Monthly Archives: July 2012

We Won. They Lost.

A slightly different version of this post (pertaining to college basketball) was originally blogged at IonPsych on 3/29/2011. I’ve decided to re-post it from the archives today with some tweaks in honor of the Olympic Games. You can see the original post here.

Let’s start off this post with an exercise in imagination.

Imagine that we happen to be big fans of the same team.

First, imagine that our country’s team is the underdog in a major sports competition – say, the Olympic Games. People didn’t really expect that we’d win anything. Yet we manage to snag gold, and we’ve never been prouder of our country or our athletes.

Now imagine a different scenario: Our country’s team actually placed first in the qualifying rounds, and they’re heavily favored to win gold. Experts said that the road to victory was basically paved for them. But in a jaw-dropping upset, they made several key mistakes and failed to earn any place at all on the medal podium.

What jumps out at you about those two scenarios?

One tells the story of underdog triumph, and the other talks of stunning defeat.

But there’s something you may not have noticed that signals just as much of a difference in the tales –

The pronouns.

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Algebra Is Necessary, But What About How It’s Taught?

stock image In a recent New York Times op-ed, Andrew Hacker suggested that the typical math curriculum might not really be a necessary aspect of modern education — at least, not in the form that it currently takes. Hacker suggests that the textbook formulas found in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry classes are rarely used in “real life,” and the high level of difficulty that many students have with these subjects might unnecessarily inflate dropout rates and cause a handful of other negative educational outcomes. As Hacker suggests, it might be beneficial to focus on the history and philosophy of mathematics or emphasize “real life” applications of various mathematical fields, rather than zeroing in on the nitty-gritty formulas and minutiae of the math itself. After all, as he acknowledges, one of the most important reasons to learn math is not the math itself – it is the importance of learning how to engage in deductive reasoning, problem solving, and critical analysis.

However, as fellow science blogger Joanne Manaster noted in a comment about the article, “I’d argue that perhaps this is not so much about if math is needed, but how it is taught…geometry really helps with logic and thinking skills and algebra with general problem solving, so I don’t think it should go by the wayside altogether.”

I happen to agree enthusiastically with Manaster, and I’d like to hope that Hacker was intending for this larger pedagogical issue to be the main takeaway point for his article. I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this piece that we should simply remove algebra (or any math) from the typical school curriculum, or even that we should replace specific algebra, trigonometry, or geometry classes with broader “quantitative literacy” courses, as Hacker suggests we should consider at one point. Rather, much as blogger and author Jennifer Ouellette did with calculus in her book The Calculus Diaries, I think the answer lies in finding ways to take this idea of “real world applications” and using them to help instructors continue teaching the typical lessons of the algebra, trigonometry, or geometry classrooms in a more effective manner, not using them to replace those lessons.1 Luckily, social psychology offers some theories that can help us understand how students might better learn and understand otherwise-esoteric knowledge.

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If You Compare Yourself With Michael Phelps, Will You Become A Better Swimmer?


“Remember, the Ukrainians are doing this in the snow,” warns a concerned McDonald’s consumer to Team USA boxer Marlen Esparza, as the pseudocoach chows down on a burger and watches Esparza train in one of Mickey D’s new 2012 Olympics commercials. I’m not sure if they realize it, but when McDonald’s instructed the actress to coach Esparza by saying this, they tapped into the logic underlying a fundamental psychological concept: Social Comparison Theory.

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USA! USA!

I hope that everyone is excited for the Olympics to begin tonight! Over the next two weeks, I will be posting several pieces on the Olympics and psychology, ranging from the ways that athletes feel/express emotions to the different ways that athletes from various cultures tend to construe their successes (and failures). I’m really excited to be blogging about the Olympics – there’s so much psychology to delve into here, and I hope you’ll all tune in over the next couple of weeks to learn all about it!

In the meantime, here are links to some cool posts from across the blogosphere on psychology and the Olympics. Enjoy!

The 2012 Olympic Games: What is the Role of Psychology? by Chris Carr at Psychology Today

Hosting a Major Sporting Event – Economic Gains Are Unlikely, But Will It Bring Happiness? by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest

What It Takes To Be An Olympic Athlete Q&A with sports psychologist Shane Murphy at APA

The Psychology of Dressing for Olympic Success by Richard Wiseman at The Guardian

Olympics and Gender Empowerment through Sport by Elizabeth Meyer at Psychology Today

How Do Women and Girls Feel When They See Sexualized or Sporty Images Of Female Athletes? by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest

How to Raise an Olympic Athlete by Christine L. Carter at Psychology Today

Twin Olympics! by Nancy L. Segal at Psychology Today

Lessons Worth Learning from the 2010 Winter Olympics by Marie Hartwell-Walker at PsychCentral

Could The Olympics Be A Catalyst For Inter-Cultural Discord? by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest (note: The paper that this post is based on was authored by some of my former UIUC colleagues!)

Do World-Class Sprinters Really Move Their Legs No Faster Than Ordinary Runners? by Dave at Science-Based Running (note: OK, this is not psychology, but I’m including it because I find this post incredibly cool.)

And of course, in the spirit of the Games …

Image by Joshua Nathanson via Wikipedia

USA! USA!

Having it All, Happily.

Image by Robert Whitehead via Flickr

When The Atlantic published a controversial article by Anne-Marie Slaughter about how difficult it truly is for women to ‘have it all,’ it added more fuel to the raging fire of the work-life-balance debate, which has likely been going on in some form since humankind first realized that there are ways to make other people feel bad about their life choices. Apparently, the stereotype of the harried, working mom who has a high-level career and still tries her damnedest not to disappoint the other mothers at her daughter’s bake sale has become somewhat of a cultural icon — if you don’t believe me, just read the book I Don’t Know How She Does It (or watch the recent movie, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Greg Kinnear).

Whether people choose to view self-identification as a complicated juggling act or opt instead to focus on a limited number of areas is the important distinction underlying Patricia Linville’s self-complexity theory. Someone who is high in self-complexity would define herself in terms of many different possible domains (e.g. I’m a mother, a wife, a marathoner, a tenured professor, and a singer), while someone who is low in self-complexity would use fewer. And although self-complexity theory doesn’t necessarily stake any claims about particular sides in the work-life-balance-debate being “right” or “wrong,” research in this area has shown – perhaps surprisingly to some — that people who define themselves using multiple domains may actually, at least in some ways, be happier and healthier.

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Zombies and Volleyball: The Benefits of the Bystander Effect

Image by Dominik Deobald, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s summer. You’re playing a relaxing game of beach volleyball with your friends, and it’s the opposing team’s turn to serve the ball. As the player calls out the score and sends up a graceful serve, it soars over the net in a slow, arching motion. You watch as it glides down slowly towards your side, falling, falling…

And then smacks down into the sand.

Right between you and three of your teammates, as you all stand in place staring at it.

So why exactly didn’t any of you go for the ball?

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