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:

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 — 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 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.   No 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.

What’s hot in psychology for 2014?

Here are developments that I expect to help shape 2014 for the field of psychology:

1. The doubt widespread among scientists about the validity of some stunning research findings will lead to increase efforts from journals and scientists to replicate the most important findings of recent years. When different researchers find the same phenomenon in different samples, we will be more justified in believing the results. It would be especially helpful for journals to invite researchers to complete replications with a guarantee of publication no matter what the results. That guarantee would remove motivation for fudging the results. This doubt, by the way, extends to findings in every field of science, not just psychology. Doubt is part of science.

2. Positive psychology will roar on, led by research on mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and new constructs that I cannot predict. Positive psychology, which focuses on how to help humans do better, rather than how to help them overcome problems, has been growing in popularity for many years. Studies showing that mindfulness and emotional intelligence can be increased with training and thereby help produce important improvements in life outcomes have led to great interest in improving positive characteristics.  Mindfulness, in particular, will rise in recognition as a valuable part of life for producing positive life outcomes and preventing negative life outcomes. My small contribution to research on mindfulness in 2014: An article I co-authored will be published soon showing promising meta-analytic results for mindfulness as a way to increase telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres (the caps on chromosomes) after they divide and shrink a bit. Longer telomeres predict longer life, so the evidence (from 4 studies included in the meta-analysis ) showing a causal effect of mindfulness on telomerase activity could be important. The article will be published soon in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (10 syllables in there — count them and see).

3. Psychologists will continue to explore connections between psychology and medicine, literature, education, religion, economics, and many other fields. Psychology is an octopus — it reaches here and there, sometimes with surprising results, such as the recent finding that reading passages from literary novels helps increase empathy.

4. Unconscious forces will rise as objects of study. Implicit cognition, a sort of automatic, fast, unconscious force, is already popular as a research target, as is unconscious bias in making judgments of various sort. Findings on unconscious bias will lead to more actions to counter the biases. Much research in the past decade has shown that humans tend to have unconscious biases based on factors such as the sex, race, and age of others. Moves to counter unconscious biases in education could involve keeping students anonymous, when feasible, during grading. I have been publishing research on grading biases based on prior experience with students. Inappropriate unconscious biases on factors such as sex, age, and appearance probably occur in many judgments, such as admissions, hiring, and voting. Awareness of the risk of unconscious bias may be a good starting place for countering biases.

What do you think will be hot in psychology in 2014?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

January 1, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   10 Comments.

Are you using words others find annoying?

A recent survey of Americans asked which words they find most annoying. Can you guess any of the top three words?

I couldn’t. I would guess various curse words and insulting terms, but I would be wrong — I suspect those weren’t options in the survey. The top three found: (3) you know (as in “he, you know, didn’t want to do that, (2) like (as in “like, I could hardly stand up”), and (1) whatever (as in “you want me to do this and that — whatever”).

“Like” and “you know” are filler words that individuals utter to fill momentary gaps in their speech. Their use tends to occur due to modeling by others, anxiety while speaking, habit, and lack of awareness of alternatives. We dislike those words because they are pointless and boring and waste our time. See my earlier blog entry on how to eliminate filler words and sounds at

“Whatever” is more disturbing to us because it is used in a dismissive way. It means: I don’t agree with you, I don’t want to discuss it, and you have no chance of changing my mind. The word seems like a good title for a poem or a rock band. A poem is easier to create than a rock band — who will write a “whatever” poem for a comment to this posting?

I am happy to report that I don’t use any of the most annoying words. My most annoying sounds, according to my son, are whistles of disapproval. I have cut back on those recently.

What words do you find most annoying? Which annoying words do you use?

For more information about annoying words, see

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

December 21, 2013.     Category: Uncategorized.   7 Comments.

Are you more likely to commit suicide if you have a gun at home?

I just read an excellent article about guns and suicide: According to the article, research shows that guns and suicidal urges are a lethal combination. Most suicides in the U.S. and in some other countries are by gun. When guns are removed from homes to a significant degree, e.g., after the mass shooting in Port Arthur in Australia, suicide rates go down. Not just suicide by gun. Total suicide. The same happened in Israel, when the army stopped allowing soldiers to take their guns home on the weekend. Suicide rates of soldiers dropped like a rock on the weekend and did not rise during the week. How can that be?

Suicide tends to be an impulsive act. Guns make suicidal efforts fast and effective. Remove the quick exit tool, and the urge sometimes will pass — not to return! The evidence for this phenomenon comes not just for guns but for coal gas stoves (once popular for suicide in the UK) and for bridges frequently used for suicidal plunges. When the UK government eliminated coal gas ovens, the total suicide rate dropped by a large amount. When cities block individuals from diving off a bridge popular for suicide, the suicide rate drops substantially. Hopeless, despondent individuals could find another bridge, with no suicide barriers, but they usually do not. For more information on these effects, see

What is the practical message of these various findings? Make impulse suicide as difficult as possible. Block the common methods and locations. Keep guns outs of homes wherever possible. Do whatever is possible to keep suicidal individuals alive long enough for the impulse to pass.

Have you ever dealt with a suicidal person? Did preventing suicide for awhile prevent suicide for the long run?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology


December 13, 2013.     Category: Uncategorized.   2 Comments.

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