Love 2.0: It’s All in the Micro-Moments, Says Scientist

At the grocery store last night, I came across three young men in the card aisle picking out valentines for their partners. They were mocking the selections. But behind the snarky comments, I smelled panic: Which of the $3.50 sentiments lined up before them—drippy, steamy, cheesy, or downright Elizabethan—would lock in the love that they (and we all) crave? Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the biological effects of positive emotions, would have us adopt a healthier attitude toward Valentine’s Day and love in general. I spoke to her earlier about her new book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Hudson Street/Penguin).

“I think that this new perspective on love will help us cut through the parts of Valentine’s Day that seem kind of difficult and forced and focus on what love really is,” she says. It’s a myth that love is “a lightning bolt that hits you one day and forever you’re in that state.” Rather, love is made of “micro-moments of shared connection,” or what she refers to as “positivity resonance.” And rather than being exclusive to a romantic partner, she points out, these moments can be experienced with all kinds of people in our lives, from our neighbors to the coworker in the next cubicle. (No jokes about The Office, please.)

Some of Fredrickson’s ideas on love and interconnectedness would nestle nicely into long-established religious traditions, and she cites various teachings in her book. But with colleagues in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, Fredrickson goes on to measure the physical benefits of these shared micro-moments, which she likens to nutrients for the body.

In one study, published in Psychological Science and described here in The Economist, researchers taught volunteers meditation skills to help them generate more moments of positive connection. “When they do that, they experience more of them and objective [health] markers like cardiac vagal tone improve,” Fredrickson says. Now her lab is looking at gene expression and how positive connections can change the body at the cellular level to help fight disease. (See the lab’s publications page for links to more studies.)

If love is so good for us, I wondered, why do we often miss these moments of connection? Fredrickson cites our reliance on technology. These micro-moments start with trust and a real-time sensory connection. (You can’t make eye-contact when you’re texting someone.) “The other reason is time pressure,” she says. While she’s talking on the phone with me, she admits to packing her bag to get ready for work. “Having that frenetic pace of today’s contemporary society really gets in the way of slowing down enough to connect with what we could be feeling with another. It’s a casualty of our contemporary world pace. We’re racing around at the speed of the mind when it’s like we need to feel these things at the slower speed of the heart.”

To give an example of what the pace of love looks like, Fredrickson described a recent conversation with a friend who’s dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “And I was just encouraging her to slow down and take care of herself, and we were connecting over the understanding of what each other was going through—me trying to offer support and her receiving it. It was a meaningful emotional connection.”

In another example, she described a woman whose disappointments made her cynical about romantic love. “The next week she wrote me to thank me for my ideas, [saying] ‘They really freed me somehow.’” By changing her expectations about what love was, Fredrickson says, “She was able to connect with people in her everyday life.”

That’s not to leave romantic relationships out of the picture entirely. According to Fredrickson, “We all know we shouldn’t take our loving relationships for granted. We should be attending to them and trying to make our partners feel valued and cherished,” she says. “These micromoments of shared positivity [are also] the building blocks of a strong resilient marriage.”

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