But there are many ways that adults can help kids learn better cognitive control. For toddlers, playing games like Simon Says or musical chairs, where they win by playing close attention, works this mental muscle. Reading a story, or any activity that requires sustained attention, does the same.

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'Dozens of mental disorders don't exist' and DSM-5 is 'a fiction,' of ideology, U.S. therapist claims ahead of World Mental Health Day

Book of Woe
In his riveting tale of how psychiatrists "medicalize" human suffering, Gary Greenberg recounts that, in 1850, a physician called Samuel Cartwright reported a new disease in the highly respected New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. Cartwright named it drapetomania, from the ancient Greek drapetes for a runaway slave; in other words, here was a disease that "caused Negroes to run away." It had one primary diagnostic symptom - "absconding from service" - and a few secondary ones, including "sulkiness and dissatisfaction just prior to flight."

Drapetomania was, of course, consigned to the dustbin of medical history. It never made it into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the leading authority on mental health diagnosis and research. But, Greenberg suggests in his scathing critique of the DSM, it might well have done - had the manual existed at the time.

After all, he notes, homosexuality was listed as a "sociopathic personality disorder" when the DSM was first published in 1952, and remained so until 1973.

"Doctors were paid to treat it, scientists to search for its causes and cures," he writes in The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. "Gay people themselves underwent countless therapies including electric shocks, years on the couch, behaviour modification and surrogate sex."

Greenberg, 56, is a U.S. psychotherapist of 30 years' experience and a prolific writer on mental illness (including his own depression after the collapse of his first marriage). But the target of his latest book is the DSM itself, the so-called "psychiatrist's bible," which aims to provide a definitive list of all mental health conditions, along with their diagnostic criteria.

Neuro-enhancement in the military: Far-fetched or an inevitable future?

Neuro Enhanchement
© Alamy
The military has a genuine interest in brain stimulation research.
About five years ago, not long after I started up my research group at Cardiff University, something rather strange happened. One morning I came down to my lab to find the door wide open and a suited man standing in the middle of the room, peering around and scribbling on a clipboard. He told me he worked for a private defence firm who were interested in applications of my research on human brain stimulation. He also said there was funding available for joint research projects. We spoke for a couple of minutes before I made it clear I wasn't interested in that sort of collaboration.

Thinking about it afterward, something about the encounter chilled me. It wasn't the fact that this person had gained access to the lab seemingly unannounced, and it wasn't even the sense of entitlement that seemed to exude from the guy, as though he was standing in his lab not mine. What bothered me was the realisation that the work I do operates anywhere near the line where a military firm might find it useful. My opinion at the time - still unchanged - was that I would sooner quit science than get into bed with the profiteering wing of those whose raison d'être is foreign intervention and invasion.

Five years later, brain stimulation research has moved far and fast. A fascinating new issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience includes a timely review on the various ways brain stimulation can enhance thought and behaviour - with special consideration of applications in the security services and military.

Different forms of neurostimulation in humans have now been shown to boost our ability to learn and perform motor actions, to pay attention to events in the environment, to recall information in memory, and to exercise self-control. At the same time, evidence is mounting for more complex effects on cognition. For instance, stimulation of the human prefrontal cortex can enhance or inhibit our tendency to lie, improve our ability to lie successfully, and can encourage us to comply with social norms that carry a punishment for disobedience.

Science confirms the obvious: Political extremists think they are right and you are wrong

Ted Cruz
© Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
Tea Partier Ted Cruz.
Why are political extremists so hard to argue with? Because they're just so darn sure that their views are the most winningest of them all. As perhaps evidenced by our current state of government, extremists aren't really into compromise. The underlying reason may be that they believe their beliefs are vastly superior to the views of others, according to a new study in Physiological Science.

The study, which implicated extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, analyzed the extent to which being extremely conservative or extremely liberal correlated with feelings of belief superiority. Belief superiority doesn't just mean you think your opinions are correct, it means also believing it's the only valid opinion, and that all other opinions or attitudes are inferior to yours.

"They don't just take a side, they actually believe that everyone who disagrees with that view must be wrong," lead author Kaitlyn Toner explained.

Toner and her colleagues from Duke University looked at political opinions asserted by 527 Americans recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk system. The participants completed a series of online questionnaires about their views on polemical political issues like health care, illegal immigration, abortion, affirmative action and income taxes. They indicated both their attitude on the subject and how correct they believed their belief was in comparison to everyone else's.

The four basic moves to strengthen focus

You're at your keyboard zeroed in on some compelling task at hand, say, focused on a report you have to finish today, when suddenly there's a pop-up box or melodious ding! You've got a message.

What do you do? Stay with that urgent task? Or check that message?

The answer to that dilemma will be determined by a strip of neurons in your prefrontal cortex, just behind your forehead - your brain's executive center. One of its jobs is settling such conflicts, and managing your priorities in general.

The ability to stay concentrated on what you're doing and ignore distractions counts among the most basic skills in anyone's mental toolbox.

Call it focus.

The more focused we are, the more successful we can be at whatever we do. And, conversely, the more distracted, the less well we do. This applies across the board: sports, school, career.

Focus is the hidden ingredient in excellence - "hidden" because we typically don't notice it. But lacking focus we are more likely to falter at whatever we do. A test of how concentrated college athletes are, for instance, predicts their sports performance the following semester. A wandering mind, studies show, punches holes in students' comprehension of what they study. And an executive tells me that whenever he finds his mind has wandered during a meeting, he wonders what opportunities he has just missed.

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Zapping the brain makes people obey social norms

Human brain
© Shutterstock
Electrically stimulating the brain can make people comply with social rules more or less, depending on whether they could be punished.
From dress codes to anti-incest laws, all human societies have social norms that specify how people should behave in various situations. Scientists have now shown that a zap of electricity to the brain can influence whether people choose to comply with these norms or not.

"The complexity of human interactions is so big, so independent, that our society wouldn't function without norms, said study researcher Christian Ruff, an economics professor at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland. "Even though humans are very good at following norms, we're always tempted to break them. We need punishment threats to follow correctly," Ruff told LiveScience.

A previous study using function magnetic resonance imaging showed that the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC) is activated when people follow social norms to avoid being punished. Ruff and colleagues wondered if stimulating this area could make people more or less sensitive to the threat of punishment.

Can gardening help troubled minds heal?

© Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/AP
Women's Correctional Community Center inmate Lilian Hussein checks on ti leaves she planted as part of the prison's farming and gardening program in Kailua, Hawaii. The green ti leaves are often used to wrap food or weave into leis.
If you haven't noticed, gardens are popping up in some unconventional places - from prison yards to retirement and veteran homes to programs for troubled youth.

Most are handy sources of fresh and local food, but increasingly they're also an extension of therapy for people with mental health issues, such as, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD; depression; and anxiety.

It's called Horticultural Therapy. And some doctors, psychologists and occupational therapists are now at work to test whether building, planting, and harvesting a garden can be a therapeutic process in its own right.
Horticulture therapy dates back to Socrates, but it didn't become a scientific pursuit until the 18th century. That's when Benjamin Rush, That's when Benjamin Rush, a psychiatrist and Declaration of Independence cosignatory, began documenting, how gardening benefited his mentally ill patients.
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Eye Contact: Not as persuasive as we thought

Eye Contact
© Guido Reni, The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons
Look At Me When I'm Talking To You!
Here's a lesson straight out of my high school speech class: When making an argument, make eye contact with your audience. Connect with people. Stare deeply into the depths of their soul and convince them you're right. Except new research suggests that that might be exactly the opposite of what you want to do to be persuasive.

According to a study from the University of British Columbia, the University of Freiburg in Germany and the Harvard Kennedy school, locking eyes with someone discussing controversial views actually made the listener less likely to be persuaded by the speaker's argument.

In one experiment, this study used remote eye-tracking to record where the subjects (20 university students working for course credit) were looking as they watched several videos featuring people talking about controversial issues like assisted suicide, factory farming and nuclear energy. After each video, the participants were asked about their attitudes toward the arguments made in the video and how they felt about the viewpoints expressed by the speaker. The researchers found that subjects spent more time looking into the eyes of the speaker when they already agreed with the arguments the speaker was espousing.
People 2

Want to succeed in the art of persuasion? AVOID eye contact: Locking glances can lower your chance of winning a person over

  • The finding is only true if someone is sceptical of the speaker to begin with
  • The longer they hold eye contact, the more sceptical they will become
  • Locking eyes can boost receptiveness if person already agrees with speaker
If you want to persuade someone to do your bidding don't look them in the eye, according to new research.

A new study has shown that - contrary to common belief - locking eyes with someone when the aim is to persuade actually harms the chances of winning them over.

So demanding 'look at me when I talk to you' of someone may not have the desired effect after all

If you want to persuade someone to do your bidding don't look them in the eye, according to new research. Co-lead of the study, Julia Minson said: 'Whether you're a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire'
Experts say that eye contact with opponents in adversarial situations makes them more resistant to persuasion, although it still works as a sign of connection in 'friendly' situations