Category Archives: Human nature

Paying Employees to Lose Weight – The New York Times

Does offering money to employees for losing weight actually work? This article describes that there may be right and wrong ways to try this.

We and several colleagues recently conducted a yearlong trial to test whether the promise of $550 off next year’s health insurance premium, paid out over the course of that year, could motivate employees to lose weight. After one year, as we recently reported in the journal Health Affairs, employees randomly assigned to a control group that received no financial incentive had no change in their weight. But employees who were offered a $550 premium reduction didn’t lose weight either.

Source: Paying Employees to Lose Weight – The New York Times

Memory failures and public policy

memory photoA great article from the New York Times on memory errors and their importance for law and public policy.

Our lack of appreciation for the fallibility of our own memories can lead to much bigger problems than a misattributed quote. Memory failures that resemble Dr. Tyson’s mash-up of distinct experiences have led to false convictions, and even death sentences. Whose memories we believe and whose we disbelieve influence how we interpret controversial public events, as demonstrated most recently by the events in Ferguson, Mo.

via Why Our Memory Fails Us –

Testing the pink prison cell hypothesis

prison photoResearchers from Ghent University have tested the long-held belief that painting prisons cells the color pink reduces aggressive behaviors.

This belief was based on previous demonstrations that supposedly showed reduced strength when pink cards were held in front of a person’s eyes.

The new study was done in an actual Swiss prison with authentic inmates and guards.

The prisoners showed reduced aggression at the end of three days, compared with at their arrival, but crucially, at no time was there a difference in aggression levels (in terms of emotions or behavior) between prisoners in the differently colored cells. The same null result was found when analysis was restricted to just those prisoners who started off low in aggression, or just those who started off with higher aggression.

via BPS Research Digest: Are prisoners calmer when their cells are painted pink?.

Photo by christian.senger

Detecting lies with questioning

124315322_efe6bf96ed_mThere has been lots of talk, and even a television show, about detecting lies by observing body language. But the actual support for this has been weak.

Here is an interesting article that describes how active questioning was far more powerful for detecting lies.

Here’s The Real Secret to Detecting Lies (And It’s Not Body Language) — PsyBlog.

Despite all the advice about lie detection going around, study after study has found that it is very difficult to spot when someone is lying.

Previous tests involving watching videos of suspects typically find that both experts and non-experts come in at around 50/50: in other words you might as well flip a coin.

Now, though, a new study published in Human Communication Research, has found that a process of active questioning yielded almost perfect results, with 97.8% of liars successfully detected.

Does brain training really work?

There are a variety of products out there that claim to improve your cognitive functions through brain training — often in the form of games. The game of Sudoku is particularly popular among people who think it is important to keep their brain active. This article from asks whether such brain training activities actually lead to generalized cognitive gains.


If you practice Sudoku, does your memory and concentration get better, or do you just get better at Sudoku?

The research is mixed, but the overall pattern of research is converging on a particular nuanced answer. It seems that practicing a particular task improves your performance mostly on that task, and to a lesser extent on closely related tasks, but not beyond that to more general intellectual function.

There does seem to be a particular advantage to doing novel things – don’t get stuck in a rut, do a variety of things and add some new experiences and challenges to your life.

But don’t buy into neurosciencey hype about “brain training” and scientifically designed games that are allegedly going to be better for your brain than other similar games. There is no cheat, there is no short cut to becoming smarter or better. The more you work, the more you benefit.

Mistaken beliefs about crowds in emergencies

This is an interesting article about the beliefs held by police and safety professionals, and the actual behavior of crowds in emergency situations. Contrary to the myths, people tend to act rationally and cooperate when faced with a crisis.

Police and safety professionals fall for myths about people’s behaviour in emergencies.

Research shows that people typically shown signs of collective resilience in emergency situations. Promisingly, the professional groups recognised that emergency crowds are often cooperative; that acts of heroism often occur; that people use their local knowledge to aid their escape; and that people often underestimate the risk they face. On this last point, it was clear that many participants in this study held directly contradictory beliefs about crowd behaviour given, as mentioned, that many had also endorsed the idea of people overestimating threats.

Elizabeth Loftus on embedding false memories in U.S. soldiers

Loftus’ work on memory continues to be one of the most important areas of Psychology. Here is an article describing a study of soldier’s memory after they were subjected to simulated capture and interrogation.

Elizabeth Loftus on embedding false memories in U.S. soldiers | TED Blog.

These findings show that even when an event is stressful, people can be led to make memory mistakes when fed misinformation. Moreover, this happened to a high degree even though the soldiers were highly trained individuals.

6 Reasons We Share Too Much Online

An interesting article from Mother Jones on how we value, or don’t value, our privacy.

The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that nobody cares about online privacy, except maybe creeps, wingnuts, and old people. Sure, a lot of us might say that we don’t like being tracked and targeted, but few of us actually bother to check the “do not track” option in on our web browsers. Millions of people have never adjusted their Facebook privacy settings. According to a recent Pew survey, only small fractions of internet users have taken steps to avoid being observed by hackers (33 percent), advertisers (28 percent), friends (19 percent), employers (11 percent), or the government (5 percent).

What’s going on here? The short answer is a lot of pretty twisted psychological stuff, which behavioral scientists are only now starting to understand.

Our uneasy relationship with the internet begins with the fact we don’t really know who can see our data and how they might exploit it. “Not even the experts have a full understanding of how personal data is used in an increasingly complicated market,” points out Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Alessandro Acquisti, who researches the psychology behind online privacy perceptions. Behavioral economists often refer to this problem as information asymmetry: One party in a transaction (Facebook, Twitter, advertisers, the NSA) has better information than the other party (the rest of us).

The six reasons are:

  1. we are more willing to sell our privacy than pay for it
  2. we accept default settings
  3. offering some privacy controls may induce people to be reckless
  4. we fall for misdirection
  5. we are addicts
  6. ignorance is bliss

Read more at:

6 Reasons We Share Too Much Online, According to Behavioral Scientists | Mother Jones.

I’m sorry. How do you like me now?

I’m sorry that Canadians are so apologetic.

Across four experiments with 730 people, superfluous apologies — that is, saying sorry for things for which you’re ultimately blameless — were proven to improve strangers’ opinions of the people expressing regret. The unwarranted contrition was interpreted by recipients as a sign of empathy, boosting the apologizer’s likability, perceived compassion and trustworthiness.

via One easy secret to make people like and trust you more.

The psychology of political assassins


Wired has an interesting article on the psychology of political assassins. The US Secret Service has done a study of 83 people who killed, or attempted to kill, political figures. They found that the motivations for the killings were often mundane and obvious. And there was often a slow deterioration in the social and mental life of the assassin prior to the event, leading the service to develop early intervention methods.

Contrary to popular assumptions about public killings, the attackers didn’t conform to any particular demographic profile. But when Fein reconstructed their patterns of thinking, he was able to distill them into a handful of recurring motives for killing a public person — motives that seemed consistent regardless of whether a given individual was delusional or not (and three quarters of those who pulled the trigger were not).

Some hoped to achieve notoriety by killing a well-known person. Others wanted to end their pain by being killed by Secret Service. Still others hoped to avenge a perceived, idiosyncratic grievance unrelated to mainstream politics. Some hoped, unrealistically, to save the country or call attention to a cause. And some hoped to achieve a special relationship with the person they were killing.