What words do you use more than just about anyone else on the planet?

I once worked for a nice fellow who used the word “flag” very, very often. He flagged this and that and commented that others had flagged something or other. He used the word to mean many things — I never knew which meaning he was applying in a particular statement. Most people never use the word “flag” as a verb.

Another person I just read about uses the word “iteration” many times a day. For his story, see http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_good_word/2014/09/fingerprint_words_verbal_tics_that_define_us_and_how_they_spread_to_others.html. I’ll bet  you rarely if ever use the term.

The words that are much more often used by a person than by others are sometimes called signature words or fingerprint words. We could call their high use by a person idiosyncratic.

I tried to think of what my signature words are, but we are often not aware of our own. They go with us like our individual smell. A friend pointed out that I say “Jeepers” frequently. I denied it until I caught myself using this expression of surprise (used also by Jimmy Olsen in Superman) several times the next day. My son, when asked, told me that I use the word (spelled phonetically here) “shishmee” (which is an Arabic word for bathroom, I think) with family members. I then realized that I also use the word “tinkle” to mean urinate.

Why do I use those particular words more than other individuals do? I have no explanation based on reason. If we move to the unconscious realm, I might speculate that to some extent I have a child-like view of life. Also, I find the words “Jeepers” and “tinkle” funny. Those factors could explain my use of those words.

I copied use of the word “shishmee” from my father, who may have wanted to use a discrete version of the word when in public with young children. Copying can occur with signature words — if the words are appealing in some way. No one I know has ever copied use of any of my signature words. In current times, those words are clunkers, socially speaking.

So I ask myself, do I want to talk like Jimmy Olsen? Like the parent of a two-year old? Sure, why not? However, I would like to add variety to my word options when surprised — something I can alternate with “Jeepers.” To break my habit, I may have to switch to a word that starts with the same J sound. “Jumping Jehoshaphat”? I might be going in the wrong direction there.

What words do you use more than just about anyone else on the planet? Ask individuals who spend lots of time with you — they know your signature words. What does your use of those particular words say about you?

John Malouff, PhD, D, Assoc Prof of Psychology


September 13, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Why do we get angry?

We get angry because something undesirable happens and we interpret that event as (1) something impeding us in achieving a goal, (2) someone harming or trying to harm us, or (3) someone mistreating or disrespecting us.

For instance, someone says to me: “You look tired today.” If I interpret (appraise) the statement as criticism, I might feel angry. If I interpret the statement as showing caring, I might not feel angry. I say “might” because much depends on factors such as my personality characteristics. Am I neurotic enough to be looking for incoming insults in every interaction? My reaction may also depend on my current physical state. If I am exhausted or in physical pain, I may lean toward a negative interpretation of the statement. Much also depends on my current emotional state. If I already feel angry, for example because of someone else telling me that I am stupid, then I would be primed to interpret the “tired” statement as criticism. An additional factor could be a model I have recently observed. If I just saw someone become very angry about being mistreated, I might be inclined to respond with anger to the “tired” statement.

Another answer to why we get angry is that anger had evolutionary value to our ancestors. They used anger to fight off invaders and predators, enabling those anger genes to still exist in us today. Humans without those genes tended not to live long enough to reproduce. What is important for us to realize is that insults and other mistreatment do not nowadays usually portend physical attack by another person; goal impediments do not usually have deadly consequences for us. If we save our anger for when we need it to survive, we will do better in life.

I started to write about recent times when I felt very angry, but I realized that the few times this year I felt that way involved in every case something that now seems trivial. Each instance involved some person or group creating what turned out to be a temporary impediment to my achieving a work-related goal. One incident also included an insulting term directed at me. My coping method, when it kicked in, involved thinking: “They are doing the best they can.” Then I thought about something more pleasing.

What makes you feel angry?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology



September 7, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Are you laughing enough for your own good?

Norman Cousins, an educator and writer, famously wrote that laughing as he watched lots of  funny movies and television helped him cope with a painful chronic spine condition. He is not the only one to think that we benefit greatly from laughing — think of the saying that laughter is the best medicine. Think of physician Patch Adams wearing a clown nose as he works with hospitalized children.

Do research findings support the view that laughter is an elixir? Yes. Research studies show that laughing has positive effects similar to exercise, including a substantial increase in heart rate. Laughing also helps regulate blood sugar levels, and it increases blood flow, aiding the work of the heart. Laughing may also help the immune system function. For more info about the physical benefits of laughing, see http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/give-your-body-boost-with-laughter.

Does laughing have psychological benefits? Yes. It triggers the release of endorphins, improves mood, and helps a person feel relaxed. Laughter can also help a person shift from a negative perspective to a positive one. I know when phobia clients laugh sincerely at an exposure situation that they are on their way to beating the phobia.

Laughing with others may have the most positive immediate effects because of the positive social aspects present. Laughing with others can also help others elevate their mood and want to associate with us in the future. Laughing happily at oneself may be one of the surest signs of confidence and good mental health. For more info about the psychological benefits of laughing, see http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/give-your-body-boost-with-laughter.

I naturally associate with amusing individuals. We might talk about work or some serious matter, but humor is never too far away. I also naturally look for the humor in situations. It isn’t always easy to find and it doesn’t always eliminate unfortunate aspects of life, but it does provide a different perspective and lift my mood. Sometimes I will laugh out loud repeatedly at something I said or thought or at something another person said.

What about you? Are you laughing enough for your own good? How might you increase your daily level of yuks and guffaws?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Professor of Psychology


August 31, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

When you fear failing, ask yourself these questions

I am reading Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question” (2014) about the importance of asking questions. Berger mentions three questions developed by Jonathon Fields for us to ask ourselves when we fear failing at something:
1. If I fail, how will I recover?
2. What if I do nothing?
3. What if I succeed?

Each question can make a valuable contribution to a person. Having ideas about how to recover from failure, if it occurs, reduces the pressure on the person to avoid taking action. Recognizing that doing nothing can have negative consequences can help push the person in the direction of taking action. Imagining the positive consequences of succeeding can help motivate the person to try.

I suggest adding one more question: What are the odds of succeeding if I try? To answer this question sensibly, a person has to define success and then use reasoning and past experiences, personal or observed, to create an estimate. High estimates say go, go, go. Low estimates suggest the need for modifications, if time permits, or for pursuing another goal. These calculations can help direct a person to opportunities with the most likely payoffs. However, a small chance at a great outcome (starting the next Facebook.com?) is about the only chance most of us have for a great outcome. One thing individuals might learn in making the estimates is that they are good or bad at predicting outcomes. Individuals who fear failure may always err on the side of predicting failure, thereby in their minds justifying inaction. Making explicit odds predictions (e.g., 1 in a million, 50-50) can help a person correct that bias based on actual outcomes — if the person acts.

I ask these questions when I design research studies. For instance, I am helping to design a study that will test a new way to help people increase how exciting their life is.

What if the study shows that the intervention does not work — how will I recover? I will say to myself: the other researcher and I reached for something big and came up short, but at least we tried. Not all good ideas work out. Win some, lose some. Live and learn. Nothing ventured, nothing gained (there are MANY sayings like this).

If we don’t do the study, we may never know whether we had a great idea that could have ended up doing much good and helping us make a name for ourselves. We would miss a chance to grab the golden ring.

If we succeed, we will feel ecstatic. We will publish our results, think about doing related studies, mention the findings in conversations. We might have something big — something exciting.

Our odds of finding something publishable are at least 50-50 based on my prior experiences with interventions intended to change human behavior.

When we put all those answers together, our decision is clear: Go for it. This after we decided not to do another study that had low odds of succeeding and low odds of creating a big finding.

Are you thinking about trying to do something important? Do you fear you will fail? What answers do you have for the questions mentioned above?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

August 29, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Are you asking enough questions?

I am reading “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger. The book points out that young children ask many, many questions. Starting school decreases the questioning, and adults ask very few questions. That’s a pity because asking good questions, those that might lead to positive change, is often the beginning of great developments. Newton asked why objects fall toward the earth. He then developed his theory of gravity. Steve Jobs asked what in the way of new technology could people use. Apple then developed incredible products such at the Mac, the iPod, and so on.

“A More Beautiful Question” states that education could promote questioning by students, but it does not, in part because teachers do not want the pressure of answering student questions. What if the teacher does not know the answer? What if there is no answer? The bricks in the school walls might crumble.

I ask students questions when I teach (I use the Socratic Method). But I do not encourage them to ask questions. I will do more of that now that I am thinking about the value of asking questions. I will encourage them to ask me questions that could lead to valuable change. For instance, in my Behaviour Modification unit, they could ask me (or themselves) how they could apply some BMod method to improve a specific type of behaviour (their own or that of someone else). They could ask why BMod does not always work or what changes might make it work faster.

What good questions could I ask? Here are some ideas that come to my mind right now:  How can I produce more practical impact with my teaching? How could the psychology programs at my university provide students with better preparation for work after graduation? Why is social phobia harder to cure than specific phobias such as the fear of heights? Where is my missing harmonica? Oops, that last question is not one with potential to lead to valuable change. It is open-ended though, so it not all bad. Close-ended questions, like the the title of this posting, can be best in certain circumstances, but usually open-ended questions such as why, what, and how are most productive.

What questions have you asked lately that have potential for leading to valuable change? What would happen if you asked more questions of that sort?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Associate Professor of Psychology

August 23, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Exercise-induced orgasms?

I just read about a study of 124 women who reported having experienced exercise-induced orgasms (EIOs). These orgasms occur with no help from fantasies or sexual self-stimulation.

My first thought about EIOs was that there must be an Old MacDonald somewhere in the story. My second thought was “EIOs — no way.” But see info about the study at http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/21547.html#2.

I found interesting that ab exercises were the most common type involved in EIOs, especially if done in the “Captain’s chair.” I have used that equipment — individuals let their bodies hang down as they rest their forearms on elevated pads. This setup allows individuals to raise their legs up again and again to exercise their abs. I always have liked this exercise, but these women might like it even more.

There appears to be no sure explanation for why these orgasms occur. My guess: the brain misinterprets exercise-induced arousal and body sensations. Brains make worse mistakes, I assure you.

Unclear is whether men ever experience EIOs. I am the sort of scientist who might study something like that, but I will leave this question for others to answer.

I always end my postings with a question. I will phrase this one carefully: Have any of your friends ever had an EIO? Was it a positive or negative experience?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

August 19, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Why do women tend to prefer tall men?

A recent study showed that women prefer to marry men who are 8 inches (!) taller than they are. Why do women prefer tall men?

One theory is that for evolutionary reasons women unconsciously prefer tall men because these men tend to be more successful in physical altercations with other men. That theory would apply to humans a dominance perspective similar to that experts hold regarding gorillas and many other animals. The idea, from evolutionary psychology, is this:  Modern women tend to have genes that propel them, consciously or not, to favor tall men.  That occurs because women in the past who had this preference tended more than other women to produce children who survived to reproduce.  Were the tall men of yesteryear able to obtain more food?  Able to better protect a woman and children? Could height have indicated health and intellect?  We know that in children proper nutrition makes a big difference for height, health, and intellectual development. The evidence is clear in poor countries where some children come close to starving.

Another possibility is that women favor tallness in men for psychosocial reasons. Looking up to someone literally may translate in the unconscious brain to looking up person figuratively. Also, tall men may give women a sense of being protected by a more powerful person. Studies show that tall men are seen as leaders and are elected to office more often than shorter men who run against them. I would guess that as a group they make more money (even putting aside players in the National Basketball Association!).

Male height, of course, is only one factor in romantic preferences of women. Among other factors, being loving ought to play a role. Some women marry men who are the same height or shorter. Not many women marry a man who is 8 inches (!) taller, in part because on average men are only about 5 inches (no exclamation mark) taller than women and in part because many other factors are important. Also, some women do not care about a man’s height.

Tall men, by the way, tend to favor tall women. Not as tall the man, but tall. To be precise, men in a study favored women 3 inches shorter on average. The desire for a partner who is similar is part of assortative mating — individuals mating with someone who has a similar genotype or phenotype.

Australia, by the way, is a good place to find tall romantic partners — it has the second tallest people of any nation! The tallest nation? The Netherlands.

Where does this height-prefernce situation leave short men? For some, it may leave them hustling to show their personal advantages aside from height — trying to show actual leadership, power, strength, etc. Some tall men pursue these goals too. For some short men, the situation may lead them to marry short women.

What would you consider the ideal height for your romantic partner? How does that compare to your height? My answer for preference: 5 feet, 7 inches to 6 feet, 2 inches. I am 6 feet, 2 inches.

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Associate Professor of Psychology






August 17, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   2 Comments.

Why do we want to win all the time?

One reason we want to win at sports and games and so on is that winning has had evolutionary value for humans. The winner in combat or real-life or staged tests of strength or cunning may have had extra opportunities to reproduce. The winners may have been like modern rock stars and professional athletes. For instance, Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, reported in a biography that he had sexual relations with 20,000 women by the time he reached 55 years of age.  See http://mentalfloss.com/article/12310/did-wilt-chamberlain-really-sleep-20000-women. Our ancestors are likely to have been individuals who were quite competitive and to have benefited reproductively by their competitive successes.

The individuals long ago who were not competitive may not have lived long enough to reproduce, they may not have done enough to help their children survive to reproduce, and they may not have had many opportunities to reproduce. Their non-competitive genes may now be rare among humans.

How does evolutionary pressure toward competitiveness manifest itself in our day-to-day life? We approach challenges and competitions with a strong goal of winning. We feel happy (psychologically reinforced for our efforts) when we win. We feel angry or disappointed (psychologically punished) if we lose. The reactions of others may also reinforce our efforts to win. Cheers and high-5s make us feel good when we win. Our pals shaking their heads or looking at their feet when we lose has the opposite effect. Because our culture endorses winning, we see many models of winners reaping benefits and losers eating crow. These models affect us, consciously and unconsciously.

Can we do anything to reduce our competitiveness when it is counterproductive?  Yes. I wrote about how to do that in a prior posting: http://blog.une.edu.au/usingpsychology/2014/05/02/are-you-a-poor-loser/.

How competitive are you? When is competitiveness helpful? Harmful? Can you turn on the competitiveness when it is helpful and turn it off when it is not? How do you do that?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology



August 11, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

What specifically does psychological treatment change?

Every year journals publish hundreds of psychotherapy-evaluation articles showing that some treatment or other produced a positive change in the main outcome variable — something such as anxiety level or anger level. Often unclear is what types of changes the clients made that led to emotional changes. Potentially, clients can change (1) situations they enter, (2) their behavior, and (3) their thinking. To measure these types of changes, Nicola Schutte and I developed a brief measure of therapeutically induced change:

Therapeutically Induced Change Scale
Malouff and Schutte (2011)

For each of the three questions, please choose a number from the following response options and mark that number after the question.

Response options
1 = not at all
2 = slightly
3 = between slightly and moderately
4 = moderately
5 = between moderately and very much
6 = very much
7 = extremely

1. To what extent did [insert name of intervention] lead you to change your thinking (your attitudes, how you think, what you believe)? ___

2. To what extent did [insert name of intervention] lead you to change what you did or how you acted or behaved? ___

3. To what extent did [insert name of intervention] lead you to change some situation? ___

In addition to providing information relevant to processes involved in overcoming a psychological problem, the scale can potentially prompt responses that lead to valuable discussions between client and therapist. To validate the scale, we tested it with a total of 281 individuals who went through a psychological intervention and found that total scores on the scale (summing the three responses) were associated with level of involvement in the intervention and level of improvement in the target of the intervention. The results suggest that in general, more movement toward resolution of the original problem will occur when clients change the situations they enter, their behavior, and their thoughts.

Have you completed a psychological intervention, either to overcome a problem or to increase some positive characteristic such as positive affect? If so, you can complete the scale and explore what types of changes you made. What do you conclude? If you are doing better now than before the intervention, it may be that you have maintained changes in situations, behavior, or thinking.

The article:
Schutte, N. S., & Malouff, J. M. (2011). Development and Validation of a Brief Measure of Therapeutically-Induced Change. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 39(05), 627-630.

John Malouff, PhD, JD
Assoc Prof of Psychology

August 10, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

The board games you like playing say something about you

Different individuals like playing different board games. My favorite used to be Scrabble. That preference suggests that I like words and thinking. Right on both counts — I do like words and thinking. As a scientist, I use words and think for a living.

In recent years I have modified Scrabble to make it more entertaining. The first change was to speed up play by eliminating the board and simply having ea player take seven tiles and make the highest point word possible. Then everyone compares. That completes a round. Players can keep score with each win counting as one point if they want. Others may have thought of this exact activity before me — it is hard to have a completely new idea in a world of 7 billion people! If this version of Scrabble does not go quickly enough, a group could use a timer to set a limit. My developing this version of Scrabble suggests that I have low patience and I like to create. The patience one is right. Also, I do like to create. I have a book coming out in a few months that contains about 90 activities for teaching social, emotional, and problem-solving skills. I made up many of the activities.

I made a second modification of Speed Scrabble for a study a student and I did evaluating whether it is possible to help couples increase the excitement in their relationship. We found that it is! Mostly we focused on their engaging jointly in interesting novel activities. Some were sexual; some were not. One I developed: involves playing Speed Scrabble where the loser of each round discards an item of clothing. That combines elements of Speed Scrabble and Strip Poker.

I developed Version 3 for couples on trains, airplanes, or somewhere else in public: Here the loser of a round merely names an article of clothing that he or she would discard.

For individuals who want excitement without even thinking of discarding clothes, I developed Version 4, where the loser of a round has to choose Truth (answer a very personal question) or Dare (complete some entertaining but possibly embarrassing action).

My creating these versions suggests that I like to synthesize (e.g., combining different activities into one) and I like to cater to different tastes. Right on both ideas. I find it easier to put two good ideas together than to think up an entirely original idea. In teaching, I try to cater to preferences of different students for learning activities. Have I catered to you? Try one of the versions and tell me what you think!

What board games do you most like playing? Do you modify or make up board games? What do your preferences suggest about you?

John Malouff, PhD, JD
Assoc Prof of Psychology

July 11, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   2 Comments.

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