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Growth spurts could be a 'baby illusion', scientists believe The phenomenon explains why many parents believe their first child has shot up in size after the birth of a new siblingWhen a mother tells her first-born: "My, how you've grown", it could be due to a "baby illusion", scientists believe.The birth of a second son or daughter often coincides with an apparent growth spurt in a parent's first child. But this only because of the mind playing tricks, say psychologists. When the new sibling arrives the first-born child ceases to be the youngest, and therefore seems to shoot up in size overnight."Contrary to what many may think, this isn't happening just because the older child just looks so big compared to a baby," said Dr Jordy Kaufman, from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. "It actually happens because all along the parents were under an illusion that their first child was smaller than he or she really was. When the new baby is born, the spell is broken and parents now see their older child as he or she really is."Kaufman's team began by asking 747 mothers if they remembered experiencing a sudden change in their first child's size after giving birth for the second time. In 70% of cases the mothers said they had encountered the phenomenon. Their "erstwhile youngest" child suddenly appeared bigger after the new infant's arrival.The researchers asked the mothers to estimate the height of one of their young children, aged two to six, by placing a mark on a blank wall. They then compared the height of the marks to each child's real height. The results, reported in the journal Current Biology, showed that mothers underestimated the height of their youngest child by 7.5 centimetres on average. In contrast, height estimates for the eldest child were almost accurate."The key implication is that we may treat our youngest children as if they are actually younger than they really are," said Kaufman. "In other words, our research potentially explains why the 'baby of the family' never outgrows that label. To the parents, the baby of the family may always be 'the baby'."The findings are a reminder of how illusory perceptions of the world can be. "We cannot trust the accuracy of our perceptions," Kaufman added. "In this case, it shows that our feelings and knowledge of our children affect how we actually perceive them. But it's important to consider that this misperception may actually make it easier to quickly distinguish one's youngest child from the other children."Parents and © 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
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This column will change your life: don't blame the lazy. It may not be their fault Willpower is something you might have less of thanks to luck or upbringing, not a magic power that lazy people refuse to useAs we stumble again into the season of overindulgence – that sacred time of year when wine, carbs and sofas replace brisk walks for all but the most virtuous – a headline in the (excellent) new online science magazine Nautilus catches my eye: "What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?" The article describes new research on mice: a genetic alteration, it appears, can make them obese, despite eating no more than others. "Many of us unfortunately have had an attitude towards obese people [as] having a lack of willpower or self-control," one Harvard researcher is quoted as saying. "It's clearly something beyond that." No doubt. But that headline embodies an assumption that's rarely questioned. Suppose, hypothetically, obesity were solely a matter of willpower: laying off the crisps, exercising and generally bucking your ideas up. What makes us so certain that obesity would be the fault of the obese even then?This sounds like the worst kind of bleeding-heart liberalism, a condition from which I probably suffer (I blame my genes). But it's a real philosophical puzzle, with implications reaching far beyond obesity to laziness in all contexts, from politicians' obsession with "hardworking families" to the way people beat themselves up for not following through on their plans. We don't blame people for most physical limitations (if you broke your leg, it wouldn't be a moral failing to cancel your skydiving trip), nor for many other impediments: it's hardly your fault if you're born into educational or economic disadvantage. Yet almost everyone treats laziness and weakness of will as exceptions. If you can't be bothered to try, you've only yourself to blame. It's a rule some apply most harshly to themselves, mounting epic campaigns of self-chastisement for procrastinating, failing to exercise and so on.But who says it's correct? The philosopher John Rawls is often interpreted as saying it isn't. The fair society, he famously claimed, was the one we'd have constructed if we'd been behind a "veil of ignorance" – without knowing if we'd be born rich or poor, strong or weak, good at maths, or sports, or nothing. "We do not deserve our initial place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting place in society," Rawls wrote. You don't deserve praise for being born sighted rather than blind, or growing up wealthy. Do we really deserve praise for having, or blame for lacking, "the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities"? Two rival notions of willpower do battle among psychologists these days. One is that it's a learned skill. (You can, for example, teach children distraction techniques to resist temptation.) The other is that it's a depletable resource: if forced to use lots in one domain – resisting impulse purchases because you're poor, say – you'll have less left over elsewhere. Either way, it's something you might have less of thanks to luck or upbringing, not a magic power that lazy people inexplicably refuse to use.None of which means effort should never be rewarded, or that it isn't sometimes strategic to make people – including yourself – feel bad: guilt's a great motivator. But when people fail to act in their own interests, moralising might not be justified. I'd start a movement to campaign for the rights of the lazy and weak-willed, but I suspect I'd have trouble signing people up.oliver.burkeman@theguardian.comFollow Oliver on TwitterPsychologyHealth & wellbeingOliver © 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
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