Kindness: Doing for Others Has Benefits for Children

Helping hand.
Photo by Mandajuice. Creative Commons.

Whether they’re greeting their grandparents or helping a neighbor cross the street, pre-adolescents who perform acts of kindness may increase their well-being and their popularity, according to a study by researchers at University of California-Riverside and the University of British Columbia. Results appear here in PLOS One.

Kristin Layous, a graduate student in the psychology department at UC-Riverside, discussed the results of the study, which she conducted with S. Katherine Nelson, Eva Oberle, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl. (Lyubomirsky, her advisor, is author of the positive psychology guide The How of Happiness.)

Layous says she and her team knew from previous studies that kindness interventions were linked to greater well-being in adult populations, but they wanted to know if they would also work among pre-adolescents. It seemed a good age to try because tweens “have gained some perspective taking ability and empathy,” she says. “They are able to put themselves into their classmates’ shoes.”

They also decided to see if the students experienced gains in peer acceptance. “There is a perceived popularity, which is more akin to materialism—someone who has money or ‘rules the school’—and there is more sociometric popularity, where 9 out of 10 children in a classroom like this person. We were trying to tap into that second type of popularity [by asking] ‘Do you want to be in school activities with that person?’”

In their study, 9-to-11 year olds in 19 Vancouver classrooms were randomly assigned to either a kindness intervention or a pleasant activity. The kindness group was prompted to perform three acts of kindness each week over a four-week period. The control group was told to visit three different places each week—from the zoo to a grandparent’s house—and track their whereabouts.

Both groups saw similar improvements in well-being (according to self-reported scales), but the kindness group picked up more friends. Students in the kindness group gained an average of 1.5 friends, while control-group participants gained .68.

While the study was not set up to look at the cause of these changes, Layous speculates that they could be partly due to the activities “putting out positive energy into the classroom” and enabling students “to see more positive experiences around them.”

They plan to delve deeper into the data to see how kindness activities changed individuals’ social networks. For example, says Layous, they’d like to know: “Would one person who already has seven friends boost that up to nine? Or did the person who had zero friends get a few more? The ideal would be that it worked for everybody.”

While the “downstream” benefits of prosocial behavior (such as popularity) are interesting to her, Layous says her main focus is on general well-being. For future studies, she says, “My advisor and I are really interested in the conditions under which these activities are effective. Does it work better if they do it once a week or a couple times a week? If they start out at a certain baseline of happiness or if they have a little room for improvement?” Layous also hopes to study the effect of prosocial activities among different age groups, cultures, and life circumstances (such as among those suffering from chronic diseases).

Falsehoods: The Truth About Lying in the Digital Age

“The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs,” by Georges de La Tour. (Late 1620s.)
Wikimedia. PD-Art.

In this recently posted TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock identified three types of lies that he’s been seeing a lot of lately—the colorfully named Butler, Sock Puppet, and Chinese Water Army—but he also challenged the common notion that the Digital Age, with its greater anonymity, generates more deception.

Hancock, who did his share of deceit-tracking as a customs officer for Canada in the mid-1990s and is now an associate professor of cognitive science and communications at Cornell University, acknowledged how much has changed in the way we communicate. “We email, we text, we Skype, we FaceBook … That’s had an impact on deception.”

He gave examples of the Butler, a tiny lie someone tells when they want to spare feelings, protect themselves, or preserve a relationship in an environment where it’s possible for others to connect to us 24 hours a day: “Sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier. My battery was dead. Your battery wasn’t dead … You just didn’t want to respond to that person at that time,” he said.

“These lies are being used to create a buffer like the butler used to do between us and our connections to everybody else. But they’re very special,” he said. “They use the ambiguity that comes from using technology. You don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, or who I’m with.”

Another kind of deception is the Sock Puppet (for an example, read about R.J. Ellory’s fake reviews of his own books on Amazon.) Take the same kind of deception to a larger scale and you get the Chinese Water Army (or its American equivalent, Astroturfing). “We see this especially with product reviews, book reviews—everything from hotels to whether you think that toaster is a good toaster or not,” Hancock said.

But when Hancock and his colleagues looked at people’s ordinary online behaviors, they didn’t find them replete with deception. In one study, Hancock and his colleagues asked participants to document all their communications and lies for a week. They found that people were the most honest on email and the least honest over the phone. They also found greater honesty on Linked In, as opposed to paper resumes, and discovered that users’ FaceBook profiles were actually a pretty accurate reflection of their personalities.

This evidence that online communication is actually fairly honest may have something to do with how, for the first time in human history, so much of our lives are thoroughly documented, Hancock explained. On their own, humans do a poor job of recognizing deceit, but today’s networked communications open us up to greater scrutiny. Hancock went on to discuss how he has developed a computer algorithm (based on language patterns) that can distinguish between real and fake hotel reviews with greater accuracy than people can.

Today’s communication records, with all the truths and falsehoods they contain, are a goldmine for social scientists, he added. “We’re going to learn so much more about human thought and expression—about everything from love to attitudes.”

In addition, they may lead people to be more honest, he believes, as they consider what legacies they want to leave behind. “Because now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.”

Child Development: Does Pretend Play Have Real Benefits?

This is not a dishwasher box. It’s a rocket.

Angeline Lillard, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently talked to the Curiosity Dispensary about her research on pretend play, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. After reviewing more than 150 studies on pretend play, Lillard and her colleagues found little evidence to back up prevailing assumptions about its crucial role in child development. I was a bit disappointed to learn this.  (Not that I ever spent any time as a fifth-grader belting out Abba songs in front of my closet mirror.)  However, Lillard did assure me that pretend play can still be a meaningful part of childhood:

Over the years, I’ve logged a few hours with my kids playing everything from ice-cream truck to animal hospital to schoolhouse.  Some games I’ve enjoyed and some I’ve gritted my teeth through, but I always assumed that pretend play was good for every aspect of a  child’s development—especially cognitive development. What’s been the common wisdom?

The common wisdom is exactly what you say. Just this morning, a newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, sent me a little article. They went around on the street and asked five Australians [what they thought of pretend play], and they were all, “Oh yes, it’s important for social skills, creativity, thinking skills, and problem-solving skills.” Developmental psychologists have been no different in making these claims.

I always accepted this as well. Yet I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable as the calls for pretend play became more and more vehement—partly in reaction against changes going on in pre-schools. Since “No Child Left Behind” [was signed into law in 2001], preschools are looking even more like elementary schools and they’ve started having lessons done in a serious, didactic way, which for three-to-five-year-olds is completely inappropriate. (I even think for six-to-twelve-year-olds it’s inappropriate.)

For really good reasons I have seen people say, “But play helps all these aspects of development” [and schools should make time for it]. But I’ve also known the research was weak. I was also bothered by some people dismissing Montessori education because its curriculum lacks pretend play. Having done some research showing Maria Montessori [and the schools she founded in the early 20thcentury] had good outcomes, I like Montessori; regarding play, Montessori in a sense has it and in another sense does not.

What is the Montessori approach to pretend play?

A lot of people say Montessori is an example of playful learning because it has hands-on activities and children are engaged in doing what they’re interested in. They’re free to interact with their peers. But I remember being told when I was in a Montessori pre-school that I couldn’t play pretend with the broom and mop. The teacher said, “These are not to play pretend with. They are to do real things … to clean up the room.”

In the early 1900s Maria Montessori had toys in her classroom, but what she found was that children preferred doing real activities. They actually eschewed toys in favor of learning to read and learning to write and washing the floor. So she gradually took the pretend play out. That doesn’t mean that children who go to Montessori schools today don’t do pretend play when they’re out of school. But the research on pretend play does not suggest that it is crucial to development.

What did your own research turn up?

First of all, a lot of the findings in support of pretend play are correlational, not experimental.  They just show an association. If children who engage in more social pretend play also do better on tests of social understanding, it may be because social pretend play caused them, but it also could be that children with better social skills and understanding are better at getting other kids to pretend play with them. You can make the same argument with creativity and most other skills that have been examined.

 The second and really big problem is that several studies [in which children were trained to pretend play] were re-done so the    person doing the test after the training did not know whether the children were in a pretend-play group or a control group. When they’ve been blind, we’ve rarely had any results. Peter Smith, in London, has called this the play ethos. We all think pretend play helps, so when the experimenter is doing the post-test knowing which group the children were in, they just change the way they administer the tests, which results in better performance.

In one solid training study, children were engaged in pretend play and an experimenter who didn’t know what group they were in gave them three post-test narratives and asked what they remembered about the stories. Those children did better on a lot of those measures. But that study only had 12 children. So we need to know more. Continue reading

Body Language: “Fake It Til You Become It”

Low-power poses can decrease testosterone and raise cortisol, says researcher Amy Cuddy.
“Young Girl Holding a Letter” (circa 1665), Caspar Netscher-PD

Just try to watch this TED talk by Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy without sitting up straighter.

A few tweaks in body language, argued Cuddy, “could significantly change the way your life unfolds.” In her she recommended that people try “power poses” before entering stressful situations where they feel evaluated by others—whether it’s the high-school lunchroom, a date, or a job interview. The point is not to change how you talk to other people, but how you “talk to yourself,” she said.

In a study with Berkeley professor Dana Carney, Cuddy showed that adopting “power poses” for two minutes changed people’s hormonal levels and behavior. They divided subjects into two groups—those told to engage in expansive, high-power poses (think Wonder Woman, with hands on hips, or someone sitting with their feet up propped on a desk)—and those told to do low-power poses, hunching over and taking up as little space as possible.

Of the subjects who did the high-power poses, 86 percent chose to “gamble” when given the opportunity, compared to 60 percent in the low-power poses group. The high-power group also had a 20 percent increase in testosterone level (the dominance hormone) and a 25 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. In contrast, the low-power pose group experienced a 10 percent decrease in testosterone and a 15 percent increase in cortisol.

“Two minutes lead to these hormonal changes that can configure your brain to be assertive, confident, and comfortable, or really stress-reactive and feeling sort of shut down,” Cuddy said.

Next the researchers brought more people into the lab to do the poses and then go through a stressful five-minute job interview, knowing they were being judged and recorded. Afterward, coders evaluated the videos. With no knowledge of the experiment hypothesis or different conditions, they chose to “hire” the people who had practiced the high-power poses over those from the low-power group.

The power-pose research was partly inspired by Cuddy’s own experiences as a student and professor. When Cuddy was 19, she suffered a serious head injury in a car accident. Though she was not expected to finish college, she pressed on and eventually went to graduate school. But when she got there, she felt like a fraud. An advisor urged her to keep going: to “fake it.”

Years later, she found herself giving a struggling student that same advice. “I told her, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to fake it. You’re going to make yourself powerful. You’re going to go into the classroom and you’re going to give the best comment.’ And she gave the best comment ever … ” Months later, when the student came back to see her, Cuddy was amazed by how much she’d internalized this new, confident persona, and actually changed.

“I want to say to you: Don’t fake it til you make it,” she told her TED audience. “Fake it til you become it.”

Birdsong: Can robins’ cheeriups cheer us up?

American Robin, Stevens Creek County Park, CA
Copyright 2011 William Walker,

I’m trying to write this post, but I can’t concentrate. I’ve got a few dozen other things on my mind. So I walk outside. I stand under a magnolia tree in my yard, and I listen. That’s because I’ve just been Skyping with Eleanor Ratcliffe, a Ph.D. student at the University of Surrey. She’s researching the effects of birdsong on people’s well being.

“Ever since I started studying psychology, I’ve been interested in the relationships between people and the environment,” Ratcliffe says. “We know about how nature can help people who are mentally fatigued or distressed recover their attention and feel less stressed and positive, but most of that evidence comes from visual pictures. You put people in front of a screen and show them rolling hills. But there’s been little focus on other modalities of nature.”

To help fill this gap in the research, Ratcliffe is conducting a three-year study to see if the sounds of robin cheeriups or pigeon coos might benefit humans. National Trust, a charity that works to protect green spaces and historic sites in the United Kingdom, and Surrey Wildlife Trust, are partners. Continue reading

Ads: You may think you’re paying attention, but your body says otherwise

Zheng Wang, Ohio State University assistant professor of communication, demonstrates how she tested people’s physiological responses to campaign ads. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons.

A few months ago my husband and I decided to give away our only TV—a space-hogging, dust-topped analog set that we hadn’t bothered to convert for digital programming. No, I’m not a hermit. The distraction of television just doesn’t fit into our lives at this moment, and I can’t say that I miss sitting through the latest parade of political commercials.

But as irksome as I find some campaign ads to be, many political scientists and communications researchers are interested in them as perhaps “the only way to force people to be exposed to some kind of different opinion” in a polarized political environment, says Zheng Joyce Wang. (It’s a common claim, for example, that conservative voters flock to Fox News, while liberals favor MSNBC.)

Wang, assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University, wanted to know how much attention viewers were actually paying to those ads. As a classroom lecturer, for example, she knows that students might seem to stare at her thoughtfully while their minds wander back to last weekend’s party. “It’s important to take a look at what we call the black box—what’s really inside people’s minds.”

To do so, Wang used electrodes to monitor the physiological responses (heart rate, sweating, and facial-muscle movements) of 15 students while they watched a dozen thirty-second advertisements for Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Continue reading