Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mental Energy and Physiological Energy

When we talk to other people about achieving goals, we often speak in terms that relate to energy.  We think of ourselves as getting energized to get to work.  Psychologists talk about the energy that is related to achieving goals as arousal.

Is this mental energy just a metaphor? That is, are these goals just energized in the mind, or does that energy translate to physiological energy in the rest of the body?

This question was explored in a paper in the February, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Timur Sevincer, Daniel Busatta, and Gabriele Oettingen.

In one study, they looked at a method that Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have used many times in the past to study the arousal of goals.  Their works shows that a good way to energize a goal is to do a mental contrast.  First, think about the desired future that you want to achieve.  Then, think about where you are right now related to that goal.  For people who believe the goal can be achieved, this mental contrasting is an effective way of energizing the goal.  But, for people who believe that the goal is impossible to achieve, this kind of mental contrasting actually makes people less interested in achieving the goal. 

In this study, the researchers linked this kind of mental energy to physiological energy using changes in systolic blood pressure.  In one study, college students came to the lab and had a baseline blood pressure measurement.  They also did a task where they squeezed a metal hand grip and the researchers measured how long they could hold the hand grip closed.  This task is often used in psychology experiments as a measure of physical effort. 

After that, participants were told that they were going to write a fictitious graduate admissions essay.  They rated how well they thought they would do in this task.  That was a measure of their belief in whether they would succeed.

Next, some participants did a mental contrasting exercise in which they thought about an aspect of themselves like self-confidence and focused first on how writing the essay would make them feel in the future.  Then, they thought about that aspect in themselves right now.  A second group thought only about the future.  A third group focused on unrelated interactions with a teacher.

After these exercises, participants had a second measure of systolic blood pressure.  They also squeezed the hand grip again.  Participants did not actually write an essay.
Participants in the future and control conditions showed no particularly strong pattern of results.  Their systolic blood pressure was not strongly influenced by their thoughts, and there was no major change in their ability to squeeze the hand grip.

The participants in the contrasting condition showed an interesting pattern, though.  When they thought the task was not achievable, their systolic blood pressure went down.  When they thought it was highly achievable, then their systolic blood pressure went up.  The same pattern was observed with the hand grip.  Those who thought the task was not achievable held the grip closed for a shorter period of time than they had in the baseline condition, but those who thought it was achievable held it for a longer period of time. 

This study suggests that getting mentally energized to achieve a goal creates physiological energy.  That energy is reflected both in a change in blood pressure as well as an increased ability to perform a physical task.

Perhaps it should not be so surprising that mental energy creates a physiological response.  The brain controls bodily action, and many of our goals require physical reactions.  In the modern era, though, a lot of our mental work is done without much physical activity, and so it is easier to believe that the goals engaged by the brain are contained primarily in the brain. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Control and Health

At any given moment, you may feel as though your ability to succeed in the world involves some combination of your own efforts and factors that are out of your control.  Starting about 50 years ago, psychologists began to explore the relationship between people’s beliefs about the amount of control that they have in a situation and their behavior.  

This work suggests that people who believe that their efforts drive success in situations tend to work harder and to do more positive and healthy things than people who believe that factors outside their control are affecting outcomes.  Essentially, when you believe that your own actions matter, then you work to create the outcomes you desire.  When you believe that your actions will not have much of an impact on the future, then you do not put in much effort.

A key concept in this work is locus of control.  People with an internal locus of control believe that they are the authors of their destiny.  People with an external locus of control believe that circumstances control their future.  Much of the work on this idea has focused on locus of control as a personality trait that is relatively stable over time.

An open question is whether there are variations within individuals in locus of control that also affect the way they act.  This question was addressed in a paper by Holly Ryon and Marci Gleason in the January, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

They had a sample of pregnant couples fill out a daily survey for three weeks.  The women were in their last trimester of pregnancy.  Their non-pregnant partner also participated.  Pregnant couples were used (in part), because they are likely to experience a lot of stress and changes in health on a daily basis.  Most people’s lives are a little less adventurous than those of pregnant couples as they approach their due date.

Each day, they filled out a number of scales. One measured locus of control (with questions like “Today I was able to deal with my problems” and “I feel that I have control over the things that happen to me.”).  They also filled out measures of anxiety and depression.  They reported whether they exercised and ate a healthy diet and also any negative health symptoms they experienced.  They also reported the hassles they experienced that day (including health problems, car problems, financial problems, and issues with their partner). 

One set of analyses demonstrated that the daily hassles people experience affect people’s perceived locus of control.  The more hassles, the more that they felt that circumstances controlled their lives.  The anxiety they experienced that day also affected their locus of control. 

Daily differences in locus of control then predicted behavior and symptoms.  For both the pregnant partner and the non-pregnant partner, the more they believed that their actions controlled the future, the more that they engaged in healthy behaviors like eating well and exercising and the fewer negative symptoms they experienced.

This work extends previous studies by demonstrating that even day-to-day changes in your beliefs about your own effectiveness in the world influence your behavior.  On those days when you feel like you are in control, you act in healthier and more proactive ways than when you believe that the world is controlling you.  When you feel like you have no control, it can be valuable to engage with other people and let them help to motivate you to act in healthy and productive ways.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rich, Entitled, and Narcissistic

Narcissists are self-centered people who take the view that they are far more important than the people around them.  They promote themselves to the exclusion of others and take other people’s successes as competition to their own.  They also tend to suck the life out of groups, because they steal the limelight and push their own agenda at the expense of others.

Because of these negative influences of narcissism on relationships and in the workplace, it is valuable to understand where this collection of traits comes from.  An interesting paper in the January, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Paul Piff explores the relationship between narcissism and wealth. 

He argues that great wealth and higher levels of social class can lead people to have a greater sense of entitlement and that sense can lead to narcissism. 

In one study, adults ranging in age from 18-72 filled out a series of surveys including two of importance for this project.  One showed participants a ladder with ten rungs on it that represent people of increasing levels of income, education, and prestige and asked them to select the run they belong to.  This is a measure of perceived socioeconomic status (SES).  The second measure was a questionnaire measuring people’s sense of entitlement with items like “I honestly feel that I am more deserving than others.”  This study found a small positive correlation between the measure of SES and the measure of sense of entitlement. 

A second study used college students.  As a measure of SES, students reported their parents’ income.  As a measure of entitlement, the author used a scale that asked people to rate the relative importance of themselves compared to others.  This measure had a circle representing other people and circles of different sizes that could represent the self.  They had to select a size of a circle representing the self that corresponded to their feelings about their own importance compared to other people.  Previous studies suggest that this measure relates to people’s sense of entitlement.  Finally, participants filled out an inventory that assesses narcissism. 
In this study, there was a small correlation between SES (as measured by parental income) and narcissism.  There was also a small correlation between SES and the measure of entitlement.   

Statistical tests suggested that the sense of entitlement explained the differences in narcissism between low- and high-SES participants. 

A third study gathered measures of SES from college students in the lab.  Other measures were collected including a measure of how much participants care about their appearance.  Toward the end of the study, participants were asked if they would allow the experimenter to take their picture for a future study on face recognition.  Participants were given the opportunity to look in the mirror to fix their appearance before the picture.  The experimenter left the room to get a camera, and another RA measured whether the participant looked in the mirror.  Overall, women tended to look in the mirror more often than men.  That reflects a general difference between men and women in how much they care about their appearance.  Beyond that, high-SES individuals looked in the mirror more often than low-SES individuals.  This difference was not explained by differences in how much these individuals care about their appearance.

Finally, one study did an experimental manipulation to break the relationship between SES and narcissism.  Participants drawn from a sample on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk filled out a measure of SES.  Then, participants either listed three benefits of treating others as equals (which primes the concept of equality) or listed three activities they do in a normal day (a control condition).  Finally, participants filled out a narcissism scale. 

For the participants in the control condition, there was a small positive relationship between SES and narcissism.  That relationship disappeared for the group that wrote about equality.

Putting this together, then, there is a weak relationship between SES and narcissism.  When people grow up and live in a privileged environment, it can increase their tendency to feel entitled. That sense of entitlement leads to greater narcissism.

As interesting as these results are, it is important to recognize that the effects overall are small.  There are plenty of people high in socioeconomic status who have neither a sense of entitlement nor a tendency toward narcissism.  Similarly, there are many people from a low-SES background who do have a sense of entitlement and narcissistic traits.  But, it is valuable to know that there are elements of a person’s social situation that can make them more susceptible to being a narcissist.