Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gone ice fishing...

We have family with us for the next week+, so I'm going to take a break from blogging. I'll be back on Jan. 4th...
In the meantime, enjoy Boxing Day!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Social facilitation & social interference

Here’s a puzzle for you. Sometimes having other people watch us work makes us work faster, but other times having other people watch slows us down.

For example: I was at the gym recently lifting weights, and a friend came over to talk. I was just getting ready to do bench presses at the time, and he offered to spot me (i.e., stand there and help if the bar got too heavy). With him watching, I focused more on what I was doing and was able to lift substantially more than I had before.

In contrast, when I write (as I am doing now), I have to be alone. When a family member comes into my office when I writing, I slow way down to the point where I no longer even try. I’m not able to concentrate on my work.

Why the difference?

It turns out that the effect of others watching us work varies according to how complex the task is. Bench pressing, though a lot of work, is relatively simple. Up, down, up, down, and so forth. In contrast, writing is much more complex involving choices of paragraph order, sentence structure, grammar, word choice, etc…

When other people watch us do simple tasks, it tends to make us do them better. This is called the social facilitation effect, and it was discovered in one off the earliest social psychological experiments. In 1897 (when your great-great grandparents were alive) Norman Triplett did a study in which he had some boys cast a fishing rod and reel it in as fast as they could. Sometimes they were by themselves, other times they had other boys there also casting and reeling. The boys reeled much faster when they had other boys around. Triplett found the same effect with bicycle riding. Having other people watch us provides psychological arousal and so we apply extra energy and effort to our task.

When other people watch us do complex tasks, we also encourages tend to put in extra effort-- but with different results. Complex tasks take time and concentration, and the extra energy we apply to them when someone is watching causes us to try too hard. We don’t take the time to do it correctly. Also, the other person can distract us. This is called social interference.

Here’s something really cool about the social facilitation and interference effects—they apply to animals as well as humans. Robert Zanjonc did a famous study in which he demonstrated these effects with cockroaches, of all animals. He created two mazes, one easy, one hard. Behind the maze walls were other cockroaches, and sometimes the walls were glass, so that the other cockroaches could watch and other times they were covered with paper, so that they couldn’t watch. (Stay with me here).

What were the results? With the easy maze, a cockroach ran the maze faster when it could see other cockroaches—social facilitation. With the hard maze, a cockroach ran slower with others watching—social interference. Wow, who would have guessed? (Zajonc also demonstrated the effect with rats, which for some reason I find much less interesting than with cockroaches).

There are several wrinkles to these effects. For one thing, what is complex for one person might be simple for another, and so they would have different reactions to having others watching. For example, my grade school son is learning to play the violin, and he plays a mean “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” here at home. At recitals, however, with other parents watching, he gets nervous and doesn’t do as well. In contrast, a concert violinist, who practices hours and hours a day, is skilled enough that having a group of people watch him or her would inspire them to play even better.

Another wrinkle has to do with whether or not we care about the people watching us. If we think highly of them, and value their esteem, then social facilitation and social interference effects are stronger. If we don’t know them, or otherwise don’t care about them, then these effects are weaker. For example, I have difficulty writing when family or friends watch me, but I have no problem doing it at the library, where there are other people around, but I don’t know them. Likewise, a runner running through a neighborhood far from their home probably isn’t inspired by the strangers who would be watching them.

What does this mean for you? Well, first off, this knowledge gives you a distinct advantage the next time you go to the cockroach races. Also, it might help you structure your own work for maximum performance. If you find the work relatively simple, but are having trouble getting motivated, put yourself in a place where others can watch you work. However, if it’s work that you have difficulty with, you might want to find a place to be by yourself or at least among people you don’t know.

Originally published on

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Dogwood buds in ice (pic)

Maybe the only good thing to come from a recent freezing rain storm...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Lightboxes & winter depression (seasonal affect disorder)

This is the kind of post that I don't do much, but in case it helps anyone...

Some time ago I figured out that I had a healthy case of the winter blues. (It's officially called seasonal affect disorder, but I figure that I already have enough disorders). Basically it's seasonal depression. The DSM-IV defines it as having the following symptoms:

"(1) Depressed mood (or alternatively can be irritable mood in children and adolescents).
(2) Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities.
(3) Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain or decrease or increase in appetite.
(4) Insomnia or hypersomnia.
(5) Psychomotor agitation or retardation.
(6) Fatigue or loss of energy.
(7) Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
(8) Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness.
(9) Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide."

While I don't have every one, I have enough of them in enough intensity that it can be a real problem. (And I don't have the weight-loss one, darn it).

Several years ago, in a episode of good judgement, I bought a lightbox for dealing with it. Think very bright, full-spectrum light. It works well, and I use it in the mornings from mid-November to February. I just sit at my desk, reading or writing for 30 minutes with it on.

Well, last week I talked to a neighbor who was having a really tough time in what sounded like classic winter depression, so I loaned her the light box for a week. I was astounded by how going off it negatively affected me. There's no need to go into details, but lets just say the wheels came off the bus.

So, if this is an issue for you, I sure recommend trying a light box. I got a powerful one (Cadillac of lightboxes?), but there's a lot of them out there + lots of sites on the web that discuss them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Looking for a new holiday

Walking home yesterday, with my friend David (who parks at our house), we passed a house with no Christmas lights. I explained that they were Jewish, and so they didn't have to do Christmas.

That got me thinking. Maybe I'm going about this all wrong. Rather than being anti-Christmas, which I am, I should be pro-something else that precludes Christmas. "Gosh dear, I would love to help string up the lights, but I observe holiday "x" instead." Sounds good, no? So the question becomes, which holiday. Here are some possibilities:

. Positives: Some of the food rituals sound cool. Negatives: the holiday itself is 8 days long. I'm looking for holiday-lite.

Winter Solstice
: Positives: Celebrating the days starting to get longer. That would be cool. Also there are lots of culture variations in what is done, so I could pick and choose. Only one night, usually, so I wouldn't have a whole season. Negatives: pagan-connotations, also celebrations sometimes involve running around outside, and it's kind of cold this time of year.

Festival of Reason
. (David's suggestion) It's from the French Revolution era, and from Wikipedia: "The Cult of Reason was celebrated in a carnival atmosphere of parades, ransacking of churches, ceremonious iconoclasm, in which religious and royal images were defaced, and ceremonies substituted the martyrs of the Revolution for the martyrs of the Church." Pluses: I have far too little ceremonious iconoclasm in my life, and I like the rowdy aspect of this holiday. I wonder if I could incorporate a food fight? Negatives: My pastor Ben probably wouldn't go for me trashing the church once a year. Also, the holiday is in November, so it might not get me out of Christmas stuff.

For those who don't know here's a description: "The holiday is celebrated each year on December 23, but many people celebrate it at other times, often to avoid the Christmas rush. The holiday includes novel practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed him/her over the past year. Also, after the Festivus meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, the holiday only ending if the head of the household is actually pinned it." I love the playful nature of it, plus the flexible dates of it. Negatives: not sure I could convince anyone I was serious about it. (It was popularized in the Seinfeld show).

So, what do you think? Any suggestions on which would be best? Other possibilities?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If Jesus were running for office

When it comes to politics, I'm an agnostic. I'm quite unsure of how to apply the principles of Christianity to the two-party system here in the U.S. On some issues, the democrats seem to have it right, on other issues the republicans, and on a lot of issues--neither.

Here's a video that illustrates how Jesus would fare in politics today. It's from a liberal perspective (and a similar one could be made from a conservative perspective).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas moment

Out here in rural CT, we don't get a lot of radio stations. Well... the other day I was driving to the store, and I guess I went behind a hill because I could only get two radio stations. One was playing a Jackson-Five Christmas song, and the other a Muppets Christmas song (I'm not kidding).

At that point, I realized that I had only one alternative left. I started to pull over to get out the emergency shovel and dig a shallow grave for myself in the woods. Thankfully, another station came in, so I was able to keep on going.

Others say Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, whatever...

I say "this too shall pass."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The right church...

Well, I just received "confirmation" that we're attending the right church for us. It's snowing/ raining now, but not a lot, so I didn't know if the 4:00 service would be canceled. There I am, watching the NE Patriots play football, and a cancellation notice for St. Paul's scrolls across the bottom of the screen... never had to get off the couch. That's a church in touch with the needs of its members.

Now, if they'd only adopt my suggestion of serving nacho chips for communion.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

How many five year olds?

Just in time for Christmas... how many five year olds could I take in a fight (if they all attacked at once) ...


I took the survey twice and got the same result, so it's a reliable finding!

To get your own score, click here

Friday, December 14, 2007

Aerobic vs. anaerobic work in everyday life

We're just finishing up finals week, and for some reason December finals week always seems rougher than the one in May. (Maybe because we're not on the doorstep of paradise, I mean summer vacation).

Last week I took a how-to class for using a heart monitor while spinning (riding a type of stationary bicycle). It emphasized the importance of staying within the aerobic range of heart rate, and, if we get into anaerobic, do it only for a limited time followed by time in a recovery range.

As I understand it (and it's a limited, and probably inaccurate understanding), exercise in the aerobic range is both more healthy and more sustainable. The instructor told the story of bicycling outside with a friend. The friend flies up hills, going into anaerobic work, while the instructor goes more slowly, staying aerobic. It takes the instructor longer to get to the top, but once he does he takes off on the level ground while his friend is still trying to recover.

I wonder if a similar dynamic exists with the energy we put into our every day life and work. For most of November, I focused on working moderately hard each day, and going home while I still had energy to work. (Think: staying below 85% of maximum heart rate). I often felt I could have gotten more done in any given day, but I was surprised at how much I did get done each on an on-going basis; i.e., each day was productive.

In finals week, however, I have been pushing as hard as I can each day, which coupled with increased family obligations, has left me exhausted. The first several days of this I was pleased at how much I got done, essentially burning up reserves, but the last couple days have been much less productive because I've been exhausted. By analogy, I pushed into anaerobic work, and it wasn't such a good idea.

Thinking back on the week, I actually didn't need to push so hard and could have stayed in the steady, moderate-effort pace of the prior weeks. I could have done this by taking a little longer to get grades back + putting aside some other, ongoing projects in recognition of the extra work required by finals week.

(BTW, in writing this, I managed to spell "anaerobic" three different ways and each looked correct. :-(

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Storrs Graveyard (pic)

This is kind of a cool picture because the name "Storrs" in the bottom left is after the founder of the town here in Storrs, Connecticut.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christian Smith and social forces affecting young people

Christian Smith has written an interesting essay about demographic and social changes for young people. Scot McKnight summarizes it helpful as follows:
"Many today calls this “emergent hood” and so I’ve called them “EGens.”
Four social forces:
1. Growth in higher education to an expectation for many if not all.
2. Delay of marriage — average male marries at 27.
3. American and global economy that destabilizes careers.
4. Parents willing to extend financial support much longer than previously.
Manifestations in Christianity and Church:
1. The content and texture of the faith shifts for EGens.
2. The family life is not as stable.
3. EGens may miss church attendance for 15-20 years.
4. EGens participate in ual serial monogamy — a series of partners.
5. EGens expect financial independence before marriage."
Lots of claims are made about young people and how it will affect the church, but these seem relevant and believable.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What is beautiful is good stereotype

Like many people, you want to get ahead in life… have a successful career, be well-liked, you know, all that good stuff. So, you go to school, work hard, treat others well, and hope for the best.

Well, you’re forgetting something, and that is to look good. Why? It turns out that we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to good looking people, and these qualities have a way of becoming true.

Here’s how it works. Social psychologists have identified something called the “what is beautiful is good stereotype.” If someone is good looking—clear skin, symmetrical face, sparkly eyes or whatever else we see as beautiful or sexy or cute—we think that they are also lots of other good things. Just because they are hot, we think that they are more intelligent, sensitive, interesting, competent, and kind.

Our positive expectations for attractive people can serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we think someone is smart and has a great personality, we start to treat them differently. We expect them to live up to our expectations, and, lo and behold, they do. As such, if we think that beautiful people are better people overall, they become so.

Usually we think about stereotypes being negative, and the problems that they cause. For example, if teachers think that girls are inherently worse at math than boys, they might put less effort into teaching them, call on them less in the class, and in general have lower expectations. The result, girls end up doing worse in math because the teachers think they will.

The “what is beautiful is good” stereotype is positive, and it can be just as powerful. In a classic study, researchers had men talk with a woman via intercom for 10 minutes, and after the conversation the men were asked to rate the woman’s personality. Half the men were shown a picture of an attractive woman and told that was the woman they were talking to. The other half were shown a picture of an unattractive woman. In reality, as you probably guessed, it was the same woman talking to each of the men.

The men who thought they were talking to an attractive woman rated her as more friendly, sociable, and likeable than those talking to an “unattractive” woman. They perceived her as having a much better personality just because she was beautiful. Why? Self-fulfilling prophesy. The men talking to the “attractive” woman treated had higher expectations for her, and she lived up to them.

The effect of this stereotype varies. As might be expected, it works most strongly with first impressions. We evaluate somebody’s appearance when we first meet them, and that information becomes most important. The more we get to know them, however, the more we factor in their other characteristics as well. Also, some people put more weight on physical appearances than others, and so they would be more affected by this stereotype.

This stereotype has various social implications. We’re all aware of the remarkable amounts of time and energy that people put into their appearance. Here in the U.S. alone, women spend billions of dollars on cosmetics. This seems like frivolity, but if in fact attractive people receive preferential treatment, it might not be as misguided as it first seems.

It also suggests another source of social stratification. Sociologists are quite attuned to how race, gender, sexuality, age, and other demographic characteristics affect our social standing. Perhaps we should to incorporate other characteristics, such as attractiveness. Who knows, maybe an attractive person of minority status might have better odds in society than an unattractive person of majority status.

This stereotype also gives an idea as to why the media so often uses attractive people. Open up any magazine, and there are beautiful people selling everything from vacuum cleaners to computers to watches. We see their attractiveness, and we associate other good qualities with them, and so maybe we should listen to them about what to buy.

An instance of this stereotype is found with newscasters. In general, television news anchors tend to be attractive people. Here are pictures of two of them. Stone Phillips is a reporter and anchor for CBS news. Melissa Theuriau is a reporter on French television. Both of them are remarkably attractive people. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve walked through the journalism department here at UConn, but I’m pretty sure that average journalism student isn’t this good looking. News organizations pick anchors, in part, on their physical attractiveness, and given all the positive attributes associated with attractiveness, this isn’t a bad idea.

The beauty stereotype raises some interesting moral questions.

One could justifiably argue that it is wrong to give extra social capital to people because of their good looks. Somehow it seems unfair, almost discriminatory, to those of us who will never earn the name “Stone”. Still, the same argument applies to intelligence, education, organizational skills, and any other factors that society rewards. Some have more, some have less. Now, don’t get me wrong. If society rewarded only beauty, I’d be in deep, deep trouble. But, if society inherently conditions its rewards, i.e., some people get them and some people don’t, how much does it matter which criteria are used? The true alternative is unconditional value, no?

Originally posted at

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bah Humbug

I'm not a big fan of the Christmas season... okay, I flat out don't like it. The problem is that I have about a day-and-a-half worth of interest in it, but the darn thing goes on for a month and a half. There's no way that the "special" moments on Christmas morning justify the emotional and financial stress brought about by the season.

Furthermore, the days are getting shorter and shorter, which I find unnerving, and it's also Christmas time, so there is guilt by association.

So, here are some of the best things of a true bah humbug spirit:

Movie quotation
: "Christmas? Christmas means dinner, dinner means death! Death means carnage; Christmas means carnage!" Ferdinand the duck in Babe.

T-shirt slogan
: "What part of bah humbug don't you understand?"

: What did Jesus ever do for Santa Claus' birthday? (Steven Wright)

: Bad Mall Santas

Song: Christmas time by Larry Norman

Santa Claus is coming and the kids are getting greedy
They know what's in the stores ´cause they seen it on the TV
You go into the forest and you cut down all the trees
I know you got a power saw, but who plants the seeds
I gotta buy a present, can´t remember who it´s for
I´ll see you in a hour when I get back from the store
It used to be the birthday of The Man who saved our necks
Now it stands for Santa Claus, they spell it with an "X"!
It´s Christmas time...

Any additions to this list?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bittersweet (pic)

Bittersweet is a real pain of a weed. It's a vine that grows everywhere; in fact, when we moved into this house, there were bittersweet vines covering 60 foot pine trees, all the way to the top.
Its one redeeming feature... it has beautiful berries in fall.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Soda pop as liquid Satan

A recent diet book termed soda pop as "liquid Satan" for how harmful it is to our health. I chuckled about the catchy term and didn't really think about it again, until... I read this narrative of what happens to our bodies when we drink a Coke. Yikes!

Have you ever wondered why Coke comes with a smile? It’s because it gets you high. They took the out almost a hundred years ago. You know why? It was redundant.
  • In The First 10 minutes: 10 teaspoons of sugar hit your system. (100% of your recommended daily intake.) You don’t immediately vomit from the overwhelming sweetness because phosphoric acid cuts the flavor allowing you to keep it down.
  • 20 minutes: Your sugar spikes, causing an insulin burst. Your liver responds to this by turning any sugar it can get its hands on into fat. (There’s plenty of that at this particular moment)
  • 40 minutes: Caffeine absorption is complete. Your pupils dilate, your pressure rises, as a response your livers dumps more sugar into your stream. The adenosine receptors in your brain are now blocked preventing drowsiness.
  • 45 minutes: Your body ups your dopamine production stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain. This is physically the same way crack works, by the way.
  • >60 minutes: The phosphoric acid binds calcium, magnesium and zinc in your lower intestine, providing a further boost in metabolism. This is compounded by high doses of sugar and artificial sweeteners also increasing the urinary excretion of calcium.
  • >60 Minutes: The caffeine’s diuretic properties come into play. (It makes you have to pee.) It is now assured that you’ll evacuate the bonded calcium, magnesium and zinc that was headed to your bones as well as sodium, electrolyte and water.
  • >60 minutes: As the rave inside of you dies down you’ll start to have a sugar crash. You may become irritable and/or sluggish. You’ve also now, literally, ed away all the water that was in the Coke. But not before infusing it with valuable nutrients your body could have used for things like even having the ability to hydrate your system or build strong bones and teeth.

This will all be followed by a caffeine crash in the next few hours. (As little as two if you’re a smoker.) But, hey, have another Coke, it’ll make you feel better.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

An end-of-the-semester question

Today was my last lecture in Sociology of Religion. I enjoyed teaching it, and really liked the students, but I came away from today asking a question:

Who looks forward to the end of the semester more? Students or professors.

I think it's professors because we don't risk graduating out of college into the real world.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Leaves in fog (pic)

A foggy night on the UConn campus....

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Social balance theory at a barbeque

Something made me happy, and I didn’t understand why—at least until I remembered balance theory.

A friend and I are part of a group, and this group held a barbeque. Now, I didn’t want to go because I thought it would be kind of boring. My friend, however, not only went but he also organized it, and for some reason this bothered me. The next week I spoke with him about the event, and not only did he not have fun, but it turns out that he helped organize it out of obligation. When I heard this I was happy for the rest of the afternoon.

Why in the world would my friend not having fun make me happy? I don’t normally feed off of other people's misery. I didn’t have to go to the barbeque, so why should I care?

I suppose that I could be devolving into a petty, mean-spirited sociologist, but a more optimistic explanation comes from what social psychologists term balance theory. The best way to illustrate balance theory is with social situations with three elements: You (Person 1), somebody else (Person 2), and some object.

Balance is good, and it happens when Person 1 likes Person 2, and they both like some object. We can chart this out this way:See all the good feelings? This provides balance because not only does Person 1 like Person 2, but they also agree with them about the object.

Another balanced situation would be if Person 1 did not like either Person 2 or the object, but person 2 liked the object. Here Person 1’s low esteem of Person 2 is validated by their disagreement about the object. (There are several other balanced situations… can you figure them out? They all have only one positive relationship.)

Balanced situations tend to stay rather stable because there is no overt reason to change them.

In contrast, imbalance can be bad, and it often occurs in situations where there is tension in the feelings involved. For example, say Person 1 likes Person 2 but does not like an object. Person 2, however, does like the object. This causes tension for person 1 because their good feelings toward Person 2 don’t match their disagreement about the object. Here’s how we can chart this imbalance:
Do you see the problem? The imbalanced described here creates instability. Because of this, imbalanced situations usually don’t last too long; their tension motivates the people involved to balance the situation.

In the above imbalanced situation, balance could be achieved in several ways: Person 1 could decide to like the object or they could dislike Person 2 or Person 2 could dislike the object. Any one of these changes would work equally well, and usually the easiest change is made. There are three relationships described in this situation, and whichever one is weakest will probably be the one changed.

This is what happened in my situation. I (Person 1) liked my friend (Person 2) and not the barbeque (object), but he seemed to like the barbeque. This imbalance was bothering me, and I had several choices in how to create balance. I could decide that the barbeque was a fun thing after all or that I didn’t really like my friend. I could also try to persuade my friend to dislike the barbeque.

None of these were particularly good options, so I was stuck. That is why I was happy when I found out that he actually did not enjoy the barbeque and was involved only out of obligation. This created a balanced situation :
Whew, that was a close one!

The reason that sociologists like balance theory isn’t just because it helps us to understand our friends and barbeques. It also provides an interesting idea about how we form our attitudes.

Usually people think that their attitudes toward somebody or something are their own. You feel a certain way because that’s who you are—an individualistic, psychological explanation. Certainly people have their own preferences, but in addition our attitudes and opinions are shaped by what others around us think and our desire not to be in conflict with those we like (or to be in conflict with those we don’t like).

Think about some of your attitudes. What are some of the things you like—bands? Restaurants? Styles of clothes? Sports teams? You may be proud of what you like, even use it to define yourself—wearing logos or joining different Facebook groups. Examine these attitudes and see how they fit with your friends’ (or enemies’) attitudes. I’ll bet you pretty much agree with your friends and disagree—or want to disagree—with people you don’t like.

It turns out that some of these things may simply reflect your desire to have cognitive balance. Your attitudes may reflect the attitudes of others as much as they reflect you.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A new reality show

Now this sounds like an interesting reality show. In it, non-Muslims living under strict Sharia law for three weeks.

There's some controversy about whether it will increase acceptance of Muslims or promote intolerance.

It would certainly be a different experience, especially for Western women.

What do you think it will do?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Deer on ice

I was out this a.m. taking photos at a local lake, when I heard something crashing through the brush. I looked over, and saw a buck flying through the woods (maybe running away from hunters?).

It ran on the the ice, had a hoof fall through, stuggled his way free, and then lay there on the ice to catch his breath.

Me? I was on the other shore, already set up, snapping away. Here's a nice picture of it...

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Saturday stuff

Ben Dubow has published a thoughtful post on the discussion of Willow Creek's Reveal study on the blogosphere. He addresses it from a pastor's perspective of what works and what doesn't.

Here's a funny story about how the misuse of an on-line translator, caused a diplomatic uproar. (Thanks David)

It was really foggy last week, so what was I doing? Going out late and night and sneaking up on geese at Mirror Lake here on campus.