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Tea: 6 Brilliant Effects on the Brain It's about more than just caffeine: two other components of tea may provide important benefits to the brain.→ Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick"
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John F Kennedy: 50th anniversary of a conspiracy theory | Chris French At no point have more than 36% of Americans believed that Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman. What is it about human psychology that makes conspiracy theories so appealing?Fifty years ago today, President John F Kennedy, one of the most charismatic leaders of modern times, was gunned down by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas. Or was he? The majority of people in the US and many people around the world doubt the "official story" and instead believe that JFK was, in fact, the victim of a conspiracy involving members of the mob. Or the CIA. Or communists. Or extreme right-wingers. Or the military-industrial complex. The list goes on.The idea that JFK was not the victim of a lone deranged gunman has been referred to as the "mother of all conspiracy theories" although some might argue that this accolade should nowadays go to the claim that 9/11 was an inside job. Although these two conspiracies are probably the most widely held, a wide variety of other conspiracy theories are also endorsed by large proportions of the population. These include the idea that Princess Diane was murdered, that the Americans never actually landed on the moon, that the HIV/Aids virus was deliberately manufactured with genocidal intent, and that the world is, in fact, ruled by giant shape-shifting lizards. What is it about conspiracy theories that makes them so attractive to so many people? And why is it that some people are more drawn to such theories than others?One possibility, of course, is that all of the above conspiracy theories are true and based upon a cool and rational analysis of available evidence. The only reason that some people do not believe in them might be because they have not looked at the evidence and instead, like mindless sheep, have simply accepted the lies of the establishment.This seems highly unlikely. For one thing, in this internet age with instant access to rolling news, conspiracy theories arise almost instantly after any major event, often far too quickly for any evidence to have been properly gathered and analysed regarding the real cause of the event in question. Secondly, studies have shown that some people will, upon first encountering them, endorse entirely fictional conspiracies dreamt up by researchers with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Finally, those with a strong inclination towards conspiratorial thinking will even endorse mutually contradictory conspiracy theories. Thus, those who believe that Princess Diane was murdered by the British secret service are also more likely to believe that she faked her own death; those who believe that Osama bin Laden was in fact already dead at the time that the Americans claim to have killed him are also more likely to believe that he is still alive. The explanation is, of course, that those with a conspiratorial mindset are not exactly sure what really happened with respect to these dramatic events. The only thing they are sure of is that the "official story" is not true.Surprisingly, with a few notable exceptions, it is only recently that psychologists have turned their attention towards this fascinating topic but there are signs this has changed in recent years, with an increasing number of relevant publications and publication of special issues of journals and blogs devoted exclusively to this topic. Some interesting findings have already emerged.For example, it appears that one of the underlying cognitive factors that inclines us towards belief in conspiracy theories is our intuitive notion that big events must have big causes. This has been referred to as the proportionality bias. Thus we find it hard to accept that JFK was the victim of a lone deranged gunman or that Princess Diane was the victim of a drunk driver. We prefer the idea that such major events must have major causes – such as complex conspiracies by groups of powerful individuals.Other research has pointed to the relevance of the psychological mechanism of projection. It appears that some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracies than others because those people would themselves feel inclined to engage in conspiracies in similar contexts. The reasoning goes like this: "If I were in that situation, I would probably engage in conspiratorial behaviour. That implies that most people would do likewise. Therefore, this conspiracy probably really did take place."Another factor that plays an important role is confirmation bias, probably the most ubiquitous cognitive bias of them all. We all have a tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what we already believe or want to be true and to ignore, neglect or dismiss evidence that contradicts of favoured beliefs. In one study, participants were presented with information relating to the JFK assassination. Some of the information was more consistent with the lone gunman explanation, some was more consistent with the conspiracy-based explanation. All participants found the information that was consistent with their pre-existing views more convincing than information that was inconsistent with those views. Thus the presentation of the same information had a polarising effect: those who already believed in the conspiracy theory believed in it even more strongly; those who already rejected the conspiracy theory, rejected it even more strongly.In real life, information about major events is often complex and includes errors and anomalies, meaning that such contradictory interpretations are all too easy. One of our greatest strengths as a species is our ability to find patterns and connections in complex data and to perceive cause and effect relationships between events. The problem is that we sometimes see patterns when they are not really there and deduce cause and effect relationships where they do not exist.Not surprisingly perhaps, those who believe strongly in conspiracies tend to show higher levels of anomie and paranoia. It is not just that they do not trust governments and official institutions. They are also less likely to trust their next-door neighbours and their colleagues at work. They tend to feel powerless, the victims of uncontrollable external forces, and it is arguably the case that belief in conspiracies gives them at least the illusion of control. Identifying at out-group as the cause of one's misfortune – be it the government, the CIA, the Illuminati or whatever – means there is at least the possibility that this enemy can be defeated. It is also undeniably satisfying to believe that one is in possession of secret knowledge about the way things really are that others are either too stupid or ignorant to believe.It should be noted that none of the psychologists engaged in this line of research would for one minute maintain that all conspiracy theories are false. A tiny minority of such theories do turn out to be true. The focus of this research is not upon whether any specific conspiracy theory is true or false but instead upon trying to understand the factors that make such theories so easy to believe for so many people. A second focus is upon why some people are more drawn to belief in conspiracies, even entirely fictional or mutually contradictory ones, than others.In the final analysis though, does belief in conspiracy theories do any real damage? Isn't it the case that such beliefs are just a bit of harmless fun? Although that may be true of belief in most conspiracy theories, the evidence shows conclusively that belief in conspiracies can cause serious harm. For example, it is estimated that unfounded conspiracy-based beliefs in the alleged dangers of treatment for Aids has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. It has also been shown that terrorist groups use conspiracy theories to recruit and motivate their followers. Finally, belief in conspiracy theories is associated with disengagement from democratic processes making believers less likely to vote, for example.In a democracy, it is essential that citizens examine and question the official version of events if we are to hold our leaders to account when it is appropriate to do so. But proper scepticism does not entail the rejection of all official versions of events but careful rational analysis using critical thinking skills to maximum effect. The assumption that all information from official sources is untrue is a dangerous road to go down.Chris French is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he heads the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. On Twitter he is @chriscfrenchPsychologyJohn F KennedyThe KennedysChris © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, by Charles Fernyhough – review Memory is quirky, selective, fragile and easily fooled. So what's new?Truman Capote did not record his interviews for In Cold Blood. Nor did he take notes. He had no need to. For Capote had a convenient gift. He simply committed the conversations to memory, word for word. From self-imposed tests, he claimed near total recall through this method. Strange then, that Capote could never recall the accuracy of his recall. He boasted 94% one day, 96% the next.Capote doesn't appear in Charles Fernyhough's book, but the reason for his heroic feats of memory is a central theme. Memory concerns itself not with surface details but substance. Our brains encode what matters to us at the time: the gun, not the gunman; the story, not the sentence. You remember that Princess Diana died. You do not remember the words that told you how.Memory is quirky. It is selective, fragile and easily fooled. We forget the names of lovers, but not the licence plate of the family's old Vauxhall Victor. We make others' memories our own, especially when they make us look good. We rewrite our pasts, unknowingly in the main, and with alarming ease and regularity. Think hard enough and the imagined becomes the believed. Even if that means you proposed to a Pepsi machine. As Fernyhough shows, much worse things happen.Take Colin. He was driving his truck down a country lane when a Nissan Micra hurtled round the corner on the wrong side of the road and ran straight into him. The driver, an old man who liked a drink, died from his injuries. It wasn't Colin's fault, but his memory of the crash left him paralysed by guilt. He stopped eating and sleeping. He became housebound. He tortured himself with what-ifs. What if he'd taken a break that morning, or chosen another route? Then there is the Polish engineer known as AKP. He sees the new as the old, perhaps because his brain errs when it tags fresh experiences: instead of being read as "happening now" they are read as "happened before". Disordered memories lead to strange behaviour. Each morning AKP complains the newspaper is full of old stories. To square the feeling of familiarity, he nips out late at night to read the first editions. When he visits the cinema to watch a new film, he is convinced he has seen it before. To make sense of this nonsense, he confabulates a reason: the film is actually about him.Many of the foibles of memory make sense once we abandon the idea that it serves only to record the past. Seen through the prism of evolution – and in biology, nothing makes sense otherwise – memory assumes a more crucial role than a recording device. Our memories of the past help us act in the future: the last time I walked down an alley like this, I got mugged; where have I seen that expression before? My first wife? We remember in order to survive.Memory doesn't record our lives like a video camera. It reduces life to salient fragments and encodes those. When we recall an event, the scene is not pulled fully formed from a mental archive, but reconstructed from its constituents in the moment. We add context, factual details and perspective, each time changing the flavour of what we recall, tuning it to the present. Our memories are not fixed, but malleable and dynamic, and this is what makes them so valuable.A book on the science of memory could easily have been formulaic. The author might have plumped for chapters on the long history of memory research, interleaved with compelling tales of outliers who remember all or nothing of their lives. But Fernyhough has written a different book. We are spared a trudge through old and now obsolete studies, and cut straight to the theories scientists knock around today. He uses a handful of extreme cases to explain how memory can go awry, but more often draws on everyday scenarios, which have the virtue of revealing to the reader how memory works in ordinary lives.Much of the book is given over to memoir. Fernyhough gets lost in Cambridge. Then fails to find a swimming pool in Sydney. Auntie Sheila turns up, though not in Australia, and not to help out. She is dead, and it's down to the author's sister, Clare, to gather bits and bobs from her house, which stir up memories of their own. The wife and kids get a mention, as does Rhett, the godfather. At one point, the author embarks on a Sebaldian trek along an estuary in Essex, retracing against the elements the steps of his divorced, dead father. This takes some time. He tells stories of his father to his children to keep the memory alive, or at least to implant memories in their brains. These aren't the only passages that seem more for the author's family than the general reader.The 92-year-old grandmother, Martha, makes an entrance too. She spoke some Yiddish growing up in London's East End, but none thereafter. Fernyhough interviews her over and over, as a study of memory in the aged. When the author arranges for a Yiddish speaker to talk to her, the language of her youth prompts Martha to remember, for the first time in 70 years, the Lithuanian town her mother emigrated from. By the end of the book, Martha is dead too. The author hands out CDs of his chats with her at the funeral.The subtitle of Fernyhough's book is "The New Science of Memory", but those who know their memory science will find little here that is new. The book focuses on the reconstructive account of memory, an idea Fernyhough ties to a 10-year-old book by Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist. Fernyhough's writing is fantastically clear, but his explanations of how memory works and goes awry are strewn throughout the text. The ironic effect is that the details are hard to remember. I wanted a more direct approach, and more explanatory diagrams. The only diagram in the book shows a brain with a dozen regions labelled. That is not enough. But these are not major moans. Pieces of Light is utterly fascinating and superbly written. I learned more about memory from this book than any other. There are few science books around of this class."¢ The winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books will be announced on Monday 25 NovemberRoyal SocietyRoyal Society Science Book PrizeNeurosciencePsychologyIan © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Five Myths about Gratitude For more than a decade, I have devoted my career to the study of gratitude. My research, and research by my colleagues, has linked gratitude to a host of psychological, physical, and social benefits: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, more feelings of joy, and a greater sense of social connection, among many others. Even armed with years of scientific data, making the case for gratitude can still be an uphill battle. At times I’ve been confronted with objections, reservations, or flat out hostility to the idea that gratitude is a virtue, or that we should devote more energy to cultivating an attitude of gratitude. While I appreciate the questions and concerns people have about gratitude, I think many of the objections are based on fundamental myths or misconceptions about what gratitude really is. And unfortunately, these misconceptions deter people from practicing gratitude—and reaping its many rewards. Here’s my take on five of the most pervasive myths about gratitude. 1. Gratitude leads to complacency I’ve often heard the claim that if you’re grateful, you’re not going to be motivated to challenge the status quo or improve your lot in life. You’ll just be satisfied, complacent, lazy and lethargic, perhaps passively resigned to an injustice or bad situation. You’ll give up trying to change something. In fact, studies suggest that the opposite is true: Gratitude not only doesn’t lead to complacency, it drives a sense of purpose and a desire to do more. My colleagues and I have found that people are actually more successful at reaching their goals when they consciously practice gratitude. When we ask people to identify six personal goals on which they want to work over the next 10 weeks—these could be academic, spiritual, social, or health-related goals, like losing weight—we find that study participants randomly assigned to keep a gratitude journal, recording five things for which they’re grateful once a week, exert more effort toward those goals than participants who aren’t made to practice gratitude. In fact, the grateful group makes 20 percent more progress toward their goals than the non-grateful group—but they don’t stop there. They report still continuing to strive harder toward their goals. This finding does not surprise me because people made to keep a gratitude journal in my studies consistently report feeling more energetic, alive, awake, and alert. Yet they don’t report feeling more satisfied with their progress toward their goals than other people do. They don’t become complacent or satisfied to the point that they stop making an effort. This relates to other research showing that gratitude inspires “pro-social” behavior such as generosity, compassion, and charitable giving—none of which suggests passivity or resignation. Instead, it suggests that gratitude motivates people to go out and do things for others—to give back, I think, some of the goodness that they recognize receiving themselves. In fact, my colleagues and I published a study in Motivation and Emotion a few years ago which found that kids who were more grateful than their peers at age 10 were by age 14 performing more pro-social activities and feeling greater social integration, meaning that they wanted to give back to their community and family. Again, the grateful people didn’t show passive resignation; they were out in the world doing stuff to make life better for others. All this evidence supports an observation made by William Damon, the noted developmental psychologist, in his book The Path to Purpose, which is about how we can help kids find their calling in life. “The sense of gratitude for being able to partake in what the world has to offer, and to have a chance to make one’s own contribution,” writes Damon, “is common in those with a sense of purpose.” 2. Gratitude is just a naïve form of positive thinking Some people claim that gratitude is just about thinking nice thoughts and expecting good things—and ignores the negativity, pain, and suffering in life. Well, evidence shows it’s much more than that. Based on my research, I’ve come to define gratitude as a specific way of thinking about receiving a benefit and giving credit to others beside oneself for that benefit. In fact, gratitude can be very difficult because it requires that you recognize your dependence on others, and that’s not always positive. You have to humble yourself, in the sense that you have to become a good receiver of others’ support and generosity. That can be very hard—most people are better givers than receivers. What’s more, feelings of gratitude can sometimes stir up related feelings of indebtedness and obligation, which doesn’t sound like positive thinking at all. If I am grateful for something you provided to me, I have to take care of that thing—I might even have to reciprocate at some appropriate time in the future. That type of indebtedness or obligation can be perceived very negatively—it can cause people real discomfort. The data bear this out: When people are grateful, they aren’t necessarily free of negative emotions—we don’t find that they necessarily have less anxiety or less tension or less unhappiness. Practicing gratitude magnifies positive feelings more than it reduces negative feelings. If it was just positive thinking, or just a form of denial, you’d experience no negative thoughts or feelings when you’re keeping a gratitude journal, for instance. But, in fact, people do. So gratitude isn’t just a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. It has responsibilities that go along with it that can make it difficult or challenging for people under certain circumstances. 3. Gratitude makes us too self-effacing Some people assume that if I am grateful, I give credit to others for my own success. When I recognize the ways others have helped me, I risk overlooking my own hard work or natural abilities. Research suggests that’s not the case. In one study, researchers administered a purportedly difficult test and told the study participants that they could win money for doing well on the test. Then the participants received a helpful hint that would help them get a high score. All the participants regarded the hint as helpful. But only those who felt personally responsible for their own score felt grateful for the hint. Gratitude was actually associated with a greater sense of personal control over one’s success. We have corroborated this in other studies: Grateful people give credit to others, but not at the expense of acknowledging their own responsibility for their success. They take credit, too. It’s not either/or—either I did this all myself or somebody else did it for me. Instead, they recognize their own feats and abilities while also feeling gratitude toward the people—parents, teachers—who helped them along the way. 4. Gratitude isn’t possible—or appropriate—in the midst of adversity or suffering Some argue that it’s impossible to be grateful in the midst of suffering. When life is going well, when there’s abundance—sure, then we can be grateful. But what about when we’re facing hard times? I believe not only is gratitude possible in those circumstances—it’s vital to helping us get through them. When faced with adversity, gratitude helps us see the big picture and not feel overwhelmed by the setbacks we’re facing in the moment. And as I’ve suggested above, that attitude of gratitude can actually motivate us to tackle the challenges before us. Without a doubt, it can be hard to take this grateful perspective, but research suggests it is possible, and it is worth it. Consider a study led by my colleague Philip Watkins, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, in which participants were asked to recall an unpleasant, unresolved memory—a time they were victimized or betrayed or hurt in some way that still made them upset. The participants were randomly assigned to complete one of three different writing exercises, one of which involved focusing on positive aspects of the upsetting experience and considering how it might now make them feel grateful. The results showed that the gratitude group reported feeling more closure and less unpleasant emotions than participants who didn’t write about their experience from a grateful perspective. The grateful writers weren’t told to deny or ignore the negative aspects of their memory. Yet they seemed more resilient in the face of those troubles. Similarly, roughly a decade ago, I asked people suffering from severe neuromuscular disorders to keep a gratitude journal over two weeks. Given that much of their lives involved intense discomfort and visits to pain clinics, I wondered whether they’d be able to find anything to be grateful for. Yet not only did they find reasons to be grateful, but they also experienced significantly more positive emotions than a similar group that didn’t keep a gratitude journal. The gratitude group also felt more optimistic about the upcoming week, felt more connected to others (even though many of them lived alone), and reported getting more sleep each night—an important indicator of overall health and well-being. So again, this is a gratitude myth that can be debunked. Science suggests we can cultivate or maintain an attitude of gratitude through hard times, and that we’ll be better for it. 5. You have to be religious to be grateful This myth is easy to bust: The new science of gratitude has clearly shown that people can have a grateful disposition even if they’re not religious. What’s more, it’s possible to boost levels of gratitude in people regardless of whether they’re religious. While some research suggests that religious people might be more inclined to feel or practice gratitude, they are by no means the only ones who score high on gratitude scales. And among religious people, feeling grateful to God isn’t mutually exclusive with feeling grateful to other potential sources of goodness. In some of my research, we’ve asked people to identify the sources of their success and positive qualities, like their intelligence or attractiveness. People who score high in gratitude are more likely to give credit to God than are people who score low in gratitude. But those grateful people are more likely to give credit across the board, meaning that they also give credit to other sources, such as other people, genetics, and hard work. I believe many of these myths spring from a fundamental misconception about gratitude: that it is a simplistic emotion. But part of what has kept me interested in gratitude for roughly 15 years is that it is deceptively complicated; each year I seem to encounter another nuance or layer to it. Once we appreciate these complexities of gratitude, documented by years of scientific research, we are in a better position to enjoy all the strengths and goodness it can bring.
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