Category Archives: News/Current Events

Blind athletes provide clues about the nature of our emotions.

'Expression of Joy' from 'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.'

‘Expressions of Joy’ from ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.’

One of the most important ways that we learn how to interact with the world around us is through observational learning. By watching how our friends and family members behave, we learn at a very young age how to do things like turn on a lightbulb, open a door, or play with a doll, without the tedious trial-by-error reinforcement process that would be required if we only learned things through classic behaviorism. With this in mind, it’s only natural to assume that we have learned when to smile politely, wrinkle our noses in disgust, or furrow our brows in anger by watching the people around us react in those ways when presented with similar situations.

'Expressions of Suffering - Weeping' from 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' London 1872.  Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

‘Expressions of Suffering – Weeping’ from ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.’

But what if observational learning isn’t the only way in which we figure out how to express our emotions? What if those emotional expressions — or at least, some of those expressions — actually come “pre-programmed” into our very nature, and we would make those grimaces, brow-furrows, and polite smiles of thinly-veiled contempt without ever seeing other people make these expressions first?

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The psychology of doping accusations: Which athletes raise the most suspicion?

Why do we immediately feel that “ping” of suspicion when some athletes achieve great Olympic feats? And why would certain athletes make us feel that way, while other record-breaking winners don’t inspire the same level of disbelief?

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Coulda, woulda, shoulda: Why silver medalists look so blue.

Getty Images/Thomas Coex

McKayla Maroney is not impressed.

Can you blame her? After a solid week of being touted as the “world’s best vaulter,” she came up short at the individual vault event, earning a silver medal after an unanticipated fall during her second vault.

“If only I’d stuck the landing,” reads the look on Maroney’s face. In other words, Maroney was most likely engaging in counterfactual thinking, otherwise known as those pesky “coulda, woulda, shouldas.”

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

But why would Maroney look so upset? After all, she did earn a silver medal — a fairly impressive feat, by anyone’s standards. And why does the bronze medalist, Russian gymnast Maria Paseka, look so much happier than Maroney?

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Olympic greatness: Biology or motivation?

If you tried hard enough, could you have won Olympic gold in the 100 meter dash?

If you’re an entity theorist, your answer is probably “no.” Entity theorists believe that attributes such as personality characteristics, athletic ability, or intelligence are relatively stable traits that are pretty much fixed at birth. However, if you’re an incremental theorist, you might believe that if you had started young enough or trained hard enough, you could have had a chance at earning a spot on the podium. Incremental theorists believe that attributes are malleable, meaning that they can always be improved with practice and effort.

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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!

Trayvon Martin’s psychological killer: Why we see guns that aren’t there [at Scientific American]

Today, I’m honored to have a post on the Scientific American guest blog about the Trayvon Martin case, discussing Joshua Correll’s 2002 research on the disturbing ways in which cultural stereotypes — even those that we do not endorse — might impact our split-second decisions to shoot (or not shoot) potentially armed targets of different races.

An excerpt:

Over a series of four studies, participants were faster to (correctly) shoot an armed target when he was Black, and faster to (correctly) decide not to shoot an unarmed target when he was White. But the truly interesting and tragic finding lies in what happened when people decided to shoot the target when he was actually holding nothing more than a wallet or a cell phone, much like what happened in the real-life case of Trayvon Martin. As it turns out, the participants were consistently more likely to accidentally shoot unarmed targets when they were Black.

Surely this must be influenced by racism, thought the researchers. After all, it would certainly make sense that racist people would be more likely to jump to the conclusion that Black people are armed. Wouldn’t non-racist people be more likely to disregard the color of the target’s skin when making judgments? Wouldn’t non-racist people – especially those who are well aware of the negative stereotypes towards Black people in American culture, and those who consciously try to fight against prejudice in their everyday lives – be more forgiving on the trigger?

Unfortunately, that hypothesis could not be further from the truth. First of all, no matter how racist the participants were (or were not), they were equally likely to shoot unarmed Black targets; outright levels of racism did not predict the results at all. However, one thing did predict performance on the task – the participants’ level of awareness that there is prejudice towards Black people in American society, even if the participant adamantly did not support those stereotypes. Simply being highly aware of prejudice in the world, even if you don’t agree with, support, or like that prejudice, makes it more likely that you might make the fateful mistake of shooting an unarmed target when making split-second decisions in uncertain conditions. The more aware you are of cultural stereotypes, the more likely you are to make a biased mistake.

Click here to read the entire post over at Scientific American!

If I were a well-off White man… I might not understand other people very well.

“I thought this was The Onion at first, too. Nope.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“Speaking of ignorance…”

This is just a sampling of comments that I saw on Facebook as people linked to an article that appeared in Forbes on Monday, titled (in a rather inflammatory manner, if I do say so myself), “If I Were A Poor Black Kid.

My immediate reaction was to hate the article. I found it insulting, ignorant, and just plain short-sighted. As I commented in my own link on Facebook, “[To summarize], ‘This is what I would do if I were born into a completely different set of circumstances, a completely different family, a completely different social support system, a completely different school district, a completely different body with a completely different skin tone and a completely different way that people in public respond to me, yet I somehow still retained all of the benefits, knowledge, and access to resources as a middle-aged, middle-class white man.'”

However, upon re-reading the article and giving it a little more thought, I’ve come to realize that the real issue with the article isn’t that the author, Gene Marks, is necessarily racist, or even really ignorant. After all, he acknowledges right off the bat that the system is unfair, and that children from other areas of town have it much harder than his own, privileged children do. Marks clearly has some knowledge of the unfairness of “the system.” So the real question is, how could he then go on to write such a short-sighted article, completely missing any sort of perspective on what it means to actually be a member of the community to which he is proselytizing?1

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