What can you do today to avoid being demented when you are 90?

I will focus on three empirically-supported actions to take today and every day to avoid becoming demented as you age. To put the matter simply, keep active physically, mentally, and socially. Meaning what?

Exercise vigorously and often. Exercise can be overdone, but the more common error, by a large factor, is too little exercise. Send your body the message that it needs to toughen up so that it is ready for big physical demands in the future.

Keep mentally active. Don’t retire completely, if you can avoid it. Do volunteer work, the more challenging the better. Take on new tasks and acquire new skills at work and outside work. Exercise your brain vigorously and often. Send your brain the message that it needs to keep ready to learn lots in the future.

Keep active socially. Involve yourself with friends and family. Make new friends; help strangers. Work on your relationships. All this social activity exercises your brain and helps you give and receive large amounts of social support. Send your brain the message that it needs to stay socially attuned so that it is ready to interact effectively with others.

All three types of activities, in addition to exercising us in body and mind, give us many opportunities for positive events that boost our mood, increase our self-efficacy, and make our life interesting and productive.  Our brains may slow down because they are getting old physically, but it is also true that our brains slow down because we act old.

Why do these types of activities help us avoid dementia (and stay alive)? It may be that these activities keep us tuned up, ready to deal with stressors, including destructive processes of aging. Recent research findings show that the activities cause cells to release exosomes, membrane-wrapped packages of proteins and genetic information, that stimulate oligodendrocytes (neuron-support cells) to produce more myelin sheath, which helps neurons stay healthy and transmit signals. The activities also may lead to other positive biological effects.

So how do we get individuals to remain active as they age? Here are five ideas: (1) spread the word about the importance of keeping active, physically, mentally, and socially; (2) provide a model to others of ways to keep active; (3) praise others who show sustained high levels of activity, especially older individuals, (4) help create opportunities for older individuals to stay active, e.g., through organized activities, and (5) try to prevent developments, such as physical injury, chronic illness, depression, and substance abuse, that can impair the ability of a person to remain active.

How active are you? How about your parents and grandparents? What ideas do you have for helping others stay active, physically, mentally, and socially?

John Malouff, PhD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

April 15, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Why do men kill their women?

Read the newspaper in Australia and learn about men killing their girlfriend by throwing her off a balcony or off a cliff. In other countries, men use guns to kill their women. These events do not happen as often as one might think from following the news, but men do kill their women at an alarming rate. Why?

The reasons vary, but the case of Oscar Pistorius, who is on trial for murder provides a good example of passion-related killing. He used hollow-point bullets (that create huge holes) to shoot his girlfriend to death. His defense is that he thought he was shooting an intruder, not her, through the bathroom door. Also, he claims he did not intend to fire his gun — it went off accidentally four times.

The trial, which currently is being broadcast worldwide over the Internet, gives hints about why he shot her to death. Four reasons seem to apply.

1. He is impulsive/immature. Oscar is charged with two other charges, firing a gun out of the roof of a car while it was moving and two other individuals were in the car. He allegedly fired in response to his unhappiness with events in a police stop a short time before. He is also charged with firing a handgun in an outdoor cafe, as he took it from a friend. That firing seems accidental, as he was not angry at the time.
2. He is aggressive. He criticized his girlfriends, he enjoyed firing hollow-point bullets into watermelons to see them explode, and he carried a loaded gun everywhere,
3. He is insecure/afraid. During the trial, he has often wept and vomited. He often speaks in a weak tone of voice. He acted jealous with the woman he killed. He carried a loaded gun. This insecurity could be the result, to use an idea of Alfred Adler, of having an inferiority complex relating to his lacking the lower part of his legs.
4. He lives in a violent patriarchy, South Africa. This country has one of the highest murder rates in the world. As in almost all current societies, men there tend to hold power and to perceive women as less than equal. Hence, there are very high rates of rape, with estimates that half of the women in South Africa have been raped. Social environments tend to shape the behavior of individuals in the society.

These same four factors, being impulsive/immature, being aggressive, feeling insecure/afraid, and living in a violent patriarchy, may explain many cases of men killing their woman in a fit of passion. The factors combine personality characteristics and social influences.

What can societies do to reduce the rate of men killing their women? What can individual women do to reduce their risk? What can individual men do to avoid taking the life of their wife or girlfriend?

John Malouff, PhD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

April 12, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   4 Comments.

Why do we like mysteries?

I am very excited about two continuing news stories: the hunt for the missing Malaysian commercial jet and the trial of Oscar Pistorius. Why? These two stories are loaded with suspense. Will the jet be found? What will turn out to be the cause of the disaster? Will Oscar testify at his trial? I’d love to be the one who cross-examines him. What a high-stakes battle that would be! What will be the verdict?

These are life-and-death dramas with lots of information pointing this way or that. We can made predictions and see whether we are right. Why do we care? Probably because we evolved to (1) want to learn the causes of death (so we can prevent our own), (2) want to decrease uncertainty, because uncertainty can be hazardous, and (3) want to make our world understandable and predictable, because that minimizes our anxiety. Also, we may feel more satisfied with our own ordinary lives in light of a disaster that befalls others. Finally, we may like joining the excitement of the chase for the truth in dramatic events — as long as the events are not too close to home.

Hence, many people follow these two news stories. Many individuals also read mystery stories, either fictional ones (“The Woman in White” is a favorite of mine) or a real-life one (I liked “Fatal Vision” about an Army captain who killed his family and then blamed hippie intruders for the killings).

Are you following either news story? What attracts you to mysteries? Do you prefer real mysteries of fictional?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

March 26, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Do you have the right stuff to be a hero?

I just watched a video of C. B. Sullenberger, the pilot in charge of the miracle landing of a commercial airliner on the Hudson River a few years ago. The plane flew into a flock of large birds, some of which hit and disabled both engines. With no power, Sully glided the plan to a crash landing on the Hudson. Everyone escaped alive. If he had tried to make it to an airport, they might all have died. If he had hit the water with either wing before the body of the plane, they might all have died. He did everything just right, including ignoring air traffic control to focus on landing and telling the passengers to brace for impact. He is the greatest hero of America commercial airline history.

I had my own chance to be a hero on New Year’s Eve two years ago when I witnessed two young men fighting in a crowded street. The biggest man (let’s call him Goliath) held a small one down and hit him repeatedly in the face. Other young men in group ran around. After a few seconds, I started yelling at Goliath to stop, but the scene was so noisy, he could not have heard me. While I was still thinking about what to do, a police officer on a bicyle rode directly into Goliath, jumped off his bike, and tried to wrestle the giant to the street. Another officer arrived a few seconds later and helped him. Then other officers arrived. Someone in the crowd ran behind an officer and hit him on the helmet. Police then subdued and handcuffed that man.

What made Sully a hero and me not? Sully had simulator training in the type of situation he faced. That gave him the needed knowledge and confidence to act. The same is true for the officers who took charge of a chaotic street situation.

Being a hero takes knowledge and confidence. It takes focus, rather than panic.  It also sometimes takes courage. That was true for the officers. See this blog entry about military pilots looking to ram in midair a plane being flown by a 9/11 terrorist: http://blog.une.edu.au/usingpsychology/2011/12/19/how-brave-are-you/.

Finally, being a hero takes caring about others. The officers wanted to help the person who was being beaten senseless. Sully wanted to save everyone on board, not just himself.

So, if you want to be a hero, you will need to (1) care about others involved in a dangerous situation, (2) know what you are doing, (3) muster your courage, and (4) keep focused on the task, without panicking. Luck could also be helpful — dangerous situations can go very wrong.

By the way, in the street scene where I could have been a hero, I never hesitated because of diffusion of responsibility. I reckoned that not one of the hundreds of people present would intervene and that I was the one to do something. I thought that way because I have studied psychology!

Have you been a hero? What did you do? Did you show the four characteristics I mentioned above?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychololy

February 28, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Do psychologists practice what they preach?

Psychologists are scientists (psychology means the study of the mind). Do psychologists apply science in their professional work? Sometimes. Many clinical psychologists do their best to provide empirically supported treatment for every problem clients bring to them. Also, I have seen an academic psychologist ask of university marketers: What is the evidence that all this money you are spending leads to more students studying here? The usual answer pertains to the number of people in Internet Land who click on a certain facebook or Google ad. Any evidence that they enroll after clicking? No. But the psychologist is asking the right questions for a scientist.

When it comes to education (and continuing education) though, many psychologists operate nothing like a scientist. They disregard student evaluations of courses and instructors (what do students know?), and they show no interest in which teaching methods have the best evidence of helping students learn. At the higher levels of educational control, psychologists who create rules for accreditation of psychology programs typically show no interest in whether the requirements they create out of their all-knowing minds have any evidence showing that they help ensure students are able to do something valuable when they graduate. The rule makers apply their beliefs, they weigh heavily the education they received long ago, and they ignore the matter of empirical support for the requirements they create and maintain for decade after decade. So students must take a class in Perception. And another on this specific topic and that.

Why do some individuals who are trained as scientists fail to apply scientific thinking to their work? I suspect that some of these individuals never truly understood or valued the scientific method, which is based on skepticism and a search for evidence for and against propositions. It is also possible that the non-appliers find science inconvenient and dangerous. Collecting data to test whether certain accreditation standards serve an important purpose takes research-design knowledge and effort, and the results might point away from cherished beliefs about how students ought to be educated.

Do you think psychologists ought to apply the scientific method in their professional work?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

February 27, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   2 Comments.

Is it time to give heroin addicts free heroin?

Years ago I created a web site that lists over 50 problem solving strategies — http://www.une.edu.au/about-une/academic-schools/bcss/news-and-events/psychology-community-activities/over-fifty-problem-solving-strategies-explained. This popular site gives as a strategy doing the opposite of what one has been trying unsuccessfully. Governments giving heroin to heroin addicts would seem to fit the bill.

Does any government actually give heroin to users? According to an article I just read in The Economist, Switzerland and The Netherlands both do so nationwide. Other European countries are running trials. What is their goal? Harm reduction.

Harm reduction involves altering a dangerous behavior so that it causes less harm. Using a marijuana vaporizer likely is less harmful than smoking marijuana because the vaporizer releases no combustion products (like soot) into a person’s lungs. See my posting on this at http://blog.une.edu.au/usingpsychology/2013/08/24/marijuana-vaporizers/. E-cigarettes might have similar advantages.

So how does giving heroin away help? Giving it away in medically supervised injection rooms dramatically reduces overdoses and disease transmission. Other benefits: Users don’t need to commit crime after crime to get money for their fix. Does use of heroin rise when the stuff is free? No, it drops substantially. That is where psychology comes in. Why the drop?

It may be that the medical supervision makes use seem more like a medical problem than a fun time. Use becomes less reinforcing. Who looks forward to medically supervised renal dialysis? Also, users of free heroin are encouraged to enter treatment programs. Prompts at the right time can work wonders.

Will more countries give heroin away to users? Yes, but not countries that take a moralistic view of drug abuse. If you think drug abusers are low, weak people who deserve punishment, you won’t care much about harm reduction.

What do you think about giving heroin users free heroin?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

February 22, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   5 Comments.

Does having children make a person more happy or less happy?

Jennifer Senior has written a book about the lives of parents, and I recently read a review of the book in the Washington Post. The review indicates that research suggests parenting either has no effect overall on enjoyment of life or decreases it. I can see both potentials. On the down side, parenting often leads to loss of sleep and loss of autonomy/carefree life, and it often leads to a lot of work, with a great deal of conflict-related and other stressors. On the up side, parenting can add meaning to life, it often provides powerful experiences (like going on a very long adventure trip), it can create strong bonds (family bonds), and it can satisfy our genes, which want to live on (read “The Selfish Gene,” a great book).

Of course, different children can create different effects for parents, and parents can vary in how they experience parenthood. Chance factors play a role. For instance, losing a child to disease or injury is one of the most stressful experiences a person can have, according to research studies.

It seems that the effects of having children depend — on us, the children, chance factors, and lots of other situational factors, such as the nature of the other parent and the social situation in which one lives. I am glad that most individuals can choose whether to have children.

What do you think are the most likely effects of parenthood?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

February 10, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   6 Comments.

Does Google know what we want to know?

If you type into Google the words “Why is Australia so,” you will see options selected by Google’s algorithms as most likely to be the words to complete the question, based on actual questions in the past. For Australia, the top three questions are why is it so (1) dry, (2) boring, and (3) expensive. Not exactly a marketer’s dream. For the U.S., the top three are (1) powerful, (2) rich, and (3) religious. Not bad. For a truly bad set, North Korea is hard to beat: (1) poor, (2) dangerous, (3) crazy. Russia is not much better: (1) big, (2) poor, (3) corrupt. The best set I have seen is for Denmark: (1) happy, (2) the happiest country, and (3) called Denmark. I don’ t know how the last one got in there.

If you wanted to ask Google a question about your home country (completing the question yourself), what would you actually ask? What would your question say about your values and perspective?

Can you think of any other information you might get from Google using “Why is X so?” How about with regard to substances? The top three completing words for sugar are: bad, addictive, bad for us. These results suggest that sugar industry may have rough times ahead. How about molly (MDMA, ecstasy)? Why is molly so… The top three completing words: dangerous, hard to find, expensive. Molly’s future seems mixed.

Can you see other ways you can use the Google algorithms to find out something useful regarding what individuals are asking about?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

January 28, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   4 Comments.

Are you making the extreme behavior error? Don’t!

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011), Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann tells an important story that illustrates an error you might be making, to your detriment and to that of others. The story: While talking with Israeli flight instructors, Kahnemann stated that the evidence is abundant that reinforcement (e.g., praise), not punishment, is the best way to teach new behaviors. An instructor disagreed with him, saying that almost every time he praised a trainee for outstanding performance in a drill, the trainee did worse the next time, and that almost every time he yelled at a trainee for making a boneheaded mistake, the trainee did better the next time. So, punishment is the more effective method of training!

Do you see the error in the instructor’s analysis, as it relates to extreme levels of performance? If you do, you deserve the Malouff Statistics Medal. The error involved failure to understand regression toward the mean. I call this the Extreme Behavior Error. Rather than try to explain this subtle concept in an abstract way, Kahnemann asked all the flight instructors to stand in a row, drew a line on the floor behind them, and asked them, one at a time, to toss a coin over their shoulder (while not looking) to try to land near the line. Some landed very close; some were far away; many were in between. Kahnemann measured the distance from the coin to the line for each toss and wrote that on the board, with the instructor’s name. He then repeated this process and showed that the extremely good performers and extremely poor performers from the first toss tended to be not as extreme the second time. That result, which occurs when chance factors affect a behavior or performance, is regression toward the mean.

How does the extreme behavior error apply to your life? You might be applying it to how you treat your children — using punishment because it “works” and not using reinforcement because it doesn’t “work.” That is the extreme behavior error, which might explain one reason parents so often use punishment, including spanking, with their children. Reinforcement generally works in improving behavior, but in the case of extreme behavior, it may not seem to work perfectly due to regression toward the mean. Got it?

You can make the same error with your students, your employees, and yourself! If you praise yourself only when you perform extremely well at some task, you may see that the next time you try the task, you don’t do so well and therefore you stop praising yourself for good behavior. Big mistake! If you usually scream at yourself for making an extreme error, you may see that you don’t make that mistake the next time and conclude that you need to scream at yourself every time you make a mistake. It seems as if the screaming is working. Actually, regression toward the mean is working.

So Kahnemann was right about the value of reinforcement over punishment in training. The assertive flight instructor was wrong — he made the extreme behavior error, which involves an illusion of what causes what.

The extreme behavior error applies only when a behavior includes chance elements. Feeling very depressed has chance elements, such as recent negative events, random key thoughts, and developing a minor physical illness. A group of extremely depressed individuals will tend to feel less depressed if they are assessed a month later. That is why treatment studies with assessment before and after treatment and no control group have limited value — the participants, extreme to start, tend to regress toward the mean, creating the illusion that the treatment worked. So, good studies use randomized control designs, where the control group is just as likely to regress toward the mean as the experimental-treatment group. The question then is whether the experimental group improved more than the control group. This design controls for (equalizes between groups) regression toward the mean.

A common example of the extreme behavior error is the belief that certain stock funds will do well in the future because they have done well in the past. Regression toward the mean will tend to occur for the funds that do extremely well because part of their past success was the result of chance factors. The much cited book “A Random Walk in the Woods” makes this point.  In a related matter, individuals who buy stock at the all time high for a stock exchange and sell at an extreme low may well be making the extreme behavior error — with a costly consequence.

Have you made the extreme behavior error? Seen others make it?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

January 18, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   4 Comments.

Can we modify Internet-troll behavior?

Internet-troll behavior involves repeatedly posting messages that start arguments and upset others. Similar types of undesirable social behavior include schoolhouse bullying and vandalism. Why do some individuals engage in anti-social acts like these? Let’s focus for now on troll postings. According to learning theory, one likely reason is that these individuals obtain reinforcement for their behavior by seeing the discomforted reactions of others.

Taking a problem-solving perspective, we can look for suggestions of Internet experts on how to deal with troll behavior. The usual two recommendations given by Internet experts for dealing with troll behavior are (1) to ask to have the offending individuals removed from groups and barred from comment sites and (2) to ignore the troll postings (refuse to engage with the trolling person). Both ideas involve elements of extinction (denying reinforcement for a behavior). While the methods could work well for a particular group or site, the trolling person is likely to move on to another group or site to annoy others. The development of alternative, socially desirable behaviors that serve the same functions as posting troll comments is crucial to eliminating the behavior in a person,. However, that would usually require the trolling person to seek help from a mental health professional for the problem — something I doubt happens often.

What are your thoughts about how to modify Internet-troll behavior?

John Malouff, PhD, JD. Assoc Prof of Psychology

January 9, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   6 Comments.

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