Suzanne's Blog

A blog on psychology and life.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Red Shoes

This was my beautiful aunt, Alma "Ali" Simpson. She recently lost her battle with cancer, and my family traveled back to Indiana for her funeral. It was a beautiful and moving service, and it got me thinking. Funerals are of course sad events, but there is also a lot of comfort in the unity you feel as you become surrounded by family and friends, some of whom you haven't seen for literally ages. They also bring back a lot of good memories of the person lost, which provide comfort as well.

My aunt was very fashionable and as a young girl I looked up to her and her fashion sensibilities. During her funeral services, I remembered something about her that I hadn't thought about for a long time. When I was a teenager, she and I shared the same shoe size, and she would occasionally give me her shoes to wear. This was HUGE fun for me, and I eagerly looked forward to family gatherings to see if Aunt Alma had brought any shoes for me (I also looked forward to those gatherings because we'd always order Pizza King pizza, and if you are from Indiana you know what I mean). Her shoes were awesome. In fact, I remember one pair in particular that she gave me. They were red.

That was my aunt. She wore red shoes. And she was awesome.

There is a lot that I will remember about Aunt Alma. She was a very kind person who loved her family and loved life. But for me those red shoes really stand out, and honestly it is not because of the shoes per se (or their color). It is because I got to share something really cool with a special person whom I admired. I got to wear her shoes.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Common Sense

A common attack on the field of psychology is that research on human behavior doesn't need to be done because simply observing people in everyday life (i.e., "common sense") tells us what we need to know.

But this notion is wrong. Common sense doesn't always tell us the whole truth about human behavior. Ever heard the common adage that "opposites attract?" Opposites can and do attract, but on average people are more likely to form relationships with those who are similar to themselves than with those who differ from themselves on a range of values and interests. That is, birds of a feather tend to flock together, and the reason we know this is thanks to psychological research on attraction, dating, and relationship formation (see here for a discussion).

In addition, common sense just can't address the type of complex behavioral hypotheses that psychologists test. Imagine a program of research on aggression in children - specifically, on children's modeling of aggression. A psychologist might explore the extent to which children imitate adults who behave aggressively in their presence. What percentage of children will imitate adults who behave aggressively? What about children who don't - what makes them different from children who do? Does it matter if the adult is live versus on TV? Will girls and boys imitate aggressive behavior to the same extent? Why or why not? What, if anything, will reduce children's willingness to model aggressive behavior, and why does it work?

Common sense can't address all of these questions, and in fact if you ask 10 different people to answer them based on their own common sense, you'd get a wide variety of responses. To really answer these questions, you'd need to dig in and test children's responses to aggressive models in many different controlled situations (and in fact there are psychologists out there who have spent their careers answering questions such as these).

There is simply no substitute for psychological research when it comes to understanding human behavior. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with common sense per se. Our everyday observations about human behavior get us by and they aren't all wrong - they just don't always get it right when it comes to human behavior on a large scale. And that's ok. After all, we're human.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Year-Long Gratitude

There's been a lot written about the benefits of gratitude. In short, practicing daily gratitude is really good for you, both mentally and physically, as I discussed in last year's Thanksgiving post.

Practicing gratitude. It sounds like a lot of work. Writing about what you're grateful for, expounding on concepts, digging deep and really getting to the heart of...oh, forget it. How about this? Just start a gratitude list. Simple as that. Add one thing to it that you're grateful for each day. It doesn't even have to be in a fancy, formal journal (I keep mine in a digital note on my phone). Just start a simple list, and you can have a little Thanksgiving every day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Quelling test anxiety: A tip.

Got test anxiety? Try something. Change your perspective from student to instructor. If you were in charge of testing the class on its knowledge of the material, what would you ask? What questions would you require that students absolutely have to get right in order to pass the test? Why?

If you really spend some time with these questions throughout the course of your studying, I promise that you'll start to think about the material in a new way.  The point isn't to make you obsess over what the instructor is going to ask; the point is to change your mindset to get you thinking about what's important about the material.

Why will this strategy help you? It gets you out of "rote memorization" mode. The deeper you process material when studying, the better your chances of recalling it. When you engage in a meaningful analysis with the material (e.g., really considering what concepts are important, why, and why it is important for you to know the information to begin with), your chances of recalling it are greater than if you just set out to memorize that information.

Give it a try!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


I find this cartoon amusing. It's referring to Ivan Pavlov's classic experiments with dogs in which he found that dogs would not only salivate when food was introduced to them, but they'd also salivate in response to a stimulus (e.g., a bell ringing) that had been repeatedly paired with the food. In other words, if you ring a bell when you give dogs food and you do this long enough, the dogs will eventually salivate when they hear the bell, even if food is no longer being paired with it. We call it "classical conditioning."

The punch line of the cartoon is that Pavolv is trying to get the same finding with a cat, but the stubborn cat won't cooperate and instead just sits there and licks itself in defiance. As the mom of two cats with minds of their own, I can relate. But I would point out that cats can be "conditioned," too. Ever use the can opener and the cat comes running, even though clearly you aren't opening anything that remotely resembles or smells like cat food? Same idea. The cat has associated the sound of the can opener with its food and subsequently tries to plant its face in the can of whatever-it-may-be.

Fun fact: Pavlov discovered his phenomenon with dogs completely by accident. He wasn't even a psychologist. He was a physiologist who studied digestion and stumbled upon the finding that his dogs were salivating when they weren't supposed to. And apparently he found it to be annoying and only reluctantly investigated the matter.

Fun fact #2: Pavlov ran experiments in which he got dogs to salivate in response to certain tones and not others, and certain visual cues but not others that were highly similar. This apparently frustrated one of the dogs, which had something akin to a "nervous breakdown" as a result. One has to wonder whether a cat would have had the same reaction. Hmm...

(See this site and Morton Hunt's book for more on Ivan Pavlov and his research.)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Weird Headline: "Darkening" Skin Color

In a previous post, I discussed the poor manner in which psychological studies tend to be reported in the media and some of the reasons for that phenomenon. Here, I want to give you a real-life example of what I'm talking about.
The example comes from an article that was recently published on a website called Science 2.0. The headline of the article is called: "Eyewitnesses' Memories Darken Skin Color." This headline interested me immediately, as I used to conduct research on eyewitness memory. I thought, wow, that's interesting. Eyewitnesses remember people as having darker skin color than they actually have? I wanted to read more.
And then I did read more and quickly realized that the study itself (at least as described in the accompanying article) didn't appear to find this finding at all. In fact, the study appeared to have nothing to do with eyewitnesses "darkening" anyone's skin color. 
Here's the article in full:
Eyewitnesses remember the faces of black suspects less accurately in drive-by shootings than they do in serial killings.
Their memories are further skewed when the victims are women or white males, psychology researchers at UBC's Okanagan campus have found.
"What this study shows is that the memory of an eyewitness is heavily influenced by the type of crime that was committed," says Prof. Paul Davies. "In crimes such as drive-by shootings, typically associated with black males, eyewitnesses overwhelmingly remembered the black suspect's face incorrectly.
"In crimes that were are more typically 'white', witnesses remembered the black suspect's faces with a high degree of accuracy."
In his study, four groups of participants were shown one of two staged videos with a black male leaving the scene of a multiple murder. One video was of a serial killing and the other was a drive-by shooting. The race and gender of the victims was shared with the members of some groups and not others.
Following the videos, photos of the suspect, where facial features such as skin colour and breadth of nose and fullness of lips were electronically manipulated in a series of 100 frames, were shown to the witnesses. Witnesses were asked to stop on the frame that most accurately represented the suspect they saw in the video.
DNA evidence in initiatives such as the United States' Innocence Project have been exonerating increasing numbers of people, mostly black men, who were imprisoned largely based on eyewitness testimony. This trend along with evidence that shows the fallibility of eyewitness memories may want to be considered in the Canadian justice system, says Davies. 
Source: University of British Columbia
"Eyewitness testimony is very compelling and may have the ability to sway a jury," says Davies. "However, if we know that witnesses' memories are inherently biased in the case of black male suspects, our justice system may want to take that into account to aid them in avoiding wrongful convictions."
Davies study was recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Frustrating, isn't it? It is impossible to reconcile the title of the article from what is actually discussed in the article.  It appears that either the headline is just wrong, or information has been left out of the article. One would have to go look at the original academic writeup of the study in Social Psychological and Personality Science to figure out what, if anything, "darkening" of skin color has to do with anything. Any takers?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

That, Why, and the Media

Descriptions of psychological research in the media suck. It's no wonder some people think that psychological research is silly nonsense (something I've heard from many a person over the years). We've all read headlines describing research that shows "men and women differ in their perceptions of their partners" or "kids who play outside are less obese than those who don't" and we think duh, they needed a study to tell us that? I don't blame anyone at all for thinking this based on headlines or blurbs that grossly oversimplify the methods and findings of psychological research. And they definitely oversimplify matters.

See, psychology experiments are generally much more complex than you might think, and their focus is almost always on why things happen, not simply whether things happen. A useful psychological experiment would first establish (for example) that kids who play outside a lot end up less obese later in life than kids who play outside less frequently, and then explore why this happens. Is it because kids who play outside are getting more exercise and this leads to habits that keep kids' weight in check? Are kids who play outdoors somehow different from the get-go than kids who don't? Are both of these possibilities true? Is there an interaction between the two factors? How much does each factor contribute to childhood obesity? Are there other factors that contribute to the findings? These are the kinds of questions that a psychologist would ask, and the research providing the answers could absolutely help shape the methods of intervention programs designed to combat childhood obesity. It's a far cry from "kids who play outside are less obese than those who don't."

But the why part of psychology experiments is rarely reported in the media, and I understand why. It's too complex and can't be explained easily or quickly. And that's not all the media's fault. Hell, if you asked me to explain my dissertation research in a few sentences, I'd be hard-pressed to do so. And, trust me, nobody in the media is going to go read the original research writeup in a psychology journal. And why would they want to? Have you ever read one? It is excruciating - extremely detailed, and loaded with statistical jargon and technical details.

So most people rely on the sound-bite to form opinions about the usefulness of psychological research. To me, it's unfortunate, but understandable. Just know that what you hear in the media doesn't always reveal the most interesting and important findings from psychological studies (or from any scientific studies, for that matter). Food for thought.