Category Archives: Psychology

The Tyranny of Saying “Good Job”: Parenting Without Borders, Part 4

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we’ll take a closer look at self-esteem in the context of parenting.

If you have kids or you’ve been around kids, I feel pretty confident in making the assumption that when your kid (or the kids you happen to be around at the time) do/does something well, you almost reflexively say, “Good job!” Of course, though — why wouldn’t we? We notice someone doing something well and we want to praise that, right? Well, it turns out that this might not be the optimal way of interacting with our little ones:

It turns out that when parents and educators send children the message that their needs and their individual happiness and dreams are more important than other things, like being a compassionate, ethical, hard-working person, it makes them unhappy.

I think that we can all agree that it’s probably a good idea that our children grow up to be compassionate, ethical, and hard-working, right? Not to mention, happy. It appears that somewhere along the way, parents got the idea that the best way to achieve these ends were to focus on a child’s self-esteem by telling him how good they are. As it happens, this may have been a perversion of the initial way of thinking about parenting and self-esteem:

But the earliest proponents of raising self-esteem to ensure children have a successful, productive future actually believed this could be done best through a child-rearing style that employed clear rules and limits. Research backs this up: it is parents who allow children freedom and independence within clearly set guidelines, while treating children with respect and love (as opposed to being top-down dictators) who tend to raise confident adults.

One of the best parts about the book Parenting Without Borders is that it give the reader a flavour of different cultures. And when it comes to this chapter, that’s very helpful. In North America, we’re used to focusing on individual happiness and to instill that in our kids, we often tell them how well they’re doing. This has the effect of kids thinking that they’re great. You might expect a child raised in North America to say, “I’m awesome!” If an American kid were to ask a Japanese kid how to say, “I’m awesome,” in Japanese, the Japanese kid would be dumbfounded, as this isn’t something that a Japanese kid would even think to say. Consider this:

Students reflect frequently, especially after a big event, like the annual sports day, or a field trip, or a class presentation, but also after more ordinary moments. On many class handouts our kids received at school, there was a space to write down, “what I can do better next time; what I’ll try to work harder on next time.” Children are taught the habit of always remaining attentive to how they can improve. (By contrast, children in our country are typically asked to reflect on what they did well.)

There’s even a word for this process of self-reflection in Japanese: hansei. How great that at such a young age, kids are learning how to reflect on their process. It’s almost like taking the scientific method and reappropriating it. Can you imagine how different American culture would be if every kid in America were taught to think about how they could have done better on an assignment rather than being giving the customary, “Good job, let’s go out for ice cream,” speech.

Now, I understand that some parents will balk at the idea of not telling their kid how well they’re doing and that’s not what I’m saying (nor is it what the author is saying). However, it’s important to consider the ramifications of our decisions to praise our kids, especially as it relates to labels that they then have to live up to:

A child who is told he is very smart, will begin to define himself through this label. While this sounds like it would be a good thing, even so-called positive labels can be harmful when they give a child a fixed view of himself, since it is a view he must protect.



What a lot of parents don’t see is what happens when we boost our kids too much. If we let “making kids feel good” be our guiding principle, we are buying short-term goodwill at the expense of their future resilience.

In this way, telling our kids that they are smart isn’t so much a nice thing to do as it is a curse. Telling them how smart they are might handcuff them to this label that they have to continually live up to. Not that we want to handcuff our children to labels, but might it better for them and for others if we handcuff them to labels that have them perpetuate actions of compassion and ethics?

Maybe it’s as Gross-Loh alludes to that telling kids how smart they are has more to do with how we feel. Maybe telling our kids they’re smart has to do with us wanting our kids to like us. Gross-Loh has certainly given us a lot to think about in this chapter, but before I close this post, I wanted to leave you with something else that can be done. That is, instead of telling our kids, “Good job,” what else can we say?

Dweck’s research shows, a good parent doesn’t undermine her child’s motivation through empty praise and encouragement. She scaffolds her child’s ability to face challenges and even accept failure as something that anyone can grow from.

So, instead of focusing on the outcomes and the end goal, maybe it might be better if we focus on the effort and the steps that our children take to get from A to Z.


Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful

Pop quiz: hands up — how many of you think positive stereotypes are OK?

I suspect that for many of you, your first reaction may have been, “well, yeah, they’re positive, right?” I can totally empathize with that shortcut, but consider this excellent quote from Gordon Allport, one of the “founders” of personality psychology: “People may be prejudiced in favor of others; they may think well of them without sufficient warrant,” [quote excerpted from journal article cited below].

Last year, researchers sought to summarize some of the research about positive stereotypes. There were a number of interesting findings. For instance:

Among [a] sample of Asian American students, the majority (52%) had negative reactions (e.g., feeling marginalized) to their group being considered the “model minority” compared with 26% who had positive reactions. […] Although the subjective favorability of positive stereotypes may facilitate their expression among perceivers who intend them as “compliments,” the targets of such stereotypes can feel depersonalized as if they are being acknowledged exclusively through their category membership. [Emphasis mine]

So, while it might be a ‘positive’ stereotype that Asian Americans are considered the “model minority,” it’s possible that an Asian American may feel as if they are being depersonalized when having the stereotype directed at them. That is, they may no longer feel like they’re a person, but rather that they simply belong to this category called “Asian American.”

Let’s back up for a moment.

When I talk about stereotypes in my lectures to students, one of the first things I do is explain the mechanics of a stereotype. Our brain is processing way more stimuli than we could possibly fathom. For instance, in your office right now, do you hear the hum of the lights or the sound of the fan? If you’re on the bus or in a car, do you notice the sound of the brakes? How about at home… do you still hear the creaky sounds of the floorboards or the plethora of sounds that come out of the basement/vents? I suspect the answer to many of these questions for most of you will be no and that’s because you have habituated to them. Your brain has recognized them as non-threatening and moved on to focus on other stimuli — people.

There are so many people on the planet. Really, we could say that there are over 7 billion different kinds of people, but that’s impossible for a brain that’s trying to process as much as it can. So, when you meet people, your brain is busy trying to recognize patterns that it can map onto previous people you’ve met. When everyone’s brain does this, it follows that a thing called “stereotype” emerges. That is, a stereotype is our brain’s way of trying to find a shortcut for understanding the different kinds of people we interact with during our lives.

So, in the example above about Asian Americans, somewhere along the way, someone’s brain decided Asian Americans represented what they believed was a ‘model citizen.’ Forgetting for a second whether this is valid, it’s likely that there were other people’s brains came to this conclusion and so the stereotype is perpetuated.

Just because our brain is doing this in the “background” doesn’t make it ok. As humans, there are so many biases that we have to be aware of when making decisions — our brain taking shortcuts with stereotypes is just one of them. So, what can you do?

Well, as I often say when it comes to biases — the first step is awareness. You’ve gotta recognize that you’re falling prey to stereotyping and once you recognize that you’re doing it, I urge you not to be so hard on yourself. Let’s be clear — I’m not giving you a “pass” for stereotyping, no. But the culture from which you derive can have a lasting effect on your beliefs about people (which inform whether you employ stereotypes).

One quick and easy way to awareness — if you’re ready for it — is Harvard’s Project Implicit Test. I did a quick search and I was surprised that I’ve only mentioned this one other time in the last few years on this site and it was only in passing. From their site:

Psychologists understand that people may not say what’s on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. For example, if asked “How much do you smoke?” a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may purposely report smoking only 2 packs a day because they are embarrassed to admit the correct number. Or, the smoker may simply not answer the question, regarding it as a private matter. These are examples of being unwilling to report a known answer. But it is also possible that a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may report smoking only 2 packs because they honestly believe they only smoke about 2 packs a day. Unknowingly giving an incorrect answer is sometimes called self-deception; this illustrates being unable to give the desired answer.

The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding. The IAT measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

If you’re ready for the results, I strongly suggest you take the test.

ResearchBlogging.orgCzopp, A., Kay, A., & Cheryan, S. (2015). Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10 (4), 451-463 DOI: 10.1177/1745691615588091

Wanna Lose Weight? Get Some Sleep!

There was some research published within the last year that you might be particularly interested in, should you be in the middle of or about to go on a diet (or you’re interested in your health in general):

This article provides an integrative review of the mechanisms by which sleep problems contribute to unhealthy food intake. Biological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral mechanisms all underlie this relationship.

When I first came across this headline — the less you sleep, the more you eat — immediately, I was interested. After reading the source article (which I quoted from above), I’m heartened by the possibilities for progress in this area.

Naturally, the food we eat has an effect on how we sleep, but the insight that the fewer hours of sleep we get having an effect on how much we eat, is really important. While anecdotal, I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. If I find myself up past my “bedtime,” I almost always am hungry. And because it’s late at night, my executive function is impaired. Put differently, my ability to make good choices might be compromised. In this case, a good choice would be to not eat a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream (or anything sugary, for that matter). A good choice might even be to reach for a handful of nuts or maybe an apple.

The thing that I wanted to mention in conjunction with this research is my suspicion that there’s a cumulative effect. If you stay up late and then pig out on snacks too close to bedtime, invariably, you’ll probably be waking up with less sleep than you need. As a result, your executive functioning (willpower, decision-making, etc.), will be impaired for the duration of the day. By the time you get to the end of the day, you may find yourself more tired than usual such that when it gets to the time when you’d rather go to bed, you might prefer to “reward” yourself or (decompress) by eating some sweets and staying up late… and then it all starts over again the next day. Once you’re out of balance, Newton’s laws have a way of keeping you there.

This reminds me of something I shared a few years ago about Aikido:

One of the exercises we would often do to practice this sense of blending involved our partner (or partners as it was usually in groups of three or more!) to approach us as if they were attacking us. It was our job to then move out of the way, whilst staying centered. The tempo of this exercise usually started out really slow (intentionally). Though, as time passed, our partners would then speed up. You can imagine how it might be challenging to stay centered in this kind of an activity.

During these times of practice, I remember having a bit of an epiphany.

As my partner would approach me and I would step out of the way, I noticed that the quicker (and the more out of balance!) I was, the more out of balance I would be when stepping out of the way for the next partner who was approaching. Think about that for a second: as I stepped out of the way of one partner and I was off-balance, I was that much more off-balance when stepping out of the way for the next partner. It’s almost akin to the Bullwhip Effect.

This idea of eating “after hours” seems to be a mirror image of the off-balance I experienced during the Aikido exercise. So, if you find yourself on the cusp of a diet, I suggest you consider setting (and keeping!) a strict bedtime for yourself. If you’re curious about how to start this new habit, I strongly suggest Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

ResearchBlogging.orgLundahl A, & Nelson TD (2015). Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults Journal of Health Psychology : 10.1177/1359105315573427

Looking for a Husband or a Wife? It’s Time to Learn About Altruism

Human companionship. It’s something that we all crave. In fact, a quick look at Google’s autocomplete shows that two of the top three results for “how to get a” return “girlfriend” and “guy to like you.” It’s pretty clear that sharing our life with someone is something we’d like to do (generally, speaking). So, when I came across some research in this area, I thought I’d contribute to those Google searches with some seemingly helpful data. From the journal article:

Our results show that—among single individuals—engaging in prosocial behavior in any given year was associated with increased odds of finding a partner and entering into a romantic relationship in the following year.

I’ve written about the benefits of prosocial behaviour in a work environment (spend your bonus on your coworkers!), so it’s not entirely surprising to me to see that this same behaviour is also beneficial when it comes to increasing one’s odds of finding a romantic partner. Another way of looking at prosocial behaviour is altruism. Essentially, we’re talking about behaviour where one is attempting to help someone else without expecting something in return. Volunteering is an easy example of this.

You may be wondering about the study’s method. That is, did the researchers guard against the possibility that  the reverse is true (entering into romantic relatonships begets more prosocial behaviour). In fact, they did consider this:

We specifically examined whether those individuals who were single at the beginning of a time period and managed to find a partner at the end of the time period were more likely to experience an increase in helping behavior in the meantime than those who remained single. Our results showed that individuals who started a romantic relationship did not experience an increase in helping behavior compared with those who remained single.

So, it looks like the researchers feel pretty confident in their conclusions about volunteering helping to lead one to a romantic relationship. Before you run out to your local Red Cross or Salvation Army, I wanted to offer a different perspective on this research. In particular, I thought I’d look at some of the historical statistics around volunteerism and marriage. That is, if we accept the premise of the research, we might expect to see there to be some covariance between volunteerism and marriage. That is, as marriage goes up, we might expect that volunteerism would also go up. Similarly, as marriage goes down, we might expect that volunteerism would go down.

I had a harder time than I thought I might in trying to find data on these two subjects. However, I did come across a couple of things that gave me pause about this research. The first, volunteerism. According to some research by the US government, it looks like volunteerism is up, recently. That is, it looks like the propensity for volunteering is higher than it used to be (see graph). The second, marriage rates. If the initial research I shared about prosocial behaviour is true, we’d expect to see higher marriage rates (than there used to be). Here’s the headline from the Pew Research Center a few years ago: Record Share of Americans Have Never Married. So, it’s probably fair to say that marriage rates are down. This doesn’t bode well for our initial research on prosocial behaviour.

One last thing I wanted to share on this: millennials. There’s been plenty written about millennials, but I want to focus on the two things we’re talking about today: volunteering and marriage. Compared to previous generations at the same age, millennials are far less likely to get married. Millennials also differ from Gen X’ers when it comes to volunteering:

… higher rates of community service and volunteering. I mean, let’s face it, for Gen X, volunteering was a punishment. You know, you did something wrong at college, you do community service. (Laughter) But the Millennials — it’s more of a norm.


It’s quite possible that the effect realized by the initial research on prosocial behaviour is true, but that it’s not big enough to make a dent in some of these bigger statistics. It’s also possible that some of the counterpoints I’ve raised aren’t as analogous as I think they are. Either way, I think the research in prosocial behaviour is important and I certainly hope you take the chance to spend some time “giving without expecting anything in return.”

ResearchBlogging.orgStavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). A Longitudinal Analysis of Romantic Relationship Formation: The Effect of Prosocial Behavior Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (5), 521-527 DOI: 10.1177/1948550614568867

Why It’s Important to Have Diversity (in age!) in Your Work Teams

If you had to guess, would you say that younger people or older people are better at learning abstract causal principles?

When first thinking about this question, I would have thought that older people would be better at this given that they have more experience and that they might have been in analogous situations. However, the research seems to indicate that younger folks are better at things like this. Here’s a passage from the researchers that specifically address my thought that experience would be helpful:

The very fact that older learners know more may make it more difficult for them to learn something new. Once a learner has inferred a general principle (e.g., that people act because of their traits, or that individual objects, rather than combinations of objects or relations between them, have causal powers), that principle may constrain his or her interpretation of new data. Causal relationships that conflict with that principle may then be more difficult to learn.

Certainly this research is important, but the thing I want to highlight here is work teams. Specifically, this study points to the importance of having diverse w0rk teams. It’s important to remember that diversity doesn’t just mean people of different genders and different races, but people of different ages, too. If we mix in folks with different “levels of experience,” we might have a better chance of coming up with a solution to the issue than if we just used folks who were all of the same level experience.

Further to that, I was thinking about how this research comes into play when we think of top management teams or corporate boards. Recall the post I wrote recently that discussed the importance of diversity at the board-level. I don’t remember there being anything related to age in that article, but I also suspect that conducting research on age as it relates to boards or top management teams might be difficult. Usually, we find folks who’ve reached a certain level of experience before they’re considered for work on a corporate board or considered for a promotion to the top management team. Maybe we need to start thinking about considering some younger folks for positions in these roles.

ResearchBlogging.orgGopnik, A., Griffiths, T., & Lucas, C. (2015). When Younger Learners Can Be Better (or at Least More Open-Minded) Than Older Ones Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (2), 87-92 DOI: 10.1177/0963721414556653

Psychologists Want an Alternative to the DSM

In another life (or a different timeline, if you prefer) I didn’t change paths and continued on to become a clinical psychologist. In that life (or timeline), I, and many other psychologists are using something totally different than the DSM and the psychologists in this timeline are jealous. Confused?

Recent research published sought to see if the attitudes of psychologists, with regard to the DSM, have changed at all. It turns out, they haven’t:

The results are no different from what was found three decades ago, namely, that a significant number of psychologists are unhappy with the DSM, but almost all of them use it.

So, why do we continue to update the DSM instead of scrapping it and making something better? Well, that’s probably a can of worms for a different post, but it seems telling that in 30 years that psychologists still aren’t happy with what is supposed to be a very important source book for the profession. More than that, as 30 years have spanned, it’s fair to say that even the next generation of psychologists aren’t warming to the DSM.

In reading this study, the most troubling sentence comes from near the end of the article [Emphasis Added]:

They appreciate its help in making diagnoses and supplying reimbursable diagnostic codes, but continue to have scientific, professional, economic, and ethical concerns about it.

That’s troubling, indeed. Scientific, professional, and ethical!

It seems to me that a profession whose bedrock is based in morality and ethics should be motivated to rectify this concern. If they were to change things, what would they change it to? [Emphasis Added]

Even though they may not see the categories in the DSM as merely problems in living, psychologists are interested in alternatives not rooted in the medical model common to the DSM and ICD. Psychologists might be prepared to further develop and use psychologically focused diagnostic alternatives if conditions encouraging them to do so were in place.

That sounds congruent. I remember my time in as a doctoral candidate and many of my colleagues at the time were far more interested in modes of analysis that didn’t subscribe to medical models. There are a number of reasons for this, but for this kind of a wholesale change to occur, I think there needs to be a push from the APA. I suspect that other psychologists would agree with that, but there’s also the possibility that there’s some sort of grassroots “uprising” that starts with individual psychologists. The one hitch with that possibility that I see is that many psychologists work on their own. That is, instead of working alongside their colleagues, they have their own office space and work by themselves. I think if psychologists had something resembling a “union” like there are in some other professions, it would be far easier for them to organize and create the kind of change they’re looking for.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for or suggesting that psychologists should form something like a union, I’m merely saying that if there were this kind of infrastructure in place, I believe it might be easier for there to be a change to the way psychologists diagnose.

ResearchBlogging.orgRaskin, J., & Gayle, M. (2015). DSM-5: Do Psychologists Really Want an Alternative? Journal of Humanistic Psychology DOI: 10.1177/0022167815577897

How To Be a Better Person: Awe Yourself

Research published earlier this year seems to indicate that when we’re “awed,” we’re more likely to engage in prosocial or altrusitic behaviour. The researchers conducted five different studies:

Individuals higher in dispositional tendencies to experience awe exhibited more generosity in an economic game (Study 1). Experimentally inducing awe caused individuals to endorse more ethical decisions (Study 2), to be more generous to a stranger (Study 3), and to report more prosocial values (Study 4). A naturalistic induction of awe in which participants looked up at a grove of towering trees led to increased helpfulness, greater ethicality, and decreased entitlement (Study 5).

There’s so much to unpack in these findings. Experiencing awe can make us more generous, more ethical, more altruistic, more helpful, and less entitled. These findings have implications for a number of areas, not the least of which, is essentially, creating a roadmap for how to be a better person.

As someone who often trumpets the importance of perspective, I was pleased to read the following from the discussion section:

It would seem, as hypothesized, that awe leads to more prosocial tendencies by broadening the individual’s perspective to include entities vaster and more powerful than oneself and diminishing the salience of the individual self.

So, maybe instead of writing articles highlighting different perspectives, I should be writing fiction (or articles) that allow you to experience a sense of awe?

In thinking about the findings of this research, I’d be very interested to see how it plays out in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I imagine that the results would probably still hold, but it’d be great to have confirmation of that. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see how economists would incorporate this into our understanding of the “rational actor.” If we’re experiencing awe and, as a result, becoming more prosocial, it would — theoretically — begin to wreak havoc on the idea that we’re acting rationally (as it takes a laboured interpretation of the rational actor to include prosocial behaviour).

Just for good measure, here’s a second picture that I hope allows you to feel a sense of awe.

ResearchBlogging.orgPiff PK, Dietze P, Feinberg M, Stancato DM, & Keltner D (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108 (6), 883-99 PMID: 25984788