Monthly Archives: November 2010

Believe what you’re selling and people might actually buy it

During this all-too-short Thanksgiving break, I was reminded of the importance of believing in what you are selling.  This job is especially important for us as educators.  This needed reminder came over a hilarious conversation about MACs vs. PCs…

Over a delicious Thanksgiving meal, my family and I laughed about my mother’s new love for MAC products.  You see, my father has always detested Apple products, stating that they are overpriced and too closed-market.  He is a computer engineer, and as such, he wants more hardware for his buck.  However, recently my mother got an iPhone 4.  Immediately she was sold on all things Apple.  Like a fine mate courting her, her iPhone lured her into a deeper relationship with all things MAC.  Not surprisingly, she is now a proud owner of a MAC computer, much to the dismay of my father.

While I was home over the holidays, I had my boyfriend show her and my father all the ins and outs of a MAC.  You see, my boyfriend is one of the evangelical followers of MAC – proselytizing his beliefs to all who give him a moment of their time.  You know these people.  They proudly claim how they have “come to see the light” and would never go back to a dark, PC world.  It is if MAC is the savior they have come to find, and they hope they can save everyone around them.  The PC, of course, would the the devil in this scenario.  It sets out to make your life complicated and unenjoyable.

We laughed about his obsession with MACs, and I asked him to give me the sales pitch he would give customers at the MAC store he worked at so long ago.  I chuckled, amused at his passionate selling of the MAC.  You see, for him, owning a MAC would not only improve your ability to use the machine.  Oh no – it would bring your family together, as he gave accounts of his family having Christmas over iChat (simultaneously in California, Washington, Illinois, and Japan).  But he wasn’t lying.  This has happened many times, allowing his family to communicate on a daily basis.  (Apparently, before Skype and other tools, MACs were the only computers that had such wonderful video chatting abilities.)  As we wrapped up the conversation, he said something along the lines of, “You see – I believe in the product so I just tell them how great it’s been for me.”

“I believe in the product.”  This has me wondering, “How much do we, as educators, believe in the product we are selling?”  I mean really, passionately believe that providing a valuable education is worth every ounce of our time.  Do we believe that it not only gets us jobs we want, but it changes us as people, thinkers, and contributors to our community?  In addition, do I as a researcher really believe in what I’m selling?  Does the research I’m doing HAVE to be heard by all to help inform us about the relationship between religiosity and prejudice?  Sometimes I think we get so caught up in the “sales pitch,” that we forget the most effective way to sell a product is to tell your buyer truly how much you believe in it.

Just think how our classrooms would change if we let students see how obsessed we are with learning.  Imagine how much easier it would be to write journal articles if you really believed in what you were selling.  Focus on your experience of the product, not on selling it to others.  THEN, and only then, will they really want to buy it.  So, as the semester winds down (or rather up) to a close, I am reminded of the products I sell.  Education and knowledge.  Those are products I believe can change lives.  Now I just need to go out and sell them.


My get to do list

As the semester closes in on me, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of things that have to get done in about the next three weeks.  I’m sure anyone in academia is feeling the exact same way right now.  As I’m finishing final projects for my own classes, studying for final exams, finishing up homework assignments, grading students’ work and preparing for the final exam grading rush, I’m overwhelmed.  In the middle of this sea of work, I’ve also been hit with a load of manuscript revisions that all seemed to flow back to me at about the same time.  Crazy how that happens.  So in an effort to manage the heavy workload that we are all experiencing, I decided that I need to reframe my thinking.  If my field (experimental psychology) has taught me anything, it’s the way you cognitively frame things in your mind makes a difference.  And I’m determined to be positively affected by my work.

Enter the “get to do” list.

That’s right.  I transformed the traditional “to do” list into a “get to do” list.  I know that it sounds ridiculous and oh so cheesy (and it is), but it’s effective.

I cannot take credit for this idea, myself, however.  I blame my students.  Recently in class we have been talking about the importance of education and the issue that poverty poses in blocking people from reaching their full potential, especially through a lack of education.  And so, I have heralded a new form of approaching one’s education in my classroom!  We now approach education not as some dismal feat of work that must be completed and conquered but rather as a joyous adventure that is to be enjoyed and loved.

As are many things in teaching, I end up convincing myself of something I may not have fully thought about or realized before until I’m preaching about it.  It’s crazy how this works.  You find yourself at the front of the classroom, preaching to your students, until you realize: “Wait, that is true.  Why have I never fully lived this way before?”  I blame (rather thank) my students for playing the crucial roles they play in changing and shaping me as a scholar.

And so today is day one for me of checking things off of my get to do list.  I get to read and enjoy my students’ papers and blogs, I get to be a part of writing up and publishing research in my field, I get to present my research to my colleagues and propose new ideas for research.  The list goes on and on.  But I have to admit, as a person addicted to checking things off of my list, this new approach changes the whole game.  Instead of seeing each bullet as a task to conquer and finish as quickly as possible, I am beginning to see each bullet as an opportunity to savor and enjoy.  I hope, in the end, it makes me better at what I do.  For it is with great passion and hunger that the greatest products are born.  So what’s on your get to do list?

Irrational fear never led to anywhere good

Fear.  It seems to plague most humans at every turn.  So the question I ask myself is, “Is all this fear doing us any good?”  Immediately, I want my answer to be a resounding, “No!”  But then I think, “Why are humans always in constant fear of everything?”  We fear getting a job.  If we have it, we fear losing it.  We fear finding a mate.  If we get one, we fear losing that mate.  We fear not having enough money or enough friends or about if that favorite Chinese food restaurant we love so much is really closed today because I want dumplings.  We fear not being good enough, and if we are good enough, we fear being an imposter.  The bottom line is that most of us fear an incredible amount of things on a daily basis, most of which is entirely irrational fear.  So where did all this fear come from?

Ordinarily, humans do not just create something out of nothing. We must have an innate ability to have certain emotions, cognitions, etc. for advantageous reasons.  There must be some reason we behave the way we do.  The problem is when these responses become maladaptive instead of adaptive.  That is when the real problem strikes.  Fear itself is an evolutionarily adaptive response when it’s appropriate.  For instance, if there’s a lion around, I should probably fear it so that I’ll take the appropriate pre-cautions not to get eaten.  In other words, fear makes me run the hell away from the lion, and that’s good.  Perhaps more relevant to our modern lives is the following scenario: I should fear creepy men (or women) walking in dark allies, especially if they have a weapon in hand.  You get the point.

So rational fear is a very adaptive response, but irrational fear is not.  It brings will it all sorts of anxiety, poor performance, cognitive impairment, and negative health consequences associated with all this anxiety.  Research Robert Sapolsky does a whole line of research focusing on why the high levels of stress humans experience has negative health outcomes.  For instance, when I start to worry too much about what I’m going to eat or who likes me or if I’ll keep my job, then I become paralyzed.  Instead of focusing on what is existent and where I could be going, I focus on what could happen and all of the negative consequences that could fall thereafter.  The amazing thing is that when we slow down enough to confront our fear and say “no” to it, doors start to open.

This is especially true with my teaching.  For instance, recently my class has not been gelling so well, so I had started to fear coming into it.  What will they say?  Will people be engaged?  How will I change this?  Instead of focusing on what still could be – a good class – I was focusing on all my fears about what might be.  In that state, I was allowing all of my fears to come true without even realizing it.  So today, I walked in and decided that I would just be in my classroom – moment by moment – not fearing where it had been or where it was going.  As I did this, I became more and more interested in what my students had to say.  At one point, I asked a question and a student responded with, “Well, according to our author, the answer would be yes.”  And without thinking I responded, “Well, what do YOU think?”  Without realizing it, I had become caught up in hearing all of my students’ voices rather than fearing that I wasn’t covering all the points of the lecture for the day or wasn’t asking the right questions.  And in that fear-free moment, the class blossomed.   People who haven’t been talking for weeks started to raise hands and give their points of view.  It was beautiful.

And then it happened.  After a brief moment of enjoying that class, I let fear creep back in.  I then feared that the next class wouldn’t be as great.  And then I stopped myself.  In realizing how maladaptive my fear had become, I decided to let it go.  This example only illustrates the multitude of fears I face on daily basis.  I feel we are left with a society-wide problem: the problem of irrational fear.  How did we get here and how do we get out?

The science of success and maybe prejudice?

As a graduate student slowly approaching the end of my graduate career, I am often interested in answering the questions, “What gets people a job?”  and “What helps improve success?”  Of course, we all know that a great CV is one of the biggest components of getting an academic job or at least your foot in the door.  But other, more social components may factor in as well.

Research by Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy demonstrates that both how warmly we feel toward others and how competent we view them will determine what emotions we feel toward them.  Not surprisingly, viewing someone as both competent and warm leads to the best outcomes and most positive emotion (admiring) while viewing someone as cold and incompetent leads to the most negative emotion (contempt).  So when looking for a job or to climb up the professional ladder of success, it is important to be competent at what you do AND warm toward others.

That’s not all.  The positions one places one’s self in also matter.  Individuals who demonstrate more powerful, dominant body postures (e.g., sitting up straight, raising hand fully, etc.) are more likely to “rise to the top” than those who demonstrate more low-power positions (e.g., crossing one’s legs, leaning in).  Interestingly, Cuddy and colleagues found in a recent Psychological Science article that when men and women were put in high-power poses (vs. low-power poses) for two minutes, they had increases in testosterone levels, decreases in cortisol levels, and were more likely to gamble, a trait (risk-taking) associated with dominant individuals.  Thus, it appears that posing in high-power positions not only makes one appear more dominant to others but changes neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.

Because I’m a prejudice researcher, my mind naturally wonders to the implications this has for prejudice.  Cuddy notes that her research on the warm/cold and competent/incompetent evaluations of others certainly plays a role in how we act towards those we have stereotypes about.  For instance, Cuddy notes that if one feels cold toward an out-group member and views them as incompetent, he or she is more likely to feel contempt toward them.  This emotion of contempt is likely to lead to either “passive harm (neglect, ignoring) or active harm (harassment, violence)” (Craig Lambert, Harvard magazine).

However, I think her recent research on the connection between neuroendocrine levels and power positions also holds implications for prejudice.  While testosterone is known to be a more masculine, dominant hormone, it is also strongly correlated with more aggressive behaviors.  Thus, if a non-minority member (e.g., Caucasian) holds a high-power pose while a minority member (e.g., African American) holds a low-power pose, we should expect, given Cuddy and colleagues’ findings, that the non-minority member would have higher levels of testosterone.  These higher levels of testosterone could, in turn, lead to the non-minority member to engage in more aggressive or active harm behaviors and attitudes than if he or she took a low-power pose.

A person’s likelihood of engaging in these low- or high-power poses could be based on stereotypes held toward that group.  For instance, if Caucasians held the stereotype that they were “superior” to African Americans or held a position of higher rank than African Americans, they may be more likely to take on high-power poses.  These high-power poses could perpetuate the stereotype by increasing testosterone and dominant traits in the Caucasian, causing the Caucasian to be more aggressive or hostile toward the African American.  Obviously, future research is needed to test this idea.

But either way, make sure you are warm, competent, and have high-power poses when on the job market.  It could be the difference between an offer or not.

Does language affect our implicit biases?

Does the language we speak shape our biases?  New research coming out of Banaji’s lab by a graduate student, Oludamini Ogunnaike, seems to say that the answer to that might be “yes.”  They report some interesting findings about how language affects our implicit biases.  Their article, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, demonstrates that bilingual individuals show preference toward groups associated with the language they are being tested in.  For example, in a Moroccan population, Moroccans tested in Arabic showed an implicit preference (using the Implicit Association Test or IAT) for other Moroccan names compared to French names.  When participants took the test in French, this difference disappeared.  In the U.S., bilinguals tested in Spanish (compared to English) showed a greater preference for Hispanic individuals.  These differences disappeared when participants were tested in English.

This research has interesting implications for the study of biases and prejudice (my own area of specialty).  If the same individuals can show such differences in their own attitudes based on what language they are tested in, how much more-so do these differences exist cross-culturally (i.e., people speaking different languages who are monolingual)?  Additionally, one starts to wonder how language particular to a certain group of people (e.g., ethnic, religious, and political groups) might shape biases that prefer or favor one’s own in-group.  In short, how does the way we talk and the language we speak shape our attitudes?  Years of research has demonstrated that using “us” vs. “them” language increases biases, but can speaking just in language relative to one’s own in-group do it as well?  For instance, using religious words like “Spirit,” “Enemy” (to refer to Satan), etc. might increase bias towards non-Christians.  The literature on priming religion seems to indicate that exposure to these words, at the very least, increases bias.  Could testing individuals using religious (or political or any other group) jargon increase bias in the same way that using different languages does?


*An interesting summary of this research can be found in the Harvard Gazette.

Rallying to restore sanity

This weekend, I was fortuitously in Baltimore presenting a conference.  Since Baltimore is just a quick 45 minute trip from D.C., some colleagues of mine and myself slipped away to the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear between my morning 8:00am talk and my after 3:45pm talk.  It was a quick, almost risky sneak-away, but it was well worth the effort.

The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear was a satirical political rally put on by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  This rally, (find a brief report in the New York times here), was full of Americans joining together to engage in the satirical debate over politics and the issues currently at hand in the political sphere.  Individuals spoke out on a variety of issues from their thoughts on the Tea Party and ideas about health care to gay and lesbian rights and the need to legalize weed.  Americans’ abilities to creatively and humorously address many of the issues in America today abounded on the mall Saturday.  There’s a pretty great list of some of the signs here.

Although the rally was fun and it was spectacular to be part of such an interesting and entertaining moment in American history, I think one is left asking: “what was the point?”  In many ways, to me, the rally represented how most Americans are feeling about politics: fed up.  The absurdity of many individuals’ viewpoints was brought to life by the comical signs being paraded around the mall on Saturday.  In the end, I think Americans want what they have always wanted: rights, freedom, and liberty. The question is, will this rally in any way increase Americans’ political involvement to help speak out and promote change?  Perhaps more simply and importantly, will this rally bring awareness to Americans that they need to VOTE?  I’m not certain.  Those questions are hard if not impossible to answer.  However, I think what the rally did do was afford Americans an opportunity to engage in what it meant to be an American: speak out on issues that matter (in a fun, creative way) and to unite as one American public rather than a myriad of American beliefs.  But the real question is whether this will change anything.

It was interesting, somewhat disappointing, yet not surprising to see the lack of conservatives at the rally.  Most signs and views voiced a liberal voice, and it made me wonder why conservatives did not come out and voice their own opinions.  Even moreso, I wondered how “peaceable” the rally would have been if conservatives had rallied for their own beliefs.  Since the conservative agenda is concerned with issues like less governmental regulation, the pro-life agenda, and other competing issues with the liberal side, I find it hard to imagine such beliefs would have been happily accepted at the rally on Saturday.

And so in conclusion, I wonder how really unified we are as Americans.  Why is it that liberals tend to fight for gay rights, but the conservatives often see these individuals’ rights as unimportant?  And why is it that conservatives tend to fight for unborn children’s rights, yet liberals often do not view these individuals’ rights as important?  In many ways, I wish the American public could somehow find a unified voice in which neither extreme end of the spectrum was taken, but a more moderate set of views would be held and promoted.  In many ways, I think that was the goal of this rally, but in some ways I think it failed.  How do you get both conservatives and liberals to see the value in both camps’ views?  And how do you prevent individuals from becoming extremist on either end of the spectrum? If my research has taught me anything, it’s  that closed-minded ideologies tend to promote hatred and discrimination.  And as far as I can tell, there is still hatred on both sides of the political party lines.  I just hope we, as Americans, start to view hating/derogating/acting violently (in word or speech) toward ANY group of Americans (the poor, gay men/lesbian women, religious individuals, unborn children) as unacceptable.  That is the real struggle – to voice one’s own opinions without hating or derogating others’ opinions.  As far as I can tell, there is still a large amount of failure to do this in both the conservative and liberal parties.  So how do we hold our views and stand up for them without hating or derogating others?  If the question were easy to answer, we wouldn’t have sanity that needed rallying.