Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Another Snow Day!

All of this snow has been making the short walk to work treacherous. But the newf seems to think the pile of snow and ice in her backyard is the best thing that has ever happened to her. She discovered snow this month and will beg to go outside where she pounces at pretend mice, nuzzles the snow with her nose, play bows at imaginary snow dogs, and flops down to create her rendition of snow angels. It is hilarious!

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Psychology Behind Presidential Stupidity

A new psychology study hit the press today, right in time to provide perspective on tonight's State of the Union address. The study, published in the journal Political Psychology, analyzed the level of complexity of these speeches from 41 different U.S. presidents going all the way back to George Washington. The speeches become, well – dumb and dumber – as the President's number of years in office grow. Which means that tonight's address, the Academy Awards for would-be actors too ugly to make it in Hollywood, will be perfect if you like ingesting idiocy packaged as important information. After all, he's already as dumb as they come, right?

I perused the more than 30 page manuscript, by Felix Thoemmes of Arizona State University and Lucian Conway of the University of Montana. It was interesting.

Integrative complexity can roughly be considered an ability to:
* distinguish & acknowledge other points of view
* synthesize or integrate divergent points
* tolerate ambiguity

As it turns out, this integrative complexity is an old idea. It comes from a classic, textbook social psychology concept in Kelley's personal construct theory. Integrative complexity can be considered a personality trait - roughly to what extent a person tends to engage in higher-order cognition – the kind of critical thinking I and my fellow colleagues want our college students to display. And at least – for crying out loud - the leader of the United States!

The Political Psychology study, Integrative Complexity of 41 U.S. Presidents, found that in the final year of office, the level of complexity of presidential speeches plummeted.

You know what's the most interesting?

American presidents who showed a sharper decline in complexity were more likely to be re-elected.


Now, it's not that Presidents become more dumb in office, or that their speech writers do. After all, personality doesn't change. That's the whole point; personality is stable. It's not that the stress of the job catches up with them, as Conway conjectured. Rather – presidents act. They deliver the lines their speech writers and staff feed them. Like other experienced actors, they ad lib. I think they know exactly how to "sell" their agenda to a populace reluctant to think critically.

“Low complexity wins elections,” Conway
reiterated in an interview. “People like simple answers, and someone saying, ‘I don’t have all the answers and here are five possibilities’ is a hard sell compared to someone who says, ‘I have a plan and it is going to work and my opponent is completely wrong.’ ”

One person interviewed about the study,
Matthew Scully, was skeptical of the author's conclusion. He said the findings "largely reflect that by the president’s fourth year in office, many issues on his agenda may have already become law or been shot down. Either way, presidents have a smaller — and simpler — platter of issues at that point." It should not come as a surprise that he was one of Bush’s speechwriters.

His point may hold some water when considering one or two periods during the history of the United States, but I don't buy it. The world doesn't become a simpler, tidier place with each U.S. President who holds office. They just are not that powerful, otherwise the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, the Koreas, Malaysia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and our county's relationship with the Mexican border would all be better by now. Yet, the world is still in shambles. Even France has more problems now. Sorry, Scully, your X-Files namesake may have been hot, but your explanation leaves me a little cold.

Be that as it may, what do we make of the finding that presidents with more simplistic views get re-elected?

When asked, Conway cited his preliminary analysis of Democratic presidential primary debates in 2004. Candidates who offered complex arguments were rated less popular in subsequent public opinion polls than those who offered simplistic ones. Another researcher, Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia, found a similar pattern among revolutionaries – those people who changed history.
Suedfeld analyzed rebellious leaders from George Washington to Fidel Castro and found the common ingredient for their success was espousing simple ideas. Those who offered complex ideas to start may have simply failed to inspire followers. But why?

I propose that people 'jump on the bandwagon' of leaders who ignite their passion, who make them feel rather than think. We are swayed by a charismatic person, a charming actor who makes us feel good. Thinking is hard work. Requiring that of listeners means speakers can't reach their hearts. It takes a gifted orator to make people think and
simultaneously feel good. Those types don't come along very often.

All of this talk of politics and revolutionary changes makes me
wonder where people like Dennis Kucinich and the young rabble-rouser from Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, fit in.

So the next time you hear the president or any other leader offer simplistic statements designed to make you feel good and not think, remember – they are just doing what works.

As one AP writer put it, "The disturbing question is not why politicians pander, but why pandering works — and for that we need to look in the mirror."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

SADness: Seasonal Affective Disorder & Vitamin D

Being an evolutionary psychologist, I'm interested in how we as a species cope with novel living conditions – large cities, nuclear families, and time spent mostly indoors.

Our relationship with the sun is an interesting one.

On one hand, too much sun exposure gives you skin cancer and wrinkles. On the other – too little puts you at risk for depression, which when confined to the dark days of winter when we tend to stay indoors is called season affective disorder (SAD). Lack of sunlight causes other health problems too.

Exposure to sunlight is necessary for our bodies to produce vitamin D. Too little vitamin D is associated with osteoporosis, rickets, and now - new studies show it's associated with some forms of cancer that happen to be particularly deadly because they are often caught too late.

So what's a person to do to fight seasonal depression and vitamin D deficiency?

Lately, medical doctors have jumped on the bandwagon of having patients take vitamin D supplements, because supposedly for many of us (including indoor sun-phobic me) our bodies don't produce enough of it during the winter. Sunlight helps us produce vitamin D, but getting it from our diet is ineffective, or at least inefficient.

People need 1000 international units (IU) of vitamin D each day, the number experts think is adequate for most people. To put it in perspective, a glass of vitamin D fortified milk or juice provides about 100 IU. A multivitamin usually offers 400 IU.

Other sources of vitamin D include:

  • Cod Liver Oil 1 tablespoon = 1360 IU of vitamin D
  • Salmon 3 ounces = 425 IU of vitamin D
  • Herring 3 ounces = 765 IU of vitamin D
  • Sardines Canned, 3 ounces = 255 IU of vitamin D
But who wants to eat enough of that every day to meet the recommendation? Not me.

According to the National Institutes of Heath, just 10 minutes of sunshine a day, 3 times a week is enough for the average person to get all the vitamin D they need.

Sweet. I would much, much rather do that.

But what happens when the sun doesn't come out for months or you're busy working all day?

You become depressed, your sleep-wake cycle gets all goofed up, you become cranky and irritable and you get more headaches.

Your brain starts producing too much melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland. Melatonin regulates circadian rhythm, i.e. sleep-wake cycle, and is produced at night and while sleeping. Sunlight shuts off its production.

During the winter, when the sun rises later and sets earlier, people are exposed to less sunlight. The pineal gland produces more melatonin and that appears to be a physiologic correlate, maybe even a cause, of depression.

Taking melatonin supplements is stupid if your problem is too much of it. But, when it comes to hormones, our bodies seem to have evolved a mechanism to keep hormone levels optimal. When we produce too much of a hormone, our brain, working through a part called the hypothalamus, sends out signals to produce less. The reverse happens when we produce too little. Tumors and external factors, such as diet and in the case of melatonin, too little sunlight, can wreck that delicate system. The idea behind synthetic melatonin supplements is that you reset an upset system. If you ask me, it's a dumb idea.

Now, drugs can be a wonderful thing, don't get me wrong, but when it comes to fixing problems brought on in part by living a lifestyle we aren't adapted for, such as being cooped up indoors all the time during the winter, I think a natural solution is best.

That means making lifestyle adjustments that are more in line with the lifestyle Homo sapiens lived for millions of years.

A light box that emits UV light like the sun, is one natural way to treat seasonal affective disorder and vitamin D deficiency. It's effective too. Just don't over-do it. The best way to use a light box, when you can't get 15 minutes of sun on your retina first thing in the morning, is to wake up at the same time of day and use your light box for 15 minutes, three times a week. You could do it while reading the newspaper or getting ready in the morning.

Or, you could move to a place that gets sunshine more regularly. This totally awesome, animated map of the US shows where the sunlight is month by month. Good luck with that.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Emotional Intelligence - A Quick Test

A fad that swept through the field of psychology some years ago captured everyone's attention: EQ. Emotional intelligence is the supposedly touchy-feely construct that captures to what extent you're an insensitive clod. We're not talking about whether you are a jerk, but whether you just don't know any better because your emotional aptitude is stunted. Unlike intelligence testing, which has a long and sordid history wrapped up in eugenics, emotional intelligence is a relatively new construct free of any genetic, just-born-that-way junk. Supposedly, your EQ is a better predictor of job success than IQ. How about that?

Want to get a rough idea of what your EQ is, take a test here.
Note: It's not the actual, carefully standardized test the developers, Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey, created.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Improve your vocabulary: A Step By Step Guide That Works for the SAT/GRE

What follows is my plan for learning 1,000 new words in one month in 30 minutes a day.

Around this time of year college seniors start growing anxious about their impending GRE tests. The Graduate Record Exam is a roughly 3-hour long exam that tests a student's language, math, and analytical skills. Most graduate schools require the exam and admission depends on it.

One of the easiest portions of the exam to study for is also the most immediately beneficial: Vocabulary.

Now, when I took the exam for the first time I foolishly scheduled it on the same day I also took the other 3-hour long exam for admission specifically to psychology graduate programs. When my scores arrived in the mail I was relieved to see that I had aced the psychology exam but shocked to see that my verbal score was utterly abysmal. I'm not kidding. My score was at least 200 points lower than what it needed to be for graduate school. Sure, I could write well and express myself – at times eloquently according to one prof. However, the breadth of my vocabulary limited me.

I resolved right then to improve my vocabulary.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to doing what I did to expand my vocabulary. If you follow it, I am confident it will work for you too.


First, get your hands on a copy (or two!) of the Word Smart books published by the Princeton Review. They publish a "hit list" of the words that appear most frequently on the GRE and SAT exams.

Prepare some blank note cards – make them 1.5 inches square. As you go through the Word Smart book, write down every word you don't know the definition of. Put each word IN ALL CAPS on one side and the definition in your own words on the other side. Be liberal. If you only sort of know a word, make a card. Don't assume you'll understand it later when you take the test and are short on time.

Writing the definitions in your own words is crucial. Learning is less effective if you copy definitions from the dictionary and word smart books. Keep your definitions short and simple. A word or phrase is enough.

The Word Smart books are organized so the the most frequently appearing words are noted. I put a star on the upper right corner of the flash card to distinguish the high priority words. Learn them first.

I ended up making about 1,000 flash cards, but the number you make will depend on how many words you don't immediately know when going through the Word Smart books. You will need 4 containers to keep the cards. One holds the starred cards, another the un-starred cards. Another is for words you learn along the way that you keep 'in rotation.' The final container is reserved for 'retired' cards. Miniature gift bags about 3x3x2 inches work well; so do the ubiquitous large plastic dixie cups endemic to college campuses.

From your high priority pile, select about 25-30 cards at random. This is your short stack. You can go up to 30 but I wouldn't advise any more unless you can devote more than a half hour each day to this. Read each word and attempt to define it in your head. If you can't after thinking about it for 2 seconds, flip it over and check the definition. Use it in a sentence. Do this with all of the cards in your short stack and repeat as many times as you can in one sitting. Always shuffle before repeating. You should spend about 30 minutes going through your cards. When you're done, set them aside in your 'in rotation' container.

The next day, or better yet, later that day – go through your short stack from the previous study session. Each word you 'get right' – make a little hash mark in the lower corner of the card in pencil. Put them in your 'in rotation' container. Your learned container will be nearly empty for awhile. Your goal is to fill it with all of your flash cards.

With each new study session, add new cards from the starred pile to equal the number of cards you put in your rotation cup the previous day. Always choose them at random. Go through the cards and hash mark the ones you know. You'll recall a few from the previous session. Remember to put the hash marked cards in your 'learned' pile. Eventually you'll run out of the starred cards and you can replace with the un-starred ones.

When you have about 25-30 cards in your learned pile – go through them. If you don't get a definition right, put the card back in your short stack. It goes back into rotation. If you get it right, put another hash mark on the card. You'll need to do this refresher step every couple of days to make sure you retain the words. When a card has 5 hash marks, consider it learned and retire it. Put it in the 'retired' container for as long as you want.


Use the words you learn in conversations. Insert them in place of more mundane adjectives. Play the alphabet game, vocabulary word category. I play the alphabet game frequently with Mr. Field Notes to stay alert on long car trips or whenever we're bored and trapped with nothing better to do. Someone starts with A and says an oddball vocab word that starts with A - but only if they know the definition. If the other person doesn't know it, you have to define it. The next person takes B and so on until you reach Z.

Amity Bombastic Canard Diffident Effluvium Fetid ... and so on.

I bumped up my GRE verbal score 200 points by doing this and am happy to report I recall many of those words I learned some twelve years ago.

Kudos to those who can define the words in the cards pictured above or know the words given the definition. You are a step ahead already.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Kite Runner - Thumbs Up A Thousand Times Over

I probably could have waited to watch the movie The Kite Runner on Netflix, but I thought that since the movie is set in Afghanistan, the expansiveness of the mountains would make the price tag of watching it on the big screen worth it. I wasn't wrong, but there weren't many wide angle shots. That was disappointing. However, that was the only disappointment.

The story follows a young man who must return to his native land to redeem himself for sins he committed as a young boy in Kabul.

The Kite Runner is a story of friendship, ethnic identity, class, betrayal, and the family bond. Right from the start I enjoyed the movie. The opening credits are admirable for their stylish blending of English script into Afghan Persian or Dari or Pashto or whatever it was. I really, really appreciated that. The movie tells a very good story that is brilliantly played by the actors entrusted with the roles, and there are several emotionally poignant moments. The movie tugs at the heart like the strings that send the kites careening across the sky. There are no loose ends in this movie, so if you like a tidy, well-told story with superb acting and a happy ending that is not cloying - this is a movie well worth seeing.

I do plan to read the book even though I know how the story goes. Books are usually far better than their adaptations. Watching the movie based on the book is a bit like watching the sequel of a movie first. If the sequel is good, you can safely bet the original is even better. Something always gets lost in translation.

For further reading, I recommend:
1) Scents & Sensibility from The Atlantic, Dec. 2007 - It tells the story of a woman who set up a thriving soap business in Afghanistan. The cooperative enterprise helps the Afghan people profit from their native plants without resorting to the poppy trade.

2) The Outsiders: Afghanistan's Hazara from The National Geographic, Feb. 2008 - This one presents the plight of the Hazara people, a group persecuted in Afghanistan for not being Pashtun and not practicing the right religion. The Hazara figure prominently in the movie.

If you live in or near Seattle or are planning to be there, I found what looks to be a very good place to eat Afghan food. It's called Kabul, and the menu is online. I already know what I'm ordering: ash, qorma-i sabzi, bara kebab, and firni - a custard flavored with cardamom and rosewater and topped with ground pistachios. YUM.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Most Amazing Sock Monkey - Capt. Jack Sparrow

If I had seen this monkey while browsing, I would have snapped him up right away, without hesitation - even with the $120 price tag. He is simply the most amazing sock monkey I have ever seen. He's Capt. Jack Sparrow, rock star of The Pirates of the Caribbean.

I have been a fan of Siansburys' monkeys since I spotted them when I browsed etsy for the first time. I think the first thing I searched for was "monkey," what a surprise, eh?

Siansburys' newest Super Star Monkey is 'Sock Monkey - Bruce.' Bruce is based on the Die Hard movie character Detective John McClane, played by Bruce Willis. This fabulous sock monkey's description reads, "He likes alcohol, tobacco, weapons, white vests, Roy Rogers. Does not like terrorists." If my dad was nine, I would totally buy this for him. Bruce, the sock monkey, even comes with a tattooed arm and a pistol in a holster.

Given that Sian Hughes displays a fondness and phenomenal knack for movie star monkeys, I wonder what it would cost to have a Braveheart Monkey - William Wallace made by Siansburys. He'd have to be wearing a kilt and sport some reddish blonde dreads. For a woman who married a Scotsman and who really loves that movie, such a monkey would be terribly hard to pass up!

A truly talented artist, Hughes also makes non-monkey sock monkeys. The zebra is definitely a favorite. The Amazing Zebra - Doo was just listed today.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Get What You Pay For: Price Affects Pleasure, Study Says

Researchers have discovered that one clever marketing tactic – raising the price of a product – causes the brain to play tricks on itself.

People who sampled the same, but higher-priced, of two product lines reported more pleasure from it.

What's more, a part of the brain associated with pleasurable sensation, the medial orbital prefrontal cortex, lit up like Christmas when participants had the more expensive of the two products.

They were tasting wine. Apparently, when it comes to wine tasting, the pleasure is in the price.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, had people sip wine labeled from $5 to $90 and rank its pleasantness, among other qualities. Although the Cabernet-Sauvignons were identical, people reported enjoying the 90 dollar bottle the most – and the unconscious activity of their brains backed them up.

However, two weeks later when volunteers were asked to rate the wines in the absence of price information, they liked the lower priced wines the best.

Who knows whether the results of this study apply to anything else, but it stands to reason that if people think expensive wine tastes better, then a whole range of other products might enjoy a similar bump in enjoyment, albeit temporary.

Every so often I hear people at ask whether the price of an item affects whether people will think it's of higher quality, and therefore be justified in paying the higher price. Should they price their art higher to signal its greater value to a consumer? Would people who see a scarf priced at $120 think it's a better scarf than a similar one priced $40?

This study suggests their intuition is right n the money. However, if a buyer purchases the higher priced item thinking it's "better" then what happens two weeks later when they've finally received it? Will they continue to feel it's a higher quality scarf?

I would venture a guess, that yes, they would.

Even though the wine study suggests the scarf buyer might think they were 'ripped off' upon realizing the higher priced scarf isn't any better, unlike the people in the wine study, the scarf buyer has placed his or her own money on the table, not someone else's. And that makes all the difference. So go ahead, buy the scarf you like even if it carries a large price tag – you'll like it even more. The one pictured here was woven by Mr. Field Notes, and is for sale, by the way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Biodegradable Plastic Bags

Before too long the days of "paper or plastic" will be history. Cities all over the word are making the bold move to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags. I think this is a smart move.

If people won't change their behavior - bringing their own reusable bags - they have to be given no other choice. Giving people an "incentive" of 5 cents off for bringing their own bags clearly does nothing to change behavior en mass.

Plastic bags are now on the market that are made of corn and fully degrade in 120 days. They are made by Trellis Earth, a company based in Portland, Oregon. The bags have already made their way to grocery stores there, with The Daily Grind being one of the first to adopt them. They're on Hawthorne street by the way, if you want to see what the bags are like. Or, you could go to the homepage of Trellis Earth and watch the video.

If I never see another plastic bag washed up on a beach, stuck in a chain link fence, way up on the tips of the highest branch of a tree - the world will be a better, and cleaner place.

The corn-based bags cost stores about 6 cents each, compared with 1 cent for the petroleum-based bags.

If communities won't go for an all out ban on petroleum-based bags, there is another way to change consumer behavior really fast - grocery stores can start charging people for the plastic bags consumers use. I'd charge 6 cents per petroleum based bag, 1 cent for the corn ones.

And, while I'm at it, you know - If I Was President - I would establish a national bottle bill.

Here's the letter I sent the company:
Dear Trellis,
I am busy writing a blogpost about your bags, and while doing so I was forced to think about my own relationship with plastic bags. The only time I routinely use plastic bags is for dog poo clean up while out on walks around my city. I looked through your inventory and saw that the only size bag you make that would fit the bill is not the right dimension for this job. I have a Newfoundland who leaves monster dumps, so it's important for me to have the right dimensions. Please consider making bags that are 6 inches wide by about 12 inches tall. I know many other eco-conscious dog owners like myself would be happy to buy and use them!
Thank you,
~ me

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What your Waist-to-Hip Ratio Says About Your Health

A few weeks ago I had my annual checkup with my doctor. The drill was the same it's always been, except this time her nurse took a measurement on my waist.

Immediately I saw the connection to the research I am familiar with on the WHR (waist-to-hip ratio). WHR is a favorite topic of evolutionary psychologists.

It all started with an Indian researcher named Devendra Singh who demonstrated that men express the most sexual attraction to women with an hourglass figure - and not just any old hourglass figure. Men, in samples drawn from around the world, including non-Western and non-Industrialized cultures, agreed that women who have a waist-to-hip ratio of .70 are the most sexy.

Right about now, you might be wondering how to measure your WHR. Measure the narrowest part of your waist and the widest part of your hips. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement - that gives you your WHR.

A .70 WHR is roughly equal to a 25 inch waist and 36 inch hips. Regardless of weight or BMI (body mass index), those proportions are considered the most attractive to men all over the world.

Why? Men find sexiest those women who are likely to be fertile and nubile, i.e. able to get pregnant. Women with smaller waists and wider hips:
* aren't obviously pregnant
* tend to be younger

* have more circulating estrogen

- all of which are associated with higher fertility. Ancestral men who preferentially mated with women who showed signs of fertility left more offspring than men who were indifferent to such signals. Those are the men alive today.

And, ancestral women with those signals produced more offspring.

Women tend to be pear shaped, as opposed to the more apple shape of men. Why are the sexes shaped differently? The answer is probably obvious, because women's wider hips are "good for childbearing," but the evolutionary mechanism isn't obvious.

You've probably heard of natural selection, but what about sexual selection? Sexual selection is another way that organisms change over time.

Rather than changing in response to different climate conditions or the presence of predators as with natural selection, under sexual selection, change occurs due to competition for mates. Women become more pear shaped over time because that's what men find appealing, and women with sexier bodies can get better, more "fit" mates.

Although Singh's and other similar research has been fairly criticized on the grounds of flawed measurement instruments (at right), subsequent research using more valid techniques has achieved the same results.

The key piece in all of this is that question of whether women with .70 WHRs are really more fertile. As it turns out, women with smaller WHRs get pregnant more readily, according to a study of female fertility clinic patients.

Of course, I'm scratching my head at all this wondering why, if I have the ideal WHR and BMI and hormone levels, why can I not get pregnant then? It's the curse of endometriosis, a condition made worse by frequent menstruation, that probably never existed in ancestral times because women got pregnant soon after they started menstruating and then nursed, weaned the baby, and became pregnant again over and over.

Estimates are that ancestral women only menstruated about 30-40 times in their entire life. Can you imagine that? The average women living now menstruates hundreds of times in her life. And that, my friends, is an evolutionary novelty.

Medical doctors have caught on to the trend of WHRs - except they're interested in what it signals about your overall health - not just your reproductive health. Smaller waists and wider hips are associated with better coronary and vascular health. It's that connection with estrogen. Estrogen is "heart healthy." Must be, because my cholesterol numbers came in the mail today and mine are as healthy as they get.

My HDL "good cholesterol" is 83 out of 89 (higher is better), and my LDL "bad cholesterol" is 66. It's supposed to be under 130. And I eat cheese all the time - and milk. It's genetics, I tell you. It's genetics. Diet makes it worse, no doubt. I'm not going to start eating mac and cheese at every meal.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What is EP? Evolutionary Psychology defined.

Every once in a while when I meet someone new, they ask me what I do. Almost everyone wants to know what evolutionary psychology, or EP, is. Rather than define it, this time I'll share a favorite quote from a book I have assigned numerous times to my students - The Evolution of Desire, by David Buss, one of the founders of the field of evolutionary psychology. The quote conveys the subject matter and rationale of EP.

Those in our evolutionary past who failed to mate successfully failed to become our ancestors. All of us descend from a long and unbroken line of ancestors who competed successfully for desirable mates, attracted mates who were reproductively valuable, retained mates long enough to reproduce, fended off interested rivals, and solved the problems that could have impeded reproductive success. We carry in us the sexual legacy of those success stories.

Evolutionary psychologists study what people do to make themselves more "valuable" as mates, how they derogate same-sex rivals, and also behaviors that promote pair-bonding - among many, many other things. It's a sexy field to say the least, and is not without flaws.

Anyone who wants a highly accessible crash course in the sexier parts of the field should start with The Evolution of Desire.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Abstract Submissions to Conferences

Sometimes I really ought to read the fine print on conference abstract submissions before I get all excited about submitting my research and committing to going to one. I found a new conference I haven't yet been to yet. What worries me is that I have to register for the conference up front - which costs about $400. I can pay by credit card, which is fine, but what if my abstract doesn't get accepted?

I have no interest in paying to go to the conference, any conference, really, if I'm not going to be able to add a line to my CV - the one immediate benefit from presenting research at one. They don't say that they refund conference registrations if your abstract isn't accepted, so I'm inclined to pass on it.

The thing is, I won't be reimbursed for the conference registration, hotel, food, and flights to the conference, which could easily add up to about $2000. So I have to figure the cost-benefit ratio of going. Am I going to receive $2000 benefit from it? Even if I am accepted, which I am certainly not guaranteed to be, I would have to stand a good chance of meeting people with whom I can post-doc with or who know of good academic positions or field research opportunities.

But I'm not even sure that's the direction I want to go. Field research is expensive; there are few grants or paid post-docs to compensate for the equipment, food, shelter, and special medical insurance needed for 3-9 months in a tropical location, let alone the thousands of dollars it costs to get to and away from the remote field research sites. Plus, it just doesn't fit with my life goals right now.

I could easily say the same thing about a post-doc. I don't really want to move all the way across the country again for a position that pays less than what we bring in right now in income. Sure, I could look at it as a temporary set back to our standard of living, and that after the post-doc is done, I will be in a better position for tenurable position and more money than we bring in now. But that's not guaranteed - not at all.

The conference is in a pleasant location and the line up of symposia speakers is exciting. It could be a great place to meet, mingle, and network with the right kind of people - that is, if I want to steer toward animal research and away from human psychology.

The icing on the cake? They don't allow you to hook up your own laptop for presentations. They want you to format it on a PC, put it on a disk, and present on a PC they provide. That's all fine, really if you don't mind using PCs, but for me that means the extra hassle of putting my presentation together only to have to go to the computer lab on campus, find one that has PowerPoint , and reformat it on a PC. That's an hour right there for no good reason at all.

Huck a Duck - Max Busts a Move For Katy's New(f) Toy

What's so remarkable about the following photo is that it shows Max playing with a toy for the first time since (how long have we had Katy?) oh about 18 months. At the same time he is slowing down due to age-related arthritis, he's been gaining confidence to stand up to Katy. This is one sign of that.

He stopped playing with toys shortly after she came to live with us. He once happily trucked all over the house with balls, stuffies, ropes, rawhides - you name it - even paper rolls were fair game. And, he was incredibly possessive of his toys. But, he'd always greet us at the front door with a toy in his mouth, tail wagging. He played fetch too. Though, most of the time we "chased" him. Then Katy came along and decided he couldn't have toys anymore. He put up a fight, but she was persistent and rapidly grew much, much larger. Seemingly overnight, he "grew out of" toys.

Lately he has demonstrated a renewed interest in toys, and she's been more relaxed about her "rules." Now, I have to admit that I played a role in this photo. When I saw his interest in the toy and that Katy was gearing up to make a bossy move in his direction, I told her "no" – and praised him.

Have you ever tried to simultaneously give two dogs the opposite directions?

Katy is attentive and responsive, so fairly quickly she understood the "no, no :< HEY" was meant for her, not Max. Hand signals directed at the right dog and out of sight of the wrong one come in, well, handy.

At one point they even played tug-of-war but seeing as how Katy outweighs Max 4:1, I think he was smart to abandon that game.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Big 5 Personality Test & Its Connection to North African Music

I can't recall exactly when I discovered North African pop music, but I love it! My musical tastes are fairly eclectic, and it's definitely something I'm proud of. It's one of the symptoms or rather, qualities, associated with scoring high on the "Openness to Experience" part of the "Big Five" personality test.

For those of you who don't know about the "Five Factor Model" of personality, it's a conception of 5 independent traits that encompass a person's entire personality. To proponents of the FFM, once you know how a person scores on the test, there isn't really much more you need to know to understand their personality. The 5 traits that underlie all of personality according to this widely accepted model can be remembered by a simple acronym: OCEAN.

O - Openness to Experience
preference for novelty
- associated with creativity and intelligence
C - Conscientiousness
preference for following rules
- associated with being responsible
E - Extraversion
preference for socializing with others
- associated with being outgoing
A - Agreeableness
preference for acceptance & agreement
- associated with being kind and nice to others
N - Neuroticism
tendency to anxiety, worry
- associated with moodiness, fussiness

If you want to find out what your big 5 profile is, there is a totally awesome online version of it that will match you up with your Star Wars "twin personality." I did it and for years have asked my general psych students to take the test and write about it for extra credit. It is so cool. Only, perhaps, if you are from the Star Wars generation!

If you are the first to correctly guess my Star Wars twin, I will send you a very special gift from my Recycled Ideas collection :D (just add a comment with your guess!)

So back to the big O - one manifestation of my preference for variety is my tendency to listen to a wide variety of music. My collection includes: blues, soul, rap, pop, folk, rock, classical, world, hip/hop, audio books, soundtracks, alternative, punk, and country/western.

I do have my favorites, and one of them that ranks highly, at least in terms of what makes my iTunes frequently played list, is pop and hip/hop from North Africa, specifically raï. My absolute favorite artist is Khaled and my two favorites from him are Oran Marseille and Aïcha.

The first mixes French and Arabic in a rap song. I admit my French is not what it should be anymore, but as far as I can tell, the song is about the immigrant experience - moving from Algeria to France. Khaled eventually exiled himself to France because the Islamic extremists in Algeria couldn't stand the liberal themes of his music. Raï seems to provoke that from Islamic fundamentalists - sort of like the rancor between "evolutionists" and evangelical Christians.

The second, Aïcha, is a love song from a man to a woman. It's the first song written in French and Arabic in which I understood almost all of the lyrics. The man attempts to woo the woman by offering her luxurious material goods (like jewelry) and romantic displays (like poetry), to which she responds:
Elle a dit, garde tes trésors
She said, keep your treasures
Moi, je vaux mieux que tout ça
I'm worth more than all that
Des barreaux sont des barreaux même en or
Cages remain cages even though made of gold
Je veux les mêmes droits que toi
I want the same rights as you
Et du respect pour chaque jour
And respect for each day
Moi je ne veux que de l'amour
I don't want anything but love
If the English version of Aicha by Outlandish retained these themes, I would totally have my Evolutionary Psychology students analyze the song for its display of human mating tactics.

But, alas, they altered the song considerably. You can hear/listen to their rendition of Aicha if you scroll all the way down and watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this page. When I first heard the Outlandish version, I thought is was extremely cheesy, but I admit, it grew on me because it is still very, very sweet in its sentiment.

And hey, it introduced me to Outlandish, a talented trio of multicultural, multilingual young men who make some really wonderful Euro hip/hop. I just wish their stuff could be purchased on iTunes.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

eMagazine - An great source for environmental news & tips.

Recently I discovered an online news source that covers exclusively environmental topics. Included on the the website are links to things I find useful, such as information about Presidential candidates' track records with regard to supporting (or not) laws that make good environmental sense.

Previously, when I worked for the National Audubon Society after college, I became aware of the League of Conservation Voters. The eMagazine has a nice article up now (EarthTalk, this week) that compares the candidates' green ratings from the LCV. If you want to vote for a candidate who is at least a decent prospect for wielding green ideas from the executive office, it pays to check out what the LVC has to say. After all, according to psychological research: Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. I don't trust what people say; I trust what they do.

This week eMagazine carries a story about how CA and 15 other forward thinking states sued the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) when it denied a request from CA to waive the federal law that makes pollution control the domain of federal regulation. I'm with those 16 states. Although you can hear me chanting "states rights" from time to time under my breath, I do see the advantages of federal law. If it weren't for squashing states rights advocates in the 1860s, our country might still condone slavery in Alabama.

As for tips, eMagazine offers advice on how to tread more lightly on the earth. Leave no footprint... or ought we say leave no carbon footprint now? Hey, I'd love to be more carbon neutral, and I think all things considered - since I don't drive more than once a week and also heat my house to 65 and cool it to 76 in the summer - I do a pretty good job already. But I could do better, and so could you.

Replacing inefficient appliances is a good way to go. This article explains how to choose new ones wisely - without breaking the bank.

Hint: If you can afford to exchange only one kitchen appliance, choose the refrigerator. It's the only one that is on all the time, and its efficiency has improved the most of all appliances.

Two other features on the site that are useful:
1) Ask an environmental question. They get answered in the magazine's weekly online
EarthTalk column. Want to know where to go to responsibly get rid of an obsolete
computer? Just submit your question.
2) An online directory of environmentally themed products and services. If you operate a earth-friendly business, you can sign up to have your business linked here. If you're a conscientious shopper looking for earth-friendly gifts, browse the listings - or hop on over to check out the green gifts Recycled Ideas offers.

Instead of buying products that aren't already recycled or at least recyclable, choose products that are both!

And now comes another plug for smart green gift choices for your family, friends, and coworkers. Recycled Ideas offers a range of cute, clean, attractive gifts that are made from high post-consumer recycled content: bookmarks, bird cards, even felt monkeys made from recycled plastic bottles.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Introducing my monkey niece!

My niece learned sign language for "monkey" and has been practicing sound effects! She's a pro already.

Are daily hassles worse than huge problems?

A storm blows through town, knocking down a huge tree that flattens your house. Your son dies. You get divorced. You lose your job. You get married. You have a baby. Just a few of the many life events that can happen. When they do, they leave behind the residue of stress. You get fat around the mid-section. Your blood pressure rises. Your skin and hair look sallow. You get colds more easily and can't shake them off as quickly.

But do those stressors, which rarely happen but are severe, better or worse than the little hassles that happen everyday.

Your socks sag and scrunch up under your heel, your coffee mug overflows, spilling sweet sticky goo in your bag, you can't find the envelope you need to mail, you step in dog barf, your shin splints flair up, walk to work in the rain. Just a few of the little hassles that don't ruin your day but are nevertheless annoyances - mine this morning anyway.

Are such little daily hassles going to catch up with you?

Research from health psychologists who study the impact of stress on health suggests, yes. Furthermore, those little hassles are even worse for your physical health than the big whoppers that anyone would identify as "stressful."

So what gives? Why are little hassles so much worse for us?

One answer has to do with the amount of perceived control we have over our lives. It's better for mental health to think that what happens to you is your own doing - but only when it comes to positive events. If you view success as your own doing and not "luck" or "god's will," you end up achieving more and having more confidence in yourself. But when it comes to negative events, chalking it up to bad luck is very healthy. Psychological research suggests that people are less likely to attribute negative hassles to bad luck.

Those little hassles - the one's that we think are avoidable - are associated with headaches. Research from Dr. Fernandez of SMU-Texas, found that the perceived severity of these hassles predicts headache frequency and intensity. That may be only one of the physical manifestations of stress, but it is just one that many people face on a regular basis.

It's too bad that so many people resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms - like smoking.

A coworker who I really like smokes. It reeks. Another uses lotion that reeks. I know I have a refined nose that can detect odor well, but I also can tolerate strong smells pretty well too. So why does this stuff bug me?

Control. Now that I no longer control the scent in my morning environment, like I have for the past ten years (!), I get annoyed. I am going to have to change my attitude or develop a better coping mechanism. Today I re-discovered the joys of shared iTunes libraries. That's check one for healthy coping - attempt to overwrite one negative sensation with a different, positive one.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Video of Squashed House

I have so much footage that I am still editing, so this is a brief bit of the squashed house on my block and the tree that still blocks our alley.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Walla Walla Rocked by Wild Winds, Paper Barely Gets Out

Although the winds were howling when my day began, as I walked to the coffee shop where I have been creating my primate portraits, there was nothing exceptional about the day at all - not even the noticeably strong wind. It does get windy here from time to time - kicking up dust and making a mess of the town as branches and power lines fall.

Little did I know that in about 4 hours, my little corner of heaven on earth would be rocked with winds that uprooted huge trees, took down entire power poles, smashed a well-known statue on the campus of my alma mater, and caused the local newspaper (the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin) to be printed by a press located in another city - for the very first time in at least 28 years.

The newspaper had talked about what to do in case their press couldn't actually print the paper, but they never had to execute those plans - until today.

As luck would have it, I was right there on the front lines, observing as the publisher whipped out his own personal credit card to buy the generator that powered up the server and three computers that would put together a skeletal paper for the day. Someone had to get gas to get it going and an extra long extension cord to power up the equipment that had been temporarily moved into the conference room. It was not by any means, a sure thing, that the newspaper would come out at all today.

That would have been unfortunate given that it was a fantastic day for local and national news.

I watched as the experts put together pages in a flash - snagging news stories and photos off the wire, formatting them, writing headlines and sub-headlines, and making sure it was all accurate. Mr. Field Notes demonstrated why he is the go-to guy for getting things done in a crisis. He is calm, cool, collected. I have to say I was impressed and proud.

I even got to play a role; I spotted an error in the headline of the story about the results of the Iowa caucus - Hillary's name was spelled with one "el." It's not that big of a deal, but when errors like that are front and center in headlines and sub-headlines, it really weakens the credibility of the paper. I also caught some minor grammatical errors on the front page.

The pages even came out on time. That is an achievement given that they had to rebuild entire pages from scratch and get them out the door and on the road to Pendleton, Oregon in less than 45 minutes.

That wasn't the only excitement in my neighborhood.

The walk back to my house got increasingly more exciting as I approached home. Away from downtown, old trees line every street and many grow well within the range to do major damage to structures.

The house around the corner from me is completely smashed by the huge tree that fell on it. The root ball of the tree blocks our alley.

Power lines are down everywhere, including the pole that brings power to our house. We will not have power for a good long time, I would imagine. The line that delivers power to, I mean delivered, swings in the breeze right over our front porch.

On campus, old trees are uprooted everywhere. They are mostly pines, but a few others of substantial size are also uprooted. The path over the campus creek to my old building is blocked by a huge tree. That pales in comparison to the damage leveled by the huge tree of heaven that stands, at half mast, behind "Mem." It fell over and crushed the most loathed piece of art on campus - the statue of the "paper clip."

Unless I go somewhere else, which I plan to do, blog posts and all etsy business will be on hiatus until power is restored to my house.

Dinner should be fun...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

You Scratch Your Nose, I Scratch Mine - What body language really means.

As many of my regular readers know, I love observing people. I suppose that is why I was drawn to primatology. You can't just walk up to nonverbal animals and ask them - "What is your motivation for doing _____?" You have to observe them.

My habit of observing people combined with my intense study a particular area of psychology - nonverbal communication - comes in very handy when I meet new people. It is especially useful for gauging dominance relationships. We humans are primates. Despite being generally friendly with one another, we still form dominance hierarchies in all sorts of relationships at home, with friends, at work, in school, etc. that have repercussions for those relationships.

I'd like to share with you one key behavior that I pay attention to, and that you should too if you're interested in your social position, and let's face it, who as a person is not at least a little bit concerned about how they rate next to others?


What is it? It's the label for what happens when you do something, like scratch your nose, at the same time or shortly thereafter, that the person you're talking to does. People mirror, or copy, all sorts of random behaviors. Many of them fall into the category called "displacement behaviors" coined by ethologists (people who study animal behavior in their natural habitat). Displacement behaviors are basically little nervous ticks - like touching your nose or pant cuff, or stroking your beard or ring, twirling your finger around a strand of hair - that you do when nervous. Animal equivalents include paw licking. Doing these things calms us.

And - when we do it in synchrony - it builds a feeling of rapport. Chalk it up to liking and feeling safer around those who are like us.

Numerous psychological studies have been conducted on the causes, correlates, and consequences of the "chameleon effect." It is one of the most robust areas of nonverbal communication study.

The findings repeatedly show that people who mirror others engender greater feelings of rapport during conversation. They are liked more, even trusted more. It's even an effective form of flirting - and according to some - is a critical stage of romantic relationship formation. But, you can't manufacture rapport out of nowhere. Attempts to deliberately copy someone will be spotted, and you'll achieve the opposite effect - the person will think you are, at best, trying too hard or are simply 'awkward,' and at worst, mocking them. It has to happen naturally.

Who copies whom is important too. In a conversation, there is usually one person whose behavior 'rubs off on the other.' They are known as the zeitgeber, a German word meaning time keeper. Other people copy them. By paying attention to who changes their posture or gestures in a particular way first - and then watching who mirrors it, you can determine who acts as the zeitgeber. The zeitgebers are the influential ones. They are the ones that others want to impress.

Occupying the zeitgeber position is not so much a personality trait as it is highly situationally dependent. Amongst some people, you may be the zeitgeber. Yet with others, you may be the follower.

An observant person can gather useful information, especially when first getting to know a group of people, simply by paying attention to who acts as the zeitgeber during conversations.

I think all students of psychology should fully develop the habit of carefully observing others by the time they graduate.

Why? It's far too easy to trust and to fall back on what we humans have been doing successfully for millions of years - talking - and too easy to forget to pay attention to what we have been doing successfully for many millions more years - communicating nonverbally.

Although language is usually intentional, nonverbal behavior is usually not.

Because language is newer to us than nonverbal forms of communication (facial expression, gestures, body posture), it takes more effort. People have to concentrate to form words and have to choose them actively. Nonverbal behaviors are largely passive and unintentional. They can be excellent cues to how a person really feels and what they really think. We usually take the time to censor our language, but the body language messages leak right on by.

That's why I think psychology students and everyone else who wants to understand 'what makes people tick' ought to pay more attention to what people do and less to what they say.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Andy Warhol Orangutan

While playing around with the 'open apple m' command in Photoshop today, I ended up creating a really funky looking image of an orangutan pastel I made a while back.

It reminds me of one I remember seeing a long time ago - painted by Andy Warhol. It's not exactly like his, but I think it captures the spirit of his style.

This morning I started what will become my morning "coffee break" routine. If this morning is any indication, I will be able to spend a useful amount of time every morning working on a primate pastel while I eavesdrop on the conversation of a bunch of guys who remind me of my dad and his friends.

It should be fun seeing how long it takes the staff and other patrons at my new morning place to know me.

Presumably, my usual businesslike demeanor will prevent unnecessary interruptions... which can be good and bad.

Because I can't wear my artwork, creating it in public will be one way people will see it locally - at least until I have enough of a collection to approach galleries! I think my work is destined for galleries and a book.

I think it is interesting to watch artists at work. Heck, I just think it's interesting to watch people period. Okay, not just people - social animals in general. So, by creating my work in public, maybe some time someone will come bug me after observing me for a while. I just might get to blab about primates, hand out my new business cards, and who knows.


Want to learn about why orangutans have those huge cheeks? Read about them here.