Thursday, November 24, 2011

On Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Every year on Thanksgiving, we are called to give thanks for the good things we have... and of course, gorge on lots of food. I'll resist the urge to write about overeating and focus instead on what the holiday is really about: gratitude.

Though in the past, the field of psychology has focused on maladaptive behavior, the expansion of various subfields of psychology beyond clinical psychology has led to the study of a variety of behaviors, both good and bad, and to focus on, not only the things that make us mentally ill, but the things that make us healthy, happy, and fulfilled. The study of gratitude is one area studied by so-called positive psychologists.

There are certainly individual differences in ability to feel gratitude; some people are simply more grateful than others. (You can find out more about your "trait gratitude" by taking this measure). But social situations, like Thanksgiving, can also influence your minute-to-minute levels of gratitude (or "state gratitude").

Gratitude, unsurprisingly, is strongly associated with psychological well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction (find two full articles about this here and here). Feeling gratitude reduces stress and positive coping; these positive benefits are observed even when people are randomly assigned to an intervention meant to increase their gratitude (read one such experiment here), meaning that these benefits can be reaped by anyone, not just people are are "naturally grateful".

Being the target of gratitude is also beneficial. Being told "thank you" makes a person more likely to repeat the behavior in the future, probably because it functions as a reward (and as I've said before, if a behavior is rewarded, it's more likely to occur again). So even if you feel like someone is "just doing their job", saying "thank you" can make him or her feel more motivated to repeat that behavior in the future and will likely improve your future interactions with that person, as well.

So keep feeling that gratitude, today and everyday - it's good for you. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Thoughtfully yours,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Your Brain on Smells: Memory, Emotion, and Scent

In my approximately 30 years on Earth, I have developed many allergies. Some I've had since the beginning (e.g., lactose intolerance), others I discovered much later (e.g., aspartame, the chemical name of Nutrasweet). While I would love to explore what the heck is up with all these crazy allergies, I'm instead writing about what happened as a result of my latest allergy discovery. I recently learned that I'm allergic to an ingredient in a product I use pretty regularly (for the sake of brevity, I won't go into detail); this ingredient is so commonly used in this product that to get a product free of this stuff, I had to go to Whole Foods.

First of all, never go grocery shopping hungry. I've been told this before, but had to break my rule this time because of scheduling constraints. Second - and this rule is even more important than the first - never go to Whole Foods hungry - ever! Going to my regular grocery store hungry is bad enough; everything looks so appealing and tasty. Whole Foods is something else. Not only is the store very visually appealing, it smells how I think Heaven will smell. When you walk through produce, you smell the vegetables. The fish smells like fish (the good, fresh kind - the way fish is supposed to smell). The cheese section... need I go on?

Not only did I want to eat everything in sight, I savored the smells so much that I think I fell in love. Yes, I might have fallen in love with Whole Foods.

This, of course, got me thinking about psychology. But then, everything makes me think of psychology, so perhaps we should be more concerned if I walked out of Whole Foods thinking nothing more than, "I'm in love."

Our brains are fascinating. I really mean it. Our brains are just about the coolest invention ever. Not only are they highly efficient, processing machines (that definitely make important, but predictable, errors), so many of the systems are interconnected in really amazing ways. The connection among smells, memory, and emotions is one example.

To really briefly summarize, the lowest parts of our brains are the parts that developed (evolutionarily) first. They handle the basic functions: breathing, sleeping/waking, etc. These very basic functions are handled by parts of the brains directly connected to our brain stems. As you get farther up in the brain and away from the brain stem, you get to the higher functioning systems that developed last. Our olfactory bulb, which is involved in perception of smells, is on the under part of our brain, close to our nose. So one of the first systems to develop, but slightly higher up the chain than breathing.

The olfactory bulb is the yellow structure above the nasal cavity.
Because of the location of the olfactory bulb, it is closely tied into the limbic system, a region in the middle of your brain that contains (among other structures) the hippocampus (involved in storage of memories) and the amygdala (involved in emotion) - the reward pathway I discussed in my very first blog post resides in this region.

It should come as no surprise then that emotions, memory, and smells are closely related, and that stimulation of one of these systems (such as the one for memory) can activate another system (such as emotion). Certainly, memories elicit emotions (you remember an event that made you happy, and you feel happy again), and emotions can elicit memories.

But what about smells? Ever smell something and suddenly find yourself thinking of an event from childhood? Pumpkin pie, turkey, certain candies - these all remind me of holidays at home and feeling happy. Certain flowers, particularly those in my bridal bouquet, remind me of my wedding day.

Which is probably why I felt this strong feeling of love. As I was entering Whole Foods, I smelled the exact flowers from my bouquet. And of course, being a foodie, the other fantastic food smells certainly gave me something to savor. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, "I like food... a lot." All of these wonderful emotions, memories, and smells combined to make me think I love Whole Foods.

Wait, you mean I'm not actually in love with Whole Foods? What am I going to do with all these love poems?!

Thoughtfully yours,

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Publishing, Perishing, and Post-Docing: A Reaction to Diederik Stapel's Confession

One reason I started this blog was as an outlet for my writing. I've always loved writing, and often considered it for a career (in those fleeting moments when I was really proud of something I had written and thought, "Yeah, I can do this forever"). I was constantly penning short stories, creating characters and writing notes to my friends in which they played a prominent role (or sometimes were the authors of the notes themselves). I've written many plays: one acts, two acts, I even had the outline of a three act modern tragedy that I still think of going back to - my Citizen Kane or Death of a Salesman (yes, I know I'm being overly dramatic: as a formerly theatre person, I have the flair for drama, and as a psychology person, I'm painfully self-aware of that and all my other traits).

Of course, I changed my major in the middle of my first semester at college, from theatre to psychology, not realizing that, if I thought getting published as a fiction writer was tough, it was nothing compared to getting published as a psychology researcher. Publish or perish is the expression in my field, and it is accurate. Getting the best jobs, getting research funding, it all depends on having a strong publication record. And with more people earning higher degrees now, there's even more competition. This is one reason the number of PhDs going into post-doc positions has also increased recently; grad school alone is no longer enough to prepare most people for the most attractive research and academic positions.

My number one goal in my post-doc is to publish as much as I possibly can. I even submitted a paper today. But I can't rest on my laurels, because I've got 5 other papers in various stages of preparation. Though my most recent reviews may still sting (and I'm not alone - there's actually a group on Facebook devoted to Reviewer 2, often the most matter-of-fact and even rude of the group) I can't let it traumatize me for too long, because there are more studies to perform, more data to analyze, more papers to write.

That's why when I read an article in the New York Times about a prominent psychology researcher who admitted that he massaged data, made up findings, and even wrote up studies that were never actually performed, and published it all in prominent journals, I was a bit annoyed. Am I bitter that while I was dealing with snide reviewers insulting my intelligence, research methods knowledge, and mother, this guy was fabricating data, falsifying methodology, and just plain making whole studies up (and getting rewarded for it, albeit not purposefully)? In a word: yes. But, no matter how tough the publishing world was, the possibility of doing what this guy did was never even an option. It's not that I thought this sort of thing doesn't happen; we all know it does, just as we know there are students who hire people to take the SATs or write their theses for them.

I know I'm not the only one who can say that this wouldn't be one of my answers to the difficulty of publishing in this field, and it's not because of a lack of creativity. Whenever we write research proposals, we have already have to write the introduction/background and methodology sections; we sometimes have to write an expected results section. Make that "expected" part disappear, add some statistics, illustrative quotes, whatever, then finish with a discussion/conclusion and voila! Made up study. And if you're in a field or at an institution where it's normal for someone to conduct and write up a study all by his- or herself, who will ever find out?

Well, apparently someone did, because this guy was caught and confessed, and the whole thing was written up in the New York Times. You can perhaps understand his motivation, and there are surely countless other researchers who have done the same thing and never got caught. And if you're a bit sly about it, your chances of getting caught will likely go down further. So what makes the people who would never do such a thing different?

Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy class - or who has seen the movie Election - can tell you the difference between morals and ethics. For those who fall in neither of those groups: Morals are notions about what is right and what is wrong. Ethics often refers to the moral code of a particular group, and it sometimes is used to describe what is considered right and wrong at someone's job or within a certain field. That is, if we say a study was conducted ethically, we mean generally that it was performed in a way to minimize unnecessary harm, but more specifically, we mean that an overseeing body examined it and decided it abided by the rules established by some even higher-up overseeing body. Psychological ethics clearly say that falsifying data is wrong; it's unambiguously stated. Stapel can't plead ignorance here.

Sorry, my moral compass appears to be broken today.  I'll have to get back to you tomorrow.
But not everyone avoids doing something because it's wrong. People are at different stages in their moral development; for some the possibility of getting caught is their deterrent. One of the most well-known theorists on moral reasoning is Kohlberg, who (while a post-doc at University of Chicago) began developing a taxonomy of six developmental stages. The first two stages apply to children; in the first stage, people are motivated by seeking pleasure and avoiding punishment, and determine morality by what an action gets them in return. Similarly, stage 2 individuals are driven by self-interest and in actions that further their own goals, needs, etc.; these people behave morally toward others when it also benefits them. 

As we move into adolescence and adulthood, we also move into stages 3 and 4. In stage 3, people begin fulfilling societal roles, and behave in ways that conform to others' expectations; it seems the motivating principle here is they, as in "what would they think?" In stage 4, morality is based on legality. Finally, some lucky few move to stages 5 and 6, which Kohlberg considered the highest levels of morality. These individuals are no longer motivated by pleasing others, what is legal/illegal, or even self-interest; instead, they develop universal principles of what is right and wrong, and seek to enforce those principles, even if it means breaking the law or sacrificing their own needs.

But perhaps what it really comes down to is why one became a scientist at all. I like to think I went into this field because I was good at it, but then there are other things I'm good at (perhaps things I'm even better at than this), some that I could have potentially built a career around. I find the field to be challenging, but once again, there are other interesting and challenging fields I could have pursued. As cheesy as it sounds, I really want to make the world a better place and I see my field as one approach to reaching that goal. I'm sure Diederik Stapel had similar reasons for going into this field. Somewhere along the way, that motivation got lost, or at least overpowered by the drive to publish (or perish).

How can we keep people from getting to this point? How can we reward scientific integrity, even if it means fewer publications and a less attractive CV? And most importantly, how can we verify a researcher's findings are valid?

Thoughtfully yours,