Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


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Generation mute missing out on real conversations

16-24 year olds are increasingly losing the ability to communicate face to face – or even on the phone. Telephone calls are now the 10th  most used function on a mobile phone. People who use their mobile phones for over 2 hours a day only spend 20 minutes actually speaking to someone on it.

Only 15% of them consider phone calls the most important method of communication compared to over twice that many who prefer instant messaging. In America 80% of millennials (born 1981-1997) felt more comfortable using text messaging rather than having a telephone conversation.

On the other hand 43% of adults over 24 years of age say phone calls are the most important means of contacting others, more than double the younger age groups.

Teenagers even prefer texting each other when with each other according to an Ofcom survey.

Ofcom said that respondents admitted to instant messaging, texting or e-mailing others even when they are in the same room. Just over quarter of adults did the same but the figures rose too 49% for teenagers.

Instant messaging services such as Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp are becoming more popular as wi-fi access becomes less of a problem as traditional texting is declining. Facebook Messenger claims to have reached 65% of the UK population via mobile phone and WhatsApp 47%.

When people are actually avoiding having a telephone conversation something is going wrong. But  the statistics show that time spent on phone calls in Britain reduced by 10% between 2011 and 2016.

Phil Reed, professor of psychology at Swansea University and an expert on internet addiction is concerned that the increased use of social media can lead to isolation and loneliness (a theme I have posted about regularly).

He says “Friendship involves reciprocity and empathy, which social media does not lend itself to. Talking we can interact, interject; we present ourselves relatively unedited”.

It seems young people are losing the art of conversation which is important in life. Not just socially but going for interviews and in adapting to new settings.

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Women don’t like macho men after all – but kind ones

Good news for all us wimps out there then?

A big salary, DIY skills, along with a strong sex appeal doesn’t do it for women who want a good relationship.

No, what they want is someone who is a good companion and has empathy.

Never mind sharing the household chores, just be a good listener and a friend.

This is according to recent research by the Marriage Foundation.

 

 

Low scoring characteristics

  • fixing things around the home (least desirable)
  • a sense of adventure
  • being strong
  • being sexy
  • being romantic

Higher scoring characteristics (in descending order)

  • being a friend
  • having an interest in children
  • having an interest in their partner
  • being kind
  • showing forgiveness
  • being a good lover
  • being protective
  • being funny
  • earning a decent salary

The survey found that 80% women still do most of the household chores but don’t mind as long as their partners spend time at home (so no nipping to the pub when she’s cleaning).

Three-quarters also did most of the childcare but half of them thought that was fair and said they were happy with their relationship.

The research director for the foundations said “almost any relationship thrives where there is kindness. Kindness is everything. It shows thought, consideration, care. It shows you notice and value. being kind is inactive decision that requires some kind of action. When somebody is kind it hugely attractive”.


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Should we dumb down our smartphones to stop us becoming more stupid?

Last September I asked on my other blog: Have we finally realised we need to unplug ourselves from endless apps and social media connections?

aansyq1I described the Light Phone and the fact that the old Nokia 3310 from 2000 was selling well on the internet. Now it’s been announced that the Nokia will be sold again with a larger colour screen but with only basic call and text facilities for around £49 in the UK.

It seems that the smartphone idea was being dumbed-down. Is that a bad idea?

Well in the Times Body & Soul section last weekend they asked “is your smartphone making you stupid?.

41-epxoutyl-_sx309_bo1204203200_They thought it was – if you count a fleeting attention span, a poorer memory, and a more passive intellect as signs of increasing stupidity.

Arianna Huffington‘s book “Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life” made similar points referring to the downside of online life as poor sleep, low attention span, diminishing empathy, not to mention wasted time.

And in Adam Alter‘s new book “Irresistible. The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked” or in the UK edition “Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching” the author , an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s school of business, describes how the internet changes your brain.

41xdmdoe5wl-_sx336_bo1204203200_Or as he says “Once your cucumber brain is pickled it can never go back to being a cucumber”. Tech companies manipulate you in all sorts of ways using random reinforcement methods (like slot machines), where the unexpected win increases the level of the pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain e.g. using “likes” – you have to check your post because you’re not sure how it will be received.

A company designed an app, Lovematically, that automatically liked everything you posted . It was banned within two hours. Instagram (owned by Facebook) wanted to remain the dealer not have the “online crack” given away for free.

And he’s not the only one writing about this. Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: what the internet is doing to your brain” was listed for a Pulitzer prize in 2011 so he’s been making his points for a few years now.

41gwbs8qckl-_sx327_bo1204203200_He thinks “We’ve never had a technology so intrusive into our moment by moment thinking, perception and attention. … it hijacks our attention faculty. Instead of choosing what we focus on we begin to focus the newest thing on our smartphone, whether it’s important or not”.

He points out that our short-term memory has a limited capacity but the contents can be transferred to our long-term memory through making associations and connections. He says “everyone who has a smartphone and is honest with themselves knows that it is shaping their consciousness and the way they think or don’t think

He cites research at Stanford University which found that media multi-taskers (never a good idea) i.e. those who jump from one social media app to another, browsing or posting, had a weakened anterior cingulate cortex, that part of the brain area involved in high level information and emotion processing. They had smaller grey matter density and decreased cognitive control. 

So  a shrunken brain, more impulsive, and less empathetic?

Larry Rosen, a professor in psychology at California State University, agrees about the effect of smartphones and says “We don’t process information as deeply any more. Our brains are wired to process it just enough to get it through the moment, knowing full well that if we need it, we know where to find it again because we have this great external memory called Mr Google“.

41qm9rez-wl-_ac_us218_ 41r7ybyxnjl-_ac_us218_Author of “iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us”  and co-author of “Distracted Minds: Ancient Brains in a high tech world“, he believes the short attention span we now have is linked to smartphone technology.

The smartphone “stimulated this concept of ‘do it and get out’. We’re very task driven and categorise every action as a task.”

Now that we don’t have to rely on our recall as much we’ll see less of the taxi-driver effect where their hippcampuses, the part of the brain associated with long-term memory and spatial awareness, became more developed than normal because of learning “the knowledge.

Tech companies like to promote intelligence based on the idea that the more information we take in the smarter we get. Carr believes the opposite is true. “We don’t get smart, we don’t become knowledgeable through the speed with which we take in information, but through our ability to synthesise information into context, into some broader understanding of the world”.

He argues that feeding us information like feeding babies milk makes us more dependent, lazier and more accepting. We become less able to apply intellectual or critical analyses to the information.

Acquiring true knowledge takes time and “requires us to think without interruption or distraction. All higher forms of thought, reasoning, critical thinking, require control over our attention; require the ability to turn off the flow of information and think deeply and over an extended period of time about things.

To develop common sense we need to think for ourselves says Richard Graham, a psychiatrist and technology addiction specialist in London. “Otherwise we become passive recipients of all sorts of information – one would file fake news into that category. One absolutely needs to have that mental agility and critical thinking to not become passive to information and judgement”.

So not looking good is it? And there’s more. What about its impact on our creativity? Well smartphones and social media might enable collaboration but being “always on” doesn’t allow much time for daydreaming which, according to neuroscientists at the University of California, leads to the brain engaging in a default mode of neural processing linked to “positive mental health  and cognitive abilities like reading, comprehension, and divergent thinking“.

While bouncing ideas off people can lead to creativity “original individual thinking does require an ability to be contemplative and reflective and introspective. None of these things can happen when you’re completely bombarded with information” says Carr.

And talking of collaboration, social media users might believe that they’re being thoughtful sending messages to their “friends” but it’s a fairly shallow and primitive method. Is sending someone a text message as meaningful as writing a letter or sending a card? “Online empathy is weak empathy and not as good as real-world empathy”. 

Sending a text message is often an emotional response without any thought going into it because it’s too easy. That lack of time for reflection makes us less human. No matter how many friends you think you have online the sad truth is that most of them aren’t real friends.

And part of this is due to the fact that we hate being bored. Students would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly in a room for 15 minutes (University of Virginia). It seems we’d rather play mindless games that reward us with flashing lights or different levels than sit and reflect.

Have you noticed that when you watch a TV series on Amazon or a film on Netflix it automatically moves to the next episode? Its default setting is opting in not out and given our predilection for generally not changing things (Brexit being a rare counter example) its easy to see how viewers get sucked in.

Alter says silicon valley leaders are hypocrites who know the damage they are doing to people’s lives. Steve Jobs banned his kids from having iPads and many restrict screen time. He says games designers avoid playing World of Warcraft because they’ve seen how immersive socially interactive games can turn intelligent but lonely young men into overweight college dropouts.

The designer of Flappy Bird actually took the game app down because he feared the effect it was having on people.

So what’s to be done if we are not to succumb to smartphone induced mediocrity? Alter suggests the usual such as parental restraints, stopping programmes before the end so you can resist the next instalment (bloody annoying if you ask me) , or punishing yourself.

One tech entrepreneur apparently hired a woman from Craigslist to slap him across the face ever time he opened his Facebook account. You can use a program called WastenoTime which blocks you accessing youTube or Facebook between certain hours. Or if you use your smartphone more than an agreed number of hours you can pledge to donate to a cause you hate.

Or you can just leave your phone at home and go out for some fresh air.

I’ve posted before about nomophobia and trying to overcome anxiety from FOMO or FOBO? Research shows that half of smartphone owners are spending two to four  hours on our phones every day and say they couldn’t live without it, and a quarter of them more than that.

If you’re in denial about how much time you spend on your phone you can get an app called Moment which tracks how much time you spend on it. Try it, it might be a wake-up call to get a life! 


Is self-help bad for your health?

319hladwknl-_sx279_bo1204203200_Well a scandinavian psychologist and professor at Aalborg University in Denmark thinks so.

Svend Brickmann, author of the best-selling “Stand Firm. Resisting the self-improvement craze“, says we live in a “culture of social acceleration” and in such a world standing still, being content, and not particularly feeling the need to constantly “grow” is almost heretical (writes Carol Midgley interviewing him in The Times).

What seems to be required in an era of constant change is to keep moving, keep adapting, keep ahead of the game both professionally and personally.

Well Brinkmann doesn’t buy into that at all.

He suggests that you throw away all your self-improvement books, embrace negativity and doubt, and stand firm against the tyranny of positivity. He particularly dislikes the obsession with introspection and self-analysis that risks stress, depression and might even turn us into mini-psychopaths.

His book is essentially an anti-self help book which mimics the self-help genre. So don’t expect any suggestions that you “listen to your feelings“, “trust your inner voice” and similar mantras.

He says “cut out the navel gazing”, “focus on the negatives in your life”, suppress your feelings“, “dwell on the past”, and “sack your coach”! I’d love to see him speak at the UK coaching or psychology conferences.

He wants to get us away from the all the self-analysis and self discovery that is pervasive in today’s culture.  Away from the priesthood of life coaches, therapists and the self-help manuals supporting the new religion of self.

He thinks our inability to accept what we have and our need to continually grow and indulge our feelings and emotions actually infantilises us, swaddling us in our own feelings, as we can’t continue to grow in reality.

He believes that as adults we should admire those who are capable of controlling and suppressing their emotions, not those who let it all hang out.

He also thinks the self-help industry fools us into thinking we are actually in control of our own destinies. “One of the problems with the self-help ethos is that it privatises or individualises social problems. If there are no jobs it’s not due to your lack of positive thinking that you can’t get a job”.

He sees a paradox in the self-help industry where the literature focuses on the individual’s freedom of choice and self-realisation yet helps create people who are addicted to self-help and therapeutic interventions. I know of people who go back year after year to the same NLP experience in Hawaii or to Tony Robbins conference events. Didn’t it work the first time?

He recommends reading a novel instead of a biography (which is about an individual) or a self-help book. (Interestingly there is some research that found that reading a literary – not popular – novel is good for developing your empathy among other things as it introduces you to things outside your experience).

As for the claim that self-realisation creates self-sufficient adults he refutes it saying it actually creates infantile, dependent adults who think the truth lies within them.

He mentions self-help guru Tony Robbins who has coached George W Bush and Bill Clinton. Robbins says “Success is doing what you want, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want” (I can see the appeal to Bill Clinton). Brinkmann says that taken to extreme this way of thinking resemble sociopathy or anti-social personality disorder because it encourages you to do whatever is necessary to achieve your aims.

He also notes that this approach has no ethical substance and life coaches encourage people to follow their dreams, be passionate, and do what is necessary to achieve it. Not caring what other people think and being encouraged to “do it now” is similar to the lack of impulse control that is part of what makes a psychopath.

It seem that at heart Brinkmann is a stoic. So rather than practising positive visualisation about things you want practise negative visualisation. What would life be like if you lost everything? This makes you appreciate what you’ve got and prepares you for not having it.

Defensive pessimism – lowering your expectations and preparing yourself for the worst can be an effective way of managing anxiety and be very positive for some people and improve performance. I have experienced this attitude with friends in the Slav and Baltic countries.  I’ve heard “Don’t count your blessings until the day is out” and similar sayings in Ukraine and Lithuania and pout it down to their temperament.

So always looking on the bright side doesn’t work for everyone and can become tiresome and oppressive. In Carol Midgley’s article she starts with a reference to performance reviews and what to say when you are asked the question about your development plans over the next five years.

Brinkmann’s view would be “I don’t want to develop I’m happy as I am” which probably wouldn’t go down well. However several years ago working at a multi-national pharma company based in Sweden I had the same experience.

I was coaching teams on the performance appraisal system to ensure it was rolled out the same in all countries when a Swedish team member asked why his manager kept asking him the same stupid question every year “where do you see yourself in 5 years time?” when he was happy doing what he did and just wanted to continue to do it to the best of his ability. There are definitely cultural differences at work here.

Brinkmann ends his book with an Appendix about stoicism which he sees as a useful anti-self help philosophy. And that’s because it emphasises self-control, a sense of duty,integrity, dignity, peace of mind, and a willingness to come to terms with (rather than find) yourself.

Sounds a bit old-fashioned? But well worth thinking about in our increasingly self-centred and narcissistic society.


The Selfish Power of Empathy

The Pensives

Whether you call it empathy, insight, or the ability to understand another person’s perspective, it doesn’t have a nice ring to it. It sounds like something your parents and teachers preached to you for the sake of keeping a civil playground, and like any repeated message, it goes in one ear and out the other once you’ve heard it enough times.

What they don’t tell you is that a person who masters this skill (I call it skill rather than trait because it’s something you must practice to become proficient in), is a person who will increase the probability of getting what they want by ∞. Of course, “manipulation” is not something that’s encouraged by those around you, but let’s face it, manipulation is an integral part of living.

Whether your goal is bettering relationships with partners/family/friends, ending tiring arguments, winning debates, advancing your professional career, or improving overall happiness, becoming better at empathizing will be one of the most valuable…

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Dolphins not so smart after all?

CNV00005_14We’ve been told that dolphins are the smartest creature after humans.

Apparently it’s not true! We’ve been conned by the dolphin’s smile and stories of its social and sometimes helpful behaviour.

That’s according to Justin Gregg, a biologist and researcher with the Dolphin Communication Project, who has just written a book “Are dolphins really smart?” in which he challenges previous scientific research.

Dolphins show many complex behaviours such as living in large groups, showing empathy and communicating with their peers but such behaviours are also found in other animals such as chickens, pigs, and bears.

So dolphins are not so special after all it seems and furthermore have a propensity to be violent towards their fellow cetaceans such as porpoises.

The book comes out at a time when some academics are calling for more protection and moral rights for dolphins based on their brain power. Only last year scientists called for them to be classed as non-human persons.

The idea that dolphins were special dates back to the 1950s when neuroscientist John Lilly wondered why they had such large brains and experimented on them convinced they were trying to communicate with him in dolphinese.  The television series Flipper contributed to their popularity in the 1960s. And in the past both American and Russian navies have used trained dolphins for marine warfare purposes.

Gregg thinks that in some respects they are less sophisticated than chickens having no distress or food calls.  And bottle-nosed dolphins have been recorded killing harbour porpoises, seemingly for the fun of it as they don’t eat them. In Australia groups of male dolphins have been observed isolating females and forcibly mating with them.

My only experience of dolphins, swimming with them in Cuba, was a painful experience when one of them (pictured) thrashed my leg with it’s tail giving me a dead-leg in the water. Very painful but I put it down to the young creature’s mischievousness and went back in for a second session. Looking back I’m not so sure!


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So many “friends” yet still lonely? 

Woman Against Orange WallWith “Quit Facebook Day” approaching (31 May 2010) many people are re-examining their relationship with the social networking site Facebook – the site that keeps on sharing.

Or over-sharing according to Time Magazine this month (Facebook – friends without borders”).

Some time this month Facebook will officially log its 500 millionth active citizen – a bigger population than the USA.

Not bad for an idea, dreamt up just over 6 years ago by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg to keep track of Ivy League students, which alongside Microsoft, Google, and YouTube, is bringing the web into people’s lives.

It’s the willingness of people to share information which has made it a success and also brought criticism. The default setting is maximum exposure and individuals who don’t necessarily want their friends to know what they have been buying, or have that information available on any web-site that wants it, for example, have had to reset their privacy settings.  Facebook has more than once had to pull back and allow users more privacy control after introducing new features such as Newsfeed (pre-dating Twitter) Facebook Beacon (now discredited), Open Graph, and Instant Personalization.

Zuckerberg’s Law – each year we will share twice as much information as we did the previous year – or so he hopes, is the underpinning for its business model and the site is designed to not only hook you in but also guilt trip you if you try to leave – a virtual Hotel California. With 25 billion pieces of information being shared each month, and with 1 billion images being added every week (it has 48 billion images making it the world’s largest picture collection), it’s easy to see why marketers and advertisers love it.

So people are sharing their lives, or some version of their lives, not just with close friends and families – which is how it all started – but with complete strangers. Doesn’t that seem odd? Or egotistical, or narcissistic, or voyeuristic? (And the same applies to Twitter).

Does “friending” people make them a friend? People with more extravert personalities tend to categorise the majority of people they know as friends whereas more introverted types will separate close friends from acquaintances and the thought of hundreds of people sharing their private lives would horrify them. Many people would happily pass up on their “15 minutes of fame” but not apparently those on Facebook.

And just how many “friends” can you handle anyway? Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed the upper limit for the number of people we can maintain stable relationships with is 150 – the size of small settlements and military companies. Others have suggested a higher figure of almost double that but the likely range seems to be 100 to 230. Yet many people on social networking sites claim connections with far more people than this.

Apart from the social networking and (self)promotional aspects it has also been used for recruitment by some large companies – and that should make students stop and think about what they put on their Facebook in, shall we say, their more relaxed moments. Not to mention how long they spend on it with some students reportedly spending up to 4 hours a day on it.

Despite all this interaction the Mental Health Foundation’s recent report; “The Lonely Society”, describes loneliness as commonplace. More people are living alone: the number doubled to 12% between 1972 and 2008, the divorce rate also doubled since 1960 and there are more lone parents. People are also living longer but most do so alone.

The charity suggests that investing time in social activities is seen as less important than work in a modern market-driven society. People now feel more pressure to be productive and busy and neglect friends and families as a consequence. 20% of people in their survey said they spent too much time communicating on-line than in person (28% of Facebook users are over 34 and this is the fastest growing age group).

There is also concern that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter hinder the development of social skills and the ability to read body language (NVC) . And internet contact doesn’t provide the physical contact which  helps build emotional bonds between people. In a nutshell, over-reliance on social networking to the detriment of real personal contact is not good for anyone’s mental and physical well-being.

But it’s not just Facebook: e-mail is just as much to blame for what a French philosopher Guy Debord called ; “the lonely crowd“. There are almost 1.5 billion people sending nearly 250 billion e-mails each day rather than having face to face conversations with colleagues.

According to John Freeman, author of “The Tyranny of Email“, we spend so much time checking our inboxes or refreshing Twitter pages, that we are less productive because our attention spans are shattered into tiny fragments.

Perhaps worse, Edward Halliwell, a New York psychiatrist, believes that we are so busy processing information from all directions that we are losing the ability to think and feel and becoming disconnected from other people.

The Times reported (29/5/10) that students today are 40% less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The current “Generation Me” is more narcissistic, self-centred and competitive and less concerned with other people’s feelings. They are seen as confident and individualistic but not as kind.

2000 seems to have been the turning point attributed to violent video games, social networking sites, and an obsession with TV celebrities. The researchers believe that technology has replaced human interaction and having online “friends” means that you don’t have to respond to their problems face to face. Coupled with inflated expectations, competitiveness means hiding weaknesses and leaves no time for empathy.

Updated 14 July 2010: Quit Facebook Day seems to have been a flop with only 36,000 people closing their accounts (out of 400 million world-wide) according to New Scientist (10 July 2010). Of course we don’t know how many who didn’t have an account were put off getting one. However researchers in social networking at Microsoft believe that Facebook has become an essential utility like water and electricity.

Updated 23 February 2011: Dr mark Porter’s column in The Times yesterday addressed the issue of loneliness. He pointed out what we already know ie that the increased use of mobile phones, the internet, and home entertainment systems has hastened the demise of community meeting points like pubs and social clubs.

But he also points out the health risks associated with loneliness. Lonely people:

  • tend to be bad at regulating their life-style and are more likely to pursue self-destructive habits such as drinking too much and over-eating
  • are less likely to seek emotional support and suffer more stress
  • tend not to sleep well. This affects their metabolism and if they are stressed can cause heart problems and affect their immune system so they are less able to fight off infections and disease.

And he cites a study of 3,000 nurses with breast cancer which showed that those with no close friends had a much lower survival rate than those with lots of friends.