Several great psychology and neuroscience studies were published in 2009. Below I’ve chosen 10 that I think are among the most noteworthy, not just because they’re interesting, but useful as well.
1. If you have to choose between buying something or spending the money on a memorable experience, go with the experience. According to a study conducted at San Francisco State University, the things you own can’t make you as happy as the things you do. One reason is adaptation: we adapt to all things material in our lives in a matter of weeks, no matter how infatuated we were with the coveted possession the day we got it. Another reason is that experience, unlike possession, generally involves other people, and fosters or strengthens relationships that are more edifying over time than owning something.
2. First impressions are all about value. A study in the journal Nature Neuroscience identified two areas of the brain that show significant activity during the coding of impression-relevant information: the amygdala, which previous research has linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects and social evaluations of trust; and the posterior cingulate cortex, which has been linked to economic decision-making and valuation of rewards. The implication is that we’re all hardcore value processors even before “Hello” comes out of our mouths. The subjective evaluation we make when meeting someone new includes–to put it bluntly–what’s in it for us.
3. The “money illusion”—the tendency to allow the nominal value of money (amount of currency) to interfere with the real value (value of goods the money can buy)—is all in your head. No, really, it’s in your head—in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex to be exact. Here’s how it works: you get a 2% pay raise at the same time that the rate of inflation jumps to 4%. Nominally, you earn 2% more money, but really you’re 2% in the hole. An fMRI study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified reward circuitry in the brain that corresponds to the money illusion. You can’t change the wiring, but you can remember to check your willingness to accept nominal value. Think about what you can buy with your bucks, not just how many you have in your wallet.
4. Playing video games could be an unlikely cure for psychological trauma. Researchers at Oxford University hypothesized that playing Tetris after witnessing violence would sap some of the cognitive resources the brain would normally rely on to form memories. A well-structured study in the journal PLoS One confirmed the finding–Tetris acted like a ‘cognitive vaccine’ against traumatic memory. Memory research suggests that there’s about a 6-hour window immediately after witnessing trauma during which memory formation can be disrupted. The results of this study indicate that if you happen to have Tetris or a game like it handy during those six hours, it’s the cure for what ails you.
5. All of us spend time riding the moral self-regulation see saw. If you ever find yourself walking through the lighting section at a Home Depot and suddenly feel compelled to buy energy efficient light bulbs, stop and ask yourself if you’re compensating for something. For example, do you recycle? If not, maybe you’re buying those bulbs to offset a perceived moral deficit from throwing plastic water bottles in the trash can. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that feelings of negative self-worth can predispose us to acting morally in an effort to fill up the self-worth bank account. If the account is already full, we might be predisposed to choosing not to act morally, or just not act at all.
6. If you’re preparing for a specific challenge, make sure you prep for that challenge and not just ones like it. A study published in the journal Cognitive Science found that chess players who practice specific moves in preparation for a match—as opposed to practicing general chess skills—not only performed better in the match, but actually performed better than they were expected to given their general skill level. In other words, specialization trumped general problem solving and made the players better than anyone thought they were.
7. If someone is trying to sell you something, be extra careful to keep your psychological distance. A study in the journal Psychological Science tested the hypothesis that emotional mimicry—the tendency to mirror the emotions of someone we’re interacting with—makes it difficult to identify liars. Nonmimickers were significantly better at identifying liars than mimickers, and thus were harder to fool with the old flim flam sales routine. The reason is that mimicry reduces psychological distance and lowers defenses. Even if someone probably isn’t lying to you, it’s best to keep the cushion in place just in case.
8. Turns out, saying you’re sorry really is important—and not just to you. A study discussed at the Child Psychology Research Blog found that receiving an apology makes the recipient feel better by affecting his or her perception of the wrongdoer’s emotions. In other words, people who received an apology felt better afterward because the apology indicated that the other person felt bad about what he or she did. Sounds simple enough, but the researchers think it goes a bit deeper: knowing that the other person agrees that what he/she did was the wrong thing to do reaffirms our view of the world as just and predictable, since the other’s sadness tells us that people in general don’t do things like this. Whether that explanation is true or not, just suck it up and say you’re sorry.
9. We can become bored with just about anything, but there may be a way to reverse the habituation blues. Researchers reporting in the Journal of Consumer Research think the trick is overcoming “variety amnesia”—our tendency to forget that we’ve been exposed to a variety of great things, be they people, food, music, movies, home furnishings or other—and instead focus our attention on the singular thing that no longer gives us the tingles. To shake ourselves free from this negative trap, we must “dishabituate” by forcing ourselves to remember the variety of things we’ve experienced. So, for example, let’s say that you’ve become bored with a particular musical group you once couldn’t listen to enough. This research suggests that what you need to do it recall the variety of other songs from other musical groups that you’ve listened to since the last time you listened to your once-favorite band, and by doing so you’ll revive appreciation for your fave.
10. If you’re a man and find yourself in an argument with your significant other, choose your words very carefully. Not only do they affect the other person, but research in the journal Health Psychology suggests that they can also significantly impact your health. In the heat of stressful conflict, your brain is commanding the release of a stress-chemical cocktail comprised of proteins called cytokines–produced by cells in the immune system to help the body mount an immune response during infection. Abnormally high levels of these proteins are linked to cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers. This study suggests that how rational or emotional your communication is directly corresponds with the levels of those chemicals in your body and the damage they can do. Thing is, the same rules don’t apply to men and women—levels of cytokines in men show an increase over time, but in women they don’t. Why? Women may just be better at communication, or just luckier in this particular biological lottery.