What is your personality?

If you were to listen to one Christmas song right now, which would you choose? Make a decision before you read on – I don’t want to bias your response.

Your choice may tell something about you as a person, or, as psychologists say, about your personality (your enduring personality characteristics).

Think about your choice – does it suggest that you are religious or not? “O Holy Night” or “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”? Does it suggest that you are conventional or not? “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “So This is Christmas” (by John Lennon)? Are you a serious person or not? “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Aussie Jingle Bells”? Are you a happy person or not so happy? “All I Want for Christmas is You” or “Last Christmas” (by Taylor Swift)?

When I asked myself to choose a song, I went looking on the Internet for the one I had in mind. When I found it I was surprised to realize it was sung by Adam Sandler. The title: “Chanukah Song.” It is a comedic Jewish answer to Christmas songs. What does that choice mean about me? Not that I am Jewish (I am not). It may mean that I can be highly unconventional. And that I like to laugh.

Can psychologists really determine an individual’s personality from the answer to one question? Not usually. We typically use answers to many questions.

Your song choice may say more about your experiences than about your personality. Did you choose a song that you associate with some supremely happy moment of your life? For instance, I recall taking my first child to a government building complex that played Christmas music outside even when the buildings were closed. She and I danced round Christmas lights, and I sang along. I imagined that my voice matched that of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” Those were happy times.

I still do sometimes sing parts of “White Christmas,” and my usual holiday greeting to friends and family includes lyrics from “So This is Christmas”:

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

My interest in these various songs shows what? That personality is too complex to be completely captured by the answer to a single question. But your one answer might start you down a path of thinking about your personality characteristics. What are they? Are they what you want?

John Malouff, PhD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

January 9, 2015.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

How generous are you?

I just read an article about which nations are the most generous. The researchers defined “generous” by asking individuals whether in the past month they had donated money to a cause, helped a stranger, and volunteered with an organization. If they said yes to all three, their score was 100% The two top countries were the U.S. and Myanmar at 91% average for the three questions. For more on the findings, see:

Reading the article made me think how I would have answered the questions. I would say yes to helping a stranger (e.g., I answered a request for questions likely to be asked at clinical admissions interviews) and yes to working for an organization (the Colorado Democratic party — I went door to door to get out the vote), and no for donating money (I usually donate just once a year, and this was not that time). My 67% score would drag down the average in the top countries.

How about you? How generous were you in the past month?

My motivation for donating time was to have a positive impact on people in the U.S. My motivation for helping strangers was to do my duty as a person responding to requests for assistance. When I donate money, my motivation is usually to help needy individuals such as the women in Africa who need surgery for birth-related tears (fistulas) that lead to incontinence and social rejection.

What are your motivations for generous behavior?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

November 19, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   2 Comments.

Why do organized groups commit barbaric acts such as beheading innocent prisoners?

Beheadings have  a long history, dating back to biblical times and before. Here are some reasons that organized groups commit barbaric acts such as beheading innocent prisoners:

1. Humans are an aggressive species. Killing animals for food is not that far removed from killing other humans for different purposes. However, humans have become less violent with each other over the past centuries. It does not seem that way because we are bombarded with news of violent behaviour, but it is true according to many types of research.

2. Humans tend to perceive in-groups and out-groups. The out-groups are sometimes perceived as not human., making it easier to torture and murder them

3. Humans commonly obey high-status members of their in-group. Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies suggested that many ordinary humans will cause harm to innocent individuals if ordered to do so by someone in authority.

4. Humans as a group are gullible. We can be convinced that our ticket to heaven is killing innocent people, that our nation or religion is always right, etc.

5. Violence tends to be reciprocated.

6. Humans do what they observe others in their group doing.

7. Desperate individuals tend to do desperate things.

8. In some groups, barbaric behaviour is the norm, and it is heavily rewarded.

9. Violence can make some individuals feel powerful, when they previously felt powerless.

10. Barbaric behaviour can be used instrumentally to gain publicity and to terrorize people within and without the terror group.

What reasons would you add? How could we use these ideas to reduce barbaric violence?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

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

Don’t stop working and don’t stop running

I aim to continue working and continue running until the day I die. Why? Because of sea squirts.

Have you ever seen sea squirts? Some look like sponges — some look like sea grapes. They briefly have a tiny brain that helps them as larvae to find a good spot on the bottom of the ocean to call home — til the end of their time. They attach themselves to the bottom and start filtering nutrients out of ocean water. They earn their name by squirting water when annoyed. I have never annoyed one, so I cannot vouch for this trait myself. As the squirt is establishing itself on the bottom, it absorbs its brain because it no longer needs a brain to search for a home. It uses the resources devoted to the brain for more important purposes — squirting?

We humans, as we get older and stop working, may lose not our entire brains, but some functions, because of low use. We can lose balance and muscle strength also because of low use, e.g., no running or exercising. I think of the low exercise level of humans when I see many individuals standing on a people-mover (a conveyor) when they could walk on it. They are saving their energy — for what?

Body parts the human body does not seem to need, it ceases maintaining, to the extent possible. So as long as I am able, I will work. And I will run. I am no sea squirt.

For more on sea squirts, see http://goodheartextremescience.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/meet-the-creature-that-eats-its-own-brain/.

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology



October 6, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

How well do you cope with major losses?

Major losses lead some individuals to feel depressed — not just sad, but clinically depressed, with sleep problems, appetite problems, difficulty concentrating, lack of interest in formerly enjoyed activities, etc. Other individuals don’t sink into depression when they experience a major loss such as the death of a family member, loss of a long-term job, loss of good health, or loss of some cherished hope (e.g., becoming a celebrity, becoming rich). What is the difference between the individuals who are knocked down and stay down for the count and those who get up quickly and keep fighting?

Studies of psychological resilience suggest that individuals who cope best with major losses tend to have high self-efficacy (they think they can cope with a crisis), good social support, positive thinking (e.g., “into each life some rain must fall”; “some things are still going right”; “the positive side of this development is…”), high meaning in their life (e.g., a cause that is very important to them, such as helping others), and good problem-solving skills. Also, these individuals seek help as needed.

When my sainted mother died, many years ago, I felt very sad. It was hard for me to imagine a greater loss. Still, I had thoughts that helped me cope: She was suffering from an incurable illness, and her quality of life was not good. She had a good life and reached the average lifespan.  Her genes live on in my brothers and me. The effects of her kindness live on also in us.

I had good social support. I had high meaning in my life, including helping others and having new and exciting experiences. So I coped reasonably well.

I feel sad now thinking about the loss. That’s OK. Although I accept the loss, I do not need to feel happy about it.

What helps you cope with major losses?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology


October 4, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   No Comments.

Do you listen to your emotions?

Emotions usually send a message. Negative emotions tell us to make a change. Depression tells us to let go of something we have lost, for example a person, a hope, or an ability. Anxiety tells us that something might go wrong, so it is time to prevent that from happening, to brace for the bad event, or to accept the uncertainty of life. Anger usually tells us that someone has blocked us from a goal and we need to try harder, work on another goal, or become wary of the person who has blocked us. Joy tells us that we are doing something we like — something to do again sooner rather than later. Experiencing different emotions helps us feel acutely alive.

I go through rapidly changing emotions when I play sports — the thrill of doing something well and the disappointment of doing something poorly. The emotions help guide whether I do this or that in later play. The emotions also help motivate me to try hard.

I am writing about the potential value of emotions because many individuals experience strong negative emotions without seeing the value of the emotions. Emotional intelligence, which I study, includes as one aspect using one’s own emotions for benefit. The best way to do that is to become aware of the emotions, to look for the message, and to put that information to good use. It helps to look at the emotion as objectively as possible — something that is easier to do after the emotion has passed.

What messages have your emotions sent you lately? How did you respond?

John Malouff, PhD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

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

Do something different?

Habits have value in that they reduce the amount of time and energy we have to devote to making decisions. Habits make life easier and more predictable. I have many habits, and I bet you do too.

On the down side, habits can make life seem dully repetitive. Also, we can get in a behavioral rut that leads nowhere.

A few days ago a student told me that she planned to wear a skirt to campus for the first time in her three years at the university. She encouraged me to do something different the same day. Aha, I thought: a challenge! Who can resist that? I decided to play a single note on my harmonica for everyone with whom I spoke that day.

The student wore a short purple skirt and looked like a model. I played my one note. When I did that, I explained that I had declared the day “Do Something Different Day.” My novel behavior seemed to be graciously accepted, although I can imagine someone ticking an “eccentric” box next to my name.

I would like to have another Do Something Different Day. If only I could get my hands on a kilt…

What would happen if you did something different today? Sometimes, one change leads to another — you might end up a slightly different person. Does that sound like fun?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology

September 21, 2014.     Category: Uncategorized.   5 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.   2 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.   2 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.

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