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Mindful eating

Are you reading this as you eat?  If so, how much are you enjoying your food?

I’m returning home from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) convention and one of the talks, by Colorado’s Joanna Arch, was on mindfulness and eating.  She has had people eat just one of something (in two studies a raisin, in the third a chocolate chip), five times, with two or three minute breaks in between.  During the breaks subjects search for words in a jumble. Some are given mindfulness instructions (like the raisin exercise for those who know it). Others are given no instructions or instructions to keep working in the word search as they eat.  The mindfulness exercise leads to more enjoyment of the food.  In the third study subjects could then eat as much as they wanted of six foods (pretzels, M & M’s, potato chips, carrot sticks..I’ve forgotten the others), as a “thanks” since they had fasted for three hours.  Those who had eaten mindfully now ate less of the salty, sugary, and high-fat foods, but just as much of the “healthy” (e.g., carrot sticks) food.  So mindfulness both increased enjoyment of tasty food and reduced the amount of eating.

Perhaps slowing down as we eat will help us to enjoy the food before us and, despite this increased enjoyment, eat less of it.

I imagine the “eating less” could happen in various ways….perhaps there’s less of a need after mindfulness. Perhaps there is more intentionality. Perhaps some of the not eating is aversive. (“I love this food, but it’s scary, and I’m paying attention now, so I realize it’s scary.”) So there’s more more work to be done.  But the increased enjoyment seems consistent and reasonable.  And I very much like the idea that attention to that which we have before us will help us feel sated and content, and lead us to chase most after that which we really need in the moment rather than consuming without even knowing it.

belief in free will, gratitude and trust

If those who give you things do not have free will why be grateful to them?  In a piece published in November’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, MacKenzie, Vohs, and Baumeister addressed this question with several studies, including three experiments.  For instance, in one study some subjects read a modified passage from Crick, including “Everything people are and do is the product of simple, physical processes in their brain.” and “There is no need for the existence of free will to explain how we behave.”  Others read a piece in favor of free will, such as “Everything people are and do is mostly a product of the decisions they make and their free will.”  Afterwards they were told they would have to do a really, really tedious task. But then they found out they would not have to.  Those who had read the Crick beforehand were less grateful for being relieved of this obligation.  In another study with this same manipulation those who read the Crick reported they would be less grateful to a hypothetical stranger who gave them change when they did not have enough money.  This seems to be due to a reduction in the belief that the benefactor has free will and so a reduction in the belief that the motivations of the benefactor are sincere.

Reducing ourselves to our brains seems to reduce the inclination to be grateful. (I wish I’d known of these studies when I wrote my chapter with Courtney Forbes!)

Meanwhile in a paper in October’s Psychological Science, Twenge, Campbell, and Carter examined responses to the General Social Survey from 1972 to the present.  They focused on the degree to which people think others can be trusted. Sadly the years with the most trust were 1972-1992.  Every year since there has been less trust than that first 21 years, with the lowest trust in 2006.  This decline is not due to birth cohort, but older people do tend to trust others more than younger.

I wonder if these two findings are related.  The reflexive use of “the brain” to explain behavior seems to me to be on the rise, though I don’t have good data. (Someone needs to do some content analyses of explanations to see if this is so!) More and more I find myself needing to explain to students how it can be that I can teach a full semester of introductory psychology without relying on any real discussion of the brain.  (There have been wonderful advances in neuroscience. Those are discussed in other courses.) Have we created, here in America, a culture in which people turn naturally to the idea that what they do is caused by their brains?  A place where the solutions to life’s problems is found in creative pharmacology? By emphasizing neuroscience have we made people less inclined to turn to the idea of free will?

And if so, does that turn from the idea of free will diminish social capital such as trust?  Given the importance of gratitude for social relationships, has the loss of a sense of free will eroded not only trust but the gratitude that leads people, in Sara Algoe’s words, to “find, bind, and remind,” that is, to identify, tie ourselves to, and remember those who are trustworthy relationship partners?

I don’t know the answer to these last questions, though I suspect in each case it is “yes.”  If so, how can we foster a culture that emphasizes multiple levels of causality?  One that can simultaneously marvel at advances in understanding of the brain and think of those factors that act upon the brain as also of causal importance.  Including our freely made choices.

What did I draw from my undergraduate classes?

This isn’t a psychology post.  It’s about being a professor.

One of my favorite courses as an undergrad was Science Fiction, taught by the late Professor Frank McConnell.  One of our required readings was Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I just finished rereading a couple nights ago.  As an undergrad I knew I was supposed to value this book, so I sort of did, and certainly said I did.  And I remember bits and pieces of the book from my first read.  It had some impact even then.  But I took so, so much more from my reading this time than I did back those decades ago when I first took the course.

My first class meeting of the year is just over 48 hours away, and I’m wondering what my experience with Professor McConnell has to say to my own efforts as a professor.  Perhaps one useful distinction is between teaching my students knowledge of psychology and planting the seeds of love of learning, of love of psychology, of love of the life of the mind.  Day after day I’ll try to get students to understand detail.  And I’ll evaluate their work in large part based on their ability to master that detail.  These details will fade from their memories.  I remember very few details from my time as an undergrad, and I don’t see why my students will be different.  As a student it’s easy to understand this and to wonder about the point of it all.  Why learn detail that will be forgotten?  And in that state of mind I think being a student is very hard, very easily filled with a sense of pointlessness.

But here I am decades later, remembering that course.  Professor McConnell loved this book.  He loved the way it was crafted.  He loved the language. He manifested that love in his presentation of detail.  I can still recall him reading aloud the last paragraph of Leibowitz.  I didn’t really get what he loved, but I got that he loved.  On one level the details were the substance of the class.  But in important ways those details might be better thought of as seeds, planting love of reading fiction.  He scattered many seeds.  He tested, as I recall, on grasp of those seeds.  Most of those seeds probably did not fall on fertile ground when they found me, but a few did, and in important ways that was enough.  His love of the material, manifest in these seeds, made me want to read more attentively.  I came to understand that there was more in the books I read than I had known, even as I was unaware of what that “more” was.

When I evaluated this course I certainly didn’t know that I would still be thinking of it decades later.  I am confident my recent delighted reread of Leibowitz did not factor into Northwestern’s evaluations of whether Professor McConnell was a good teacher! At the end of the semester I don’t know how he could have discerned that I would reread this book.  Perhaps he could not even have discerned my increased love of fiction.  But I wonder if that’s what he would have wished to assess. What did he want to accomplish as a professor?  That I remember particular details of particular books and have the ability to think meaningfully about those details?  Or that I carry forward a love of looking at and thinking about new details in new (and old!) books?

I can’t speak for him, but I know for myself that I want the latter, or the equivalent of it, for my students.  I have no way to assess that directly.  (Well I could come back decades from now to see what their lives are like, but that seems a bit daunting.)  And so I have to live with the fact that at the end of this term I won’t know if I’ve done a good job, and I probably never will.  The only option I can think of is to shrink my goals to something much smaller, something I can know about at the end of the term.  But in shrinking the goal what would be lost?

What’s the purpose of higher education? I’m going to quote from Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What it was, is, and should be. “About a hundred years ago, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, John Alexander Smith, got to the nub of the matter.  “Gentlemen,” he said to the incoming class (the students were all men it those days), “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life–save only this–that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”  Americans prefer a two-syllable synonym, bullshit, for the one-syllable Anglicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter.  It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.”

I think this is what I took from Professor McConnell’s course.  Perhaps it is better expressed in a slightly different way.  I draw this quote, too, from Delbanco’s book. “,,,I once heard my colleague Judith Shapiro, former provost of Bryn Mawr and then president of Barnard, make [the following comment] to a group of young people about what they should expect from college: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.””

The trend in higher education is to reductionism, to measuring detail, to review progress toward narrowly defined learning outcomes.  And those surely matter, but I suspect they only matter insofar as they are tied to something larger, and the attention to detail, to learning objectives, can draw attention from that which is more important.  Mon ami, Professor McConnell helped me make the inside of my head an interesting place to be,  May I keep my eyes on this prize as I teach this term.

A sidenote–Science Fiction has 600 students when I took it.  There’s a trend in higher ed away from the lecture, and surely there are virtues to other forms of education.  But my life would be so much poorer absent this particular lecture course, and so I hope they always retain a space in higher ed.  If you’re interested in learning more about Professor McConnell, here’s a remembrance of him.  A good quote: “There he wrote as he spoke–in a voice that combined the stand-up comic and the smart friend who just wanted you to like what he liked.”



old post: Be kind to your webfooted friends…and yourself!

I have been copying posts from my old blog site.  This is the last I will copy over, from 2012.  Copying into WordPress is not easy and so there will be formatting issues, I am sure.  Thanks for bearing with.

What's your greatest weakness, that thing or action about which you most feel shame, guilt, or other badness?  Now...can you speak to yourself about it with compassion?  If so, what are you then inclined to do? 
This morning, I read a beautiful set of four studies by Berkeley's Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  The common thread was to have people think about a weakness or an action that they had done and found, well, shameful. They then asked people to express compassion and kindness to themselves.  The control groups were terrific.  One was a standard "do nothing" control. The other typically involved thinking of a strength or something participants were proud of.  Seems like a natural thing for us to do when we've messed up--think of something else, something good about us to make us feel better. 
Afterwards, those who had been compassionate toward themselves were more inclined to self-improvement than were those who had thought about something that made them proud, or who had done nothing.  In the first study, self-compassion bolstered the belief that the weakness about which people had written was changeable.  In the second, the compassionate wanted more to make reparations to the person they had harmed and avoid doing the harm again.  In the third, they studied more before taking a follow-up test on which they had initially done badly.  In the last, they were more likely to want information about someone else who had had their own weakness, but had overcome it (vs. someone else who simply had the same weakness). 
We live in a culture that seems to value perfection, so it is so tempting to serve up the illusion of perfection.  But we are creatures of light and darkness...we often do that which we would not. And if we are to be perfect in the sense of complete, then surely acknowledging, with kindness, that from which we are tempted to run is necessary.  How else can we make the most of the gifts which we have been given?

old post: Facing into the waves–about a mentor and career changes

from November 2012

Professors often have jobs for life, but we teach people who change their careers quite often. I don't have career change stories I can tell about myself, but I do have one to tell about my friend and mentor Antonette (Toni) Zeiss. I heard Toni speak this past weekend at the annual convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. I'm going to write a bit about her, then a bit about my experiences with her. Hopefully if she stumbles across this blog, she'll appreciate the telling! 
Out of graduate school, Toni landed a tenure line job at Arizona State, then left it for a one year spot at Stanford.  She was a native of Santa Cruz and she and her husband Bob decided that they wanted to return home, so they did, hoping that one or the other would land a job that would last. And they did. They both eventually took positions with the Palo Alto VA, a very different spot than a tenure line position at a major research university!  Toni became expert at gerontology. 
But that wasn't the last of Toni's career changes.  Within the VA, she developed new interests. She took on interdisciplinary team training--the idea that care for someone might work best if people with different expertise could work together as a team to provide that care.  And she later became expert at the training of young clinical psychologists when she headed up direction of interns at the Palo Alto VA. 
Finally, Toni was called to the VA in DC where "she became the first psychologist, the first woman and the first  nonphysician to head the department's mental health policy office," head of an organization with a $6 billion budget and 20,000 employees (per this piece: <a href=""></a>. This has been a terribly important job in recent years. Toni got there in 2004. The VA had shrunk from having around 1900 psychologists in the '90's to just 1400 in 2003.  It's grown to 4200 today. Well over a million vets seek psychological services in the VA in a given year. We're trained as psychologists to do research, sometimes also to do clinical work.  And yet Toni became an administrator deeply involved in policy making.And that policy making is critical for the mental health of so many.  For instance, as a psychologist, she brings a voice at the policy table for nonpharmacological treatments for the vets.  What treatment people get depends so much on who is there in the administration. 
Toni's career has been one of changes. 
Part of this story is the *that* of Toni's job changes. She could not have predicted where she landed.  Neither she nor I thought of the VA job when I knew her in my grad school days, but there she is. 
Part of this story is the *how* of Toni's job changes. In her talk, Toni spoke mostly about the VA, but also some about her career. She mentioned three lessons she had learned from her mother, and one was to do what you love.  And that's what drew Toni to psychology, then to the Stanford job, then the VA, then training, then policy.  Love is a bit mysterious--hard to know where it will lead in the end, but something you can at least follow and trust. (I now have Linda Ronstadt in my head singing "Love is a Rose..."  Maybe that analogy will help.) Having grown up near the ocean, Toni also told of her mother warning her to face into the waves rather than running from them.  And so she looked into that wave of change in the VA, and came to serve it most admirably. 
Part of this story is the set of *constants* in Toni's job changes. Sonja Batten, also a psychologist at the VA, gave a lovely intro to Toni's talk, thanking Toni as a mentor for the kindness and grace Toni displayed in challenging circumstances. And for demonstrating the importance of believing in the best in others.  In leadership, whether it is the leadership of teaching, of training, or of leading a bureaucracy these strike me as central.  Kindness and grace make others want to join the enterprise, and it leads them to model kindness and grace and bring in still more.  Belief in the best of others keeps the focus on what you can do together, rather than on self-protection. And I suspect it draws out the best in others. 
My first memory of Toni is at a lunch that David Rosenhan held for her at the faculty club at Stanford, in my first year of graduate  school, her one year on the faculty there.  I was pretty lost at the time--I had only taken my first psychology course two years before and had such a limited sense of the field or even why I was in grad school. I had (largely by a quirk of chance!) done depression research as an undergraduate. Toni did  depression research, and I was just drawn to her for reasons I probably  couldn't name.  And so I asked if I could do some research with her and she  became one of the most important of my mentors. 
Partly I remember her patience with my struggling through ideas.  In my first year in graduate school, they weren't particularly good ideas, but her patience let me at least develop them, rather than seeing them as static.  This put me in a spot from which I could listen better my second year of grad school when I was fortunate enough to take a course from Albert Bandura, at which time I started to build a few somewhat ok ideas. 
Partly I remember her trust in me when I was a grad student.  There was the trust that I would figure things out.  But also I housesat for Toni and Bob sometimes when they travelled, and that was such a treat as a break from my grad student digs.  Given the trust, I think I learned a bit to trust myself. 
Partly I remember her graciousness.  Toni always made me feel welcome. And generally I'd laugh in our meetings. Work was invitation rather than command. 
We've stayed in touch over the years.  Some of our students from AU ended up out at the Palo Alto VA.  Toni would sometimes come to Washington, then came to stay these past years.  And throughout Toni has been a model of doing what she loved, and of playing nice, and of facing into the waves. Those habits stand one well whereever you go, even if the temptation is too often to do only that which happens to be in front of you, to play for oneself, and to run from the waves.  And perhaps that the story to tell to students who will often change their jobs.

old post: Am I a consumer or am I something else?

from 2012

It's the new television season and an opportunity to watch many commercials! Those television shows exist primarily because they can sell products, they can make people consumers. Is there any unintended consequence of this emphasis on consumerism?
Think about what you might do with your time. Among the possibilities (e. g., watching my Cardinals march on to the World Series, doing laundry, looking for the bugs the CIA has planted.) are that we might consume, take things in for ourselves. Or we might build social relationships. Might the consumerism that drives so much of our experience affect our choices? 
A set of studies by Monika Bauer, James Wilkie, Jung Kim, and Galen Bodenhausen published in May's Psychological Science  gives us a partial answer. Across four studies, priming people with consumerism reduced their tendency to want to associate with others, except in competition. 
For instance, in the first study people were assigned to rate the pleasantness of either consumer goods (e.g., electronics, cars, or neutral images. Afterwards those who had rated consumer goods were higher in depressive and anxious affect. They also wanted to spend less time in social activities (e.g., being part of a student group or going to parties). 
In another study, participants were given sets of five words and needed to construct a sentence using four of them. For half the subjects, some of the sets included consumerist words (e.g.,buy, asset). For the other half of subjects they did not. Those with the consumerist words subsequently said more that competition was important (e.g.,  Doing better than others gives me a sense of self-respect.) They also said they would be less willing to volunteer for a good cause. 
Finally, in one study participants read of a water crisis involving four people using a well. (Lassie, go find help for Timmy. Ooops. Wrong story.) Sometimes the people were referred to as consumers, others as individuals  Consumer or Individual, for instance). When they had been called participants felt less responsibility for dealing with the crisis. 
Might the consumerism that drives so much of our experience affect our choices?
This is one of a series of studies that has highlighted the problems arising from thinking of money, material goods, and the like. There's good evidence that depression and narcissism have been on the rise in the US in recent decades. Is part of that rise attributable to our focus on being consumers rather than, say, friends, servants, citizens? One of my pet peeves is to hear those working at universities refer to students as customers. They are students, and it likely makes a difference that we construe each other as members of a community, each with distinct roles, rather than some people trying to sell something to others. 

old post: More than what is dreamt of in our philosophy–Snowquester goes bust

From 2013

I woke up Wednesday morning looking forward to the view from my window, anticipating an expanse of whiteness for the first time in over two years. Most local weather forecasters had predicted that DC would get 5-10 inches, with the first couple before I would wake up. Alas, the view was of pavement with grass poking up through what little snow there was. And so it remained through the day.
What happened was largely about psychology, and about one of my favorite problems, grappling with uncertainty.
As the linked piece suggests, the forecasters have a really, really hard time knowing where the temperature will switch from being cold enough for snow to cold enough only for really cold rain. But they can't really admit to it in public! The best forecast they could have made?"The best forecast for Snowquester was one we could not issue with a  straight face, and one most Washingtonians would have ridiculed: Rain,  sleet, and/or snow likely--heavy at times--with snow accumulations of   0-14 inches. In other words...."we know with really high certainty that it will be very, very wet.  But we don't know what form it will take." 
The forecasters knew that there was uncertainty "But," per the Capital Weather Gang, " we watered down some of this uncertainty information the day before the storm--a major communication error. Our headlines and lead paragraphs, for example, overstated our own confidence in snow materializing."
Why would forecasters water down uncertainty? My guess is because the people who pay the bills want certainty. Would you go to their website if they predicted 0 to 14 inches of snow?
That, in turn, begs the question--why do we demand certainty of the forecasters even when it's beyond their ability? Why don't we like forecasts that say "I only know a bit. Beyond that space, there are dragons"  (OK. I would like hearing about dragons. But you get the idea.)
The problem can be explained at many levels. I suspect Eddie Harmon-Jones would argue that uncertainty leaves us frozen (pun intended). The thought it might snow makes us want to hole up at home with warm beverages preparing to watch. The thought it might just be freezing rain makes us want to brave it to get to work to sit in the beautiful Asbury building till the ark is no longer needed. So which will I do?Perhaps neither very well, committed to neither. Certainty got me to commit to working at home yesterday. Sometimes commitment is what matters, and that to which we commit is less crucial. 
That's probably part of the picture. But I wonder how much is due to the stories we tell each other hear in the States. When we speak to our co-workers do we tell them that we might or might not be able to make something work. The phrase "Yes we can" rings in a way that "Mabye we can, but maybe not. We'll see" does not. Doctors are supposed to have sure cures, not questions. Students are expected to boldly tell their elders and friends where they will go to college, what they will study, and what great career will follow from this.  Has this always been the case?  Was "I don't know" more tolerable as a career path once upon a time? 
"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Maybe accepting that uncertainty we'll find our father's ghost (though then I'd suggest avoiding fencing matches). And maybe we'll go to bed wondering whether there will be snow on the ground in the morning rather than being sure of it.

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