Using Psychology to Lose Weight

Decades ago I set a lifetime maximum weight for myself. I did that because I knew that prevention of weight gain is easier than weight loss. I have done well over the years in keeping within my maximum, 170 pounds (77.1 kilograms). When I went a few pounds over, I increased my exercise level for a few weeks and dropped down to weight (like a boxer before a bout!). As I became older, the increased exercise did not work as well, and I have had to reduce the large amount of food I eat. I gradually went from 10 slices of toast plus other food for breakfast to 4 slices of toast plus the other food. Right now I am about six pounds (2.8 kilos) over my maximum weight. Time for more changes!

Losing weight and keeping it off are difficult tasks because of the great temptations of delicious food and the great motivating power of hunger. We humans are genetically predisposed to avoid hunger and to stuff ourselves at every opportunity. Thousands of years ago humans who did those two things were more likely to survive than other humans. Those gluttony genes are in us because they worked well in olden times.

So what is the secret to losing weight and keeping it off? Using the right methods persistently.

Here is my plan, based on psychological principles I teach in my Behaviour Modification class:

1. Set measurable, realistic goals. My ultimate goal is to lose 6 pounds in 90 days and keep that weight off.

2. Develop a plan for reducing calories. My plan involves eating no snacks (6 of 7 days a week), one less fruit per day than now, one less slice of bread per day, and less pasta when I eat pasta.

3. Develop a plan for increasing the burning of calories: I will increase my exercise level, including walking, cycling, playing sports, and working out in the gym to an average of 70 minutes per day.

4. Self-monitor. I will weigh myself once a week on the same scale, record daily whether I achieved each eating goal, and record daily how many minutes of exercise I had.

5. I will make a public statement about my goal and plans. Here that is! Perhaps individuals who become aware of my goal will help me.

6. I will have a behavior-change pal, who will try to change behavior at the same time as me. The self-chosen goal for my pal is to eat at least four nutritious foods (e.g., blueberries, tomatoes, and carrots) per day. My pal and I will prompt each other to reach our daily behavior goals and praise achievement of the goals.

7. When tempted to eat too much, I will slow my eating, drink water, engage in some competing behavior that does not involve calorie intake, or consult my change pal (similar to members of Alcoholics Anonymous contacting their sponsor).

8. I will try to avoid feeling hungry often, as the feeling can motivate excessive eating.

9. I will interpret hunger as a sign of progress and tell myself how tough I am when I do not respond to hunger by eating snacks or too much food at meal times.

10. I will persist, adjusting the plan as needed.

11. I will reward myself for making progress in executing my plan and losing weight. I will start with a reward for following the plan for the first week. I will see if I can think of a reward that might help motivate me.

12. I will post comments here daily (or so) about how I am doing. I thus become publicly accountable for my daily effort level (such as on the TV show “The Biggest Loser”).

I begin the weight-loss adventure today. Come along for the ride!

Updates below:

October 13: So far, so good — 105 minutes of exercise today and I followed my new eating guidelines. I felt hungry in the late afternoon, so I busied myself with work and reading until supper time.

October 14: Met my daily goals. Walked and cycled for 55 minutes total, going to and from work. I read an article in U.S. News and World report with tips for losing weight. I am using four of the six suggested strategies: lifting weights, seeking social support, keeping a record of my relevant behaviours, and weighing myself once a week. The other two strategies involve getting more sleep and being mindful when eating. I usually get plenty of sleep, but I will try to be more mindful while eating. Especially when I eat bananas — like a true primate, I love bananas.

October 15: I met my eating goals for the day, staying to three meals, with decreased calories for lunch and dinner. I got 35 minutes of exercise riding my bike to and from work. You might wonder why I have given myself 90 days to lose 6 pounds. I read in a Mayo Clinic web site that losing a pound of fat requires a person to eat about 3500 fewer calories. Six pounds would be 21,000 calories. I have cut my calorie intake by about 250 calories per day. Divide 21,000 by 250 per day and the answer is 84 days. Viola!

October 16: Friday is my big exercise day of the week. Today I cycled to work, played tennis, and later played badminton. Total exercise time: 190 minutes. Also, I recalled 20 minutes of exercise earlier this week that I have not recorded yet. I am on track to reach my weekly goal of averaging at least 70 minutes per day of exercise. I also kept to my eating regime today. You might wonder about my baseline weight for this project. It was 80.2 kgs (about 176 pounds). My height: 1.88 m (about 6 feet, 2 inches. My Body Mass Index at baseline was 80.2 divided by (1.88 squared) = 22.7. That is good, but I can tell by looking at myself that I have unnecessary fat on my waist. Also, my pants waist size is bigger (35 inches) than it was when I first set my lifetime maximum weight (33 inches).

October 17: I met my eating goals, including eating no snacks. I estimate that my baseline calorie consumption varied from 2500 to 3000 calories a day. I now have reduced that by about 10%. I got 50 minutes of exercise walking to and from the town library, rather than driving there as I usually do.

October 18: I may have overdone the exercise over the past few days. I spent 11o minutes today cutting rushes in ponds. The unusual muscular demands of the work, along with the cool pond water, left me exhausted. On the positive side, my digestion, which typically leans toward irritable bowel, has been perfect since I cut out the sweet snacks. Coincidence?

October 19: Sometimes I feel hungry. To avoid snacking, I busy myself with some activity or I tell myself that the hunger is a sign that my body is burning my fat rather than food in my belly. Not eating until meal time becomes an appealing accomplishment. So far I have done well — no snacks and no eating extra at meals to compensate. Cycling and lawn mowing (with a push mower!) gave me 45 minutes of exercise today.

October 20: One week into my program, I weighed myself on the same electronic scale as at baseline and at the same time of day. I came up a kilogram (2.2 pounds) lighter than a week ago. I wish I could conclude that I had lost a kilo of fat, but that is not likely – I still eat a few pounds of food (all nutritious food now) a day. Because I have decreased my calorie intake and increased exercise, I expect I lost about 0.3 kgs of fat. The 0.7 extra loss showed by the scale may be due to fluctuations relating to how full my bladder and bowels were or to measurement error. Today I faced my greatest challenge so far in the project: an afternoon staff party with many delicious foods, including the brownies I love. In preparation, I ate one less fruit at lunch. By luck, I ate lunch late, so I was not hungry at party time. I looked long at those brownies and I thought about the blue cheese, but I ate only pieces of fruit. Now that I am making progress in weight loss, I feel motivated to keep to the program. Writing this public blog also helps me toe the line. I had 160 minutes of exercise today, involving walking to work, throwing a football around, working out in a gym, and weed-whacking (my first time for that!).

October 21: I have met my daily eating and exercise goals for the first nine days of my program. My behavior-change buddy has also met her goal of eating at least four nutritious foods a day. I invite you to post a comment stating a behavior-change goal toward which you are working. The more, the merrier in behavior change. A buddy can model, prompt, and reinforce change efforts.

October 22: Fun or functional. I have been able to average over 70 minutes of exercise a day by keeping my exercise fun or functional. When I walk, I walk to get somewhere. Arriving reinforces the walking. Also, I enjoy the flowers along the way. Sometimes I have entertaining company. Sometimes I read an interesting book or magazine or do some work as I walk. When I cycle, I cycle to get somewhere. I am reinforced by the thrill of going fast downhill and by arriving at my destination. When I play sports, I am reinforced by the fun of the activity and sometimes praised by another player. When I work out in the gym, I sometimes listen to my favorite music (that I would not otherwise hear). Other times I interact with an exercise buddy or watch others work out — the muscle boys, the cardio girls, the oldtimers, etc. I challenge myself to lift more or I try a new lift.

October 23: Standing is good. In addition to averaging over 70 minutes a day of exercise, I often stand when others sit. At work I usually stand at my desk, which I can put up or down. At meetings I often stand. At home, I eat part of breakfast standing. When I fly or ride the rails, I stand as much as I can. I ate a bit much last evening and today. Tomorrow I hope to eat less.

October 24: A constant risk, now that I usually do not eat snacks, is of overeating at dinner. I will keep my pasta, starting tonight, to one large plateful. I feel as if I am on track with my program, although I have not been perfect at every moment. I feel happy about my response to feeling hungry — I view hunger as a sign that I am succeeding in following my program and burning more calories than I take in.

October 25: Sensible eating and exercising have benefits beyond weight control. My blood pressure is usually about 110/70; my usual heart rate is about 61. I don’t know whether my recently improved behaviors will lead to changes in those numbers. I continue to meet my daily program goals.

October 26: Now that I am eating less food and sometimes feel hungry for longer than usual periods, I enjoy eating more. I still eat a few pounds of food a day, but almost of all of it is low calorie and nutritious. For breakfast, I usually eat hundreds of peas, four slices of wheat toast, and a banana. Occasionally, I also eat a boiled egg. With the food, I drink water.

October 27: The challenge today was to resist lots of free food at a university event. Some of the desserts looked delicious, but I met the challenge by thinking about my project goal.  Twas a victory for self-control.

October 28: Happy news: I weighed myself on the same scale as before, and it showed me at 78.1 kgs, down 1.8 kgs from the start of the program two weeks ago. If I keep losing at this rate, I will approach my goal weight in a little over a week. I feel motivated to keep making progress. I will finish today with 175 minutes of exercise after I cycle home.

October 29: I had to muster my self-control today to avoid eating any delicious-looking, hi-cal food items at two different social events. It was good practice for the upcoming holidays. I remain on course.

October 30: My success over the past two weeks has led me to have high self-efficacy (confidence) about achieving my weight-loss goal. When I feel hungry, I think the hunger is a sign I am losing weight. When I feel tired after exercise, I think the fatigue is a sign that I am losing weight.

November 4: Disappointment! I weighed myself on the same scale as before and found that at three weeks into the program I weighed 78.8 kgs. I had been following my program so I do not think that I gained 0.7 kgs of fat in the past week. More likely the weights have varied due to how much I have in bowel and bladder or due to errors in the electronic weighing machine. I was much lighter on the scale next to it, which involves sliding weights over! Still, I will stick with the electronic scale. I felt discouraged enough tonight that I ate somewhat more for dinner than I would like. I was thinking like a loser (but not a weight loser). I will change to only one fruit a day for lunch. Also, I will try to increase my exercise level by returning to playing badminton this week.

November 5: I cut one banana from my daily diet, saving myself about 100 calories a day. The recent rain has made it hard to get exercise going to work, but I took a risk today and walked home without getting soaked.

November 6: I resisted the temptation of delicious-looking food today at a mid-morning work function. I might eat some of the fruit later as a lunch dessert. Helping me resist was my desire to tell others (e.g., right now!) that I was able to resist. Achieving tough goals often requires sacrifices. See below some of the food I did not eat.


Plates of food


November 8: I continue to follow my program. I looked at my kitchen today and saw that it followed suggestions from an article I read on empirically supported weight-control methods, one of which is to have only nutritious foods such as fresh fruit visible on kitchen counters. Here are some stimulus-control research findings mentioned in the article: Individuals serve themselves more food if the food color matches the plate color, if the plate is big, and if the food to be served is put on the table rather than being left in the kitchen. Individuals who have high-cal food like crisps and cereal visible (e.g., on the counter) in the kitchen have higher weight. Individuals pour themselves more wine and other drinks in glasses that are wide and short than in glasses that are tall and narrow.

November 9: I adjusted my plan by eating a bit less for my evening meal — three home-made burritos rather than my usual four. I still felt filled up. Also, I ate only a bit over three fruits total today. I do not feel deprived!

November 10: Four weeks into the weight-loss program, I weighed myself on the same scale as before. My weight: 77.5 kgs, just 0.4 kgs over my target weight. I weighed myself on another scale also and it showed the same weight. I felt pleased about that. Now is a good time to check whether I am carrying out all 12 elements of the plan. Ah, I am following all but the one about rewarding myself for achieving the weekly goal. Because I usually do and buy whatever I want, it is not easy to think of a tangible reward. However, I do give myself credit for not eating appealing snacks that are offered to me. I also have become slightly more mindful when eating, especially when I eat my beloved bananas.

November 11: I became very hungry twice today, but I did not eat extra when I had food, in part because I see myself as close to reaching my target weight. I had 70 minutes of walking today, going to and from work.

November 15: Recently I have averaged over 90 minutes a day of exercise. Much of that comes from walking or cycling to and from work. I ate one fruit too many today, committing a project sin. I hope to get those calories back by cutting out one slice of bread tomorrow at lunch.

November 16: I cut out one slice of bread at lunch today to make up for the extra fruit last night. I walked away from 30 free sandwiches at an event between lunch and dinner. I am making tough sacrifices in the hope of continuing to make progress toward my weight goal. The biggest challenges involve resisting the stimulus control of appealing food that is offered to me. In general, calorie restriction has proven much more difficult than increased calorie burning, which has been easy. Studies have shown that calorie restriction tends to have more impact on weight loss than increase exercise. However, increased exercise helps weight loss and has substantial potential for improved cardiovascular fitness and various positive effects on health.

November 19: I did my weekly weigh-in yesterday, with the anxiety of a boxer or wrestler trying to make weight. I ran into a common problem in assessment of change — unreliability (inconsistency). The original scale I used for the project showed me a slightly different weight each time I stood on it. I used two other scales also. The range of weights varied from 76.6 to 77.9 kgs. For the three scales, the average weight was 77.2, just 0.1 kgs over my goal weight. So I will proceed with the program. Once I reach my goal, I will start eating a bit more to maintain my weight. Just in time for the holidays, I hope!

November 20: I have made excellent progress. Five weeks into the program seems a good time to review which elements of the program have helped and which have not. I will copy the elements here.

1. Set measurable, realistic goals. My ultimate goal is to lose 6 pounds in 90 days and keep that weight off.  [This goal has helped motivate me; it has proven realistic — I am close to my target weight already. Maintenance will become my goal soon.]

2. Develop a plan for reducing calories. My plan involves eating no snacks (6 of 7 days a week), one less fruit per day than now, one less slice of bread per day, and less pasta when I eat pasta. [My plan has been sound, and I have followed it well, if not perfectly. The only change in the plan has been my cutting out two slices of bread at lunch rather than just one.]

3. Develop a plan for increasing the burning of calories: I will increase my exercise level, including walking, cycling, playing sports, and working out in the gym to an average of 70 minutes per day. [This has worked great. I have enjoyed upping my exercise level.]

4. Self-monitor. I will weigh myself once a week on the same scale, record daily whether I achieved each eating goal, and record daily how many minutes of exercise I had. {The weighing has given me important feedback on my progress. I have learned to use the average weight shown by multiple scales rather than just one. ]

5. I will make a public statement about my goal and plans. Here that is! Perhaps individuals who become aware of my goal will help me. {Knowing that I have to disclose my progress has motivated me.]

6. I will have a behavior-change pal, who will try to change behavior at the same time as me. The self-chosen goal for my pal is to eat at least four nutritious foods (e.g., blueberries, tomatoes, and carrots) per day. My pal and I will prompt each other to reach our daily behavior goals and praise achievement of the goals. [My pal has asked me several times how I am doing. I ask her also about her change project. Her queries help me feel accountable as a model.]

7. When tempted to eat too much, I will slow my eating, drink water, engage in some competing behavior that does not involve calorie intake, or consult my change pal (similar to members of Alcoholics Anonymous contacting their sponsor). [I have not used these alternative behaviours much. Actually, I had forgot about them. It might be wise for me to read my plan more often!]

8. I will try to avoid feeling hungry often, as the feeling can motivate excessive eating. [I have felt hungry several times over five weeks. The hunger did not lead to exessive eating.]

9. I will interpret hunger as a sign of progress and tell myself how tough I am when I do not respond to hunger by eating snacks or too much food at meal times.[This element has worked well; also, I tell myself that the hunger means I am burning fat.]

10. I will persist, adjusting the plan as needed. [Persistence is crucial. So far, so good.]

11. I will reward myself for making progress in executing my plan and losing weight. I will start with a reward for following the plan for the first week. I will see if I can think of a reward that might help motivate me. [I have not used this method because I cannot think of any special treat that I do not already have. I will try to think of how to celebrate reaching my target weight.]

12. I will post comments here daily (or so) about how I am doing. I thus become publicly accountable for my daily effort level (such as on the TV show “The Biggest Loser”). [This helps greatly.I have followed my program today.]

November 23: Once I reach my target weight the challenge will be keeping unneeded weight off. I plan to continue eating two fewer slices of bread at lunch and avoid overeating at supper. I will change the current eating pattern to allow myself a 4th fruit or a snack every day, rather than once a week. I hope to continue to rack up an average of 90 minutes per day of exercise and to continue to spend most of my work time standing. With this new pattern, I expect my weight to stay steady at the target weight of 77.1 kgs.

November 25: Weigh-ins are the most exciting part of my program. At my weekly weigh-in yesterday, I found that the gym’s electronic scale has ceased working, so I used the average of two hand-manipulation scales. My weight: 77.7 kgs — still 0.6 over the goal. I may need a final additional effort to get me to the goal. I will try eating less for my evening meal, especially less pasta.

November 26: I am persisting. I want to reach the goal weight.

November 30: Persistence paid off! I hit my target weight today. Using the original electronic scale, with a new battery, I weighed 76.1 kgs; on the slide scale I weighed 75.1. I will use the mean of 75.6, which is under my target of 77.1. I don’t think a lost a big amount of weight this past week. I expect I lost some, but the main difference this week was that I had little solid waste inside me. Sorry, if that is too graphic for you. I had a picnic to celebrate (a bitesize Picnic candy bar — the first low-nutrition food I have eaten since I started the program). Now I will strive for weight maintenance.

December 8: My weight today was in the target zone: 76.9 kgs (169 pounds). My belly looks slightly smaller now compared to before I started this project. I have maintained my average of 90 minutes per day of exercise. It helps to live within walking distance of work. Travel can create challenges for a person trying to control his weight. I spent a few days in Sydney last week and one day I ate at least four delicious slices of banana bread offered at a conference and another day I ate pizza. On the positive side, I walked many miles and ran over the Harbour Bridge. I will continue to weigh myself once a week and stay with my weight-maintenance plan.

December 14: I am keeping my maintenance plan going. I liked this article on weight loss:

December 15: My two weight scales were 1.4 kgs apart today. The average put me at 77.1, my target weight. How much exactly I weigh remains a mystery. I will fly to the U.S. soon. Trips can create risks to weight control. Awareness of risk can mitigate risk.

January 5, 2016: I weighed myself at LA Fitness in Phoenix about a week ago, and the scale said 165 pounds (75 kgs). Being away from home for weeks has created challenges for maintenance, but I was able to avoid almost completely high-cal food during the holidays. The only cals I drink are the few in green tea. I walk most places that I go, so I am still burning cals.

January 21: I weighed myself back at my university gym. Weight: 76.8, 0.3 under my goal weight. Not only am I keeping my weight down — I now almost always avoid eating low-nutrition foods loaded with added sugar.

Feb 10: I have switched to weighing myself every fortnight. Last week my weight was 76.2, below the lifetime max I set decades ago. The exercise and careful eating that have helped me lose about 3 kgs and keep that weight off has positive side-effects. My blood sugar and iron are in the normal range; my blood pressure was 108/70 last week, and my resting heart rate was 57.

Feb 19: My weight two day ago was 75 kgs. Weight gain does not seem like a looming problem at present. I seem to have changed my habits for the long run, but new challenges will arise. For instance, I now have a new car for my own use.  That could tempt me to drive more and walk/cycle less.

Apr 25: My weight today: 75.5 kgs. I am where I want to be, at the target weight, with good nutrition and about 10 hours of brisk physical activity a week, along with many more hours per week of standing at my office work station.

June 1: Yesterday I weighed in at 76 kgs (168 pounds), still below my set maximum weight. I had a big workout in the gym, with cardio and resistance training. Later I walked home fast, taking about 35 minutes. To keep my workouts interesting, I try to go up in weights or reps or I include new lifts. This time I enjoyed doing a new activity for me: machine-assisted chin-ups. Next time I will try squats with barbells. I am careful about what I add because I want to avoid injuries or strains.  I have been unusually hungry lately, possibly because of the cold weather — my body might want to add blubber to keep me warm or I may need more calories to keep my body adequately heated. So I eat more nowadays, but I continue to avoid non-nutritious foods.

July 24: In the past few weeks I exceeded my max-set weight, possibly because I feel more hungry in the winter (my body wants to add blubber to keep me warm). So I reduced the number of fruit I eat each day to 5. A few days ago I weighed in at 77.35. The goal remains 77.1. I will cut out one snack a week also.

Aug 28: I just finished a month traveling around Asia and Europe. I estimate that I consumed a daily average of at least 500 calories less than average during the trip. I had plenty of exercise walking, but I did no weight training. My weight upon return: 75.5 kg. I lost 1.8 kgs during the trip. I am below the maximum weight of 77.1 I set decades ago. Some of the weight I lost was fat — I can perceive a flatter belly. Some likely was upper-body muscle. I will return to weekly workouts in the gym in the hope of gaining that muscle back.

Dec 14, 2016: I faced a major challenge recently when I went on a 10-day cruise through the South Pacific. The ship I went on offered all-you-can-eat food all day long. Much of the food I ate was delicious. My favorites were bananas and banana bread (well, I am a primate!). I regulated my eating by aiming to match my usual eating patterns with regard to number of calories consumed at each meal, no snacks between meals, no calories consumed in drinks, and limited desserts. To replace my walking to work, I walked up seven flights of stairs repeatedly each day to get to food and entertainment. I usually walked up the stairs two steps at a time. Also, I worked out every other day in the gym, which offered good equipment and a view from the top of the ship. I weighed myself when I returned home on the usual two scales at the university gym. Weight: 66.8 kgs; that is 0.3 kgs under the lifetime max I set decades ago.

Jan 15, 2017: I weigh myself every month or so to see how I am doing. Today, my weight was 66.8 kgs, 0.3 under my target maximum weight. So I am doing well with regard to long-term maintenance. One thing I have discovered in my project is that weight scales vary in the weight they give. Today the two scales I use were 1.0 kg apart. I always use the average of the two scales. One of my recent dietary goals has been to reduce my intake of fruit. The Australian Government recommends only 2 or 3 servings per day of fruit for an adult, depending on how active the person is. I recently cut down to 3 to 4 servings, not for weight loss but to reduce the amount of sugar I consume. I love fruit, especially bananas, so it is not easy to change my fruit-eating ways.

Feb 22, 2017: Yesterday, I weighed myself on the same two scales as usual. My weight: 66.9 kgs. My weight has been holding about constant in the target zone for over a year, showing that I have been successful so far in maintaining my desired weight loss. I average over 60 minutes a day of exercise or brisk walking. I gradually have moved up in the weights I lift and in the extent of the interval training I do. In the few past months I have decreased my fruit consumption to 3 to 4 per day. I sometimes eat junk food, but not often.

May 8: The cold weather has reduced my frequency of walking to work, so I decided to increase my gym workouts from once to twice a week. At the gym yesterday, the scales showed me at 76.1 kgs, well under my target maximum. I now have been in my target zone for about 1.5 years — the longest I have gone in more than a decade. I give credit to my reducing the amount of bread I eat at lunch and to almost eliminating snacks. Often in the late evening I feel slightly hungry, but I tolerate the hunger, occupy myself with some activity, and then go to bed.

May 31: I thought that I could eat more and stay under my max weight. I was wrong. I weighed in yesterday at 77.5 kgs, 0.4 over the max. I need to eliminate cereal for a few weeks and keep fruit to 4 per day. I would like to return to walking to work, but I fear the cold, dry weather would trigger eczema if I do. I will try to work out twice a week rather than once when I am unable to walk to work.

Aug 24: It took me a few months, but I finally reduced my weight (now 76.3 kgs) to under the maximum I set decades ago (77.1). The key was spending 10 days in Japan (a great country to visit!) and eating mostly tofu. Some days I ate only two meals, usually small ones in the Japanese style. I did not see many overweight Japanese individuals. It also may have helped that I upped my gym workouts from one big workout a week to one big one plus two smaller workouts. I also switched to eating only two slices of toast for breakfast, along with my usual hundreds of peas and a bananas. Long ago, I would eat 10 slices. Then I cut back to 8, then 6. I had been eating 4 slices for many years up until several weeks ago.  In a week or so the weather will be warm enough for me to return to walking or cycling to work. That effort will help me burn calories.

October 13, 2015.     Category: Uncategorized.   18 Comments.

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.   4 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

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

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

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.   5 Comments.

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