Category: Psych to rescue

Ellen Langer: Combating ageism

Among other things, I’ve researched and written about aging for the past thirty years. My belief is that much of what we attribute to the aging process can be prevented or reversed and that a major culprit in unsuccessful aging is our condescending attitude toward older adults.

Of course we mean no harm – especially when we’re dealing with beloved family members – but harm we do. They are probably the ones we hurt the most, in fact. Ageism is so deeply ingrained in our beliefs that we think we are simply responding to real, age-related incompetence. Instead, we are letting our mindless expectations create the very incompetence we perceive.

At age 89 my father’s memory was fragile – he was showing his years. One day we were playing cards and I began to think that I should let him win. I soon realized that, if I saw someone else behaving that way, I’d tell her to stop being so condescending. I might even explain how negative prophecies come to be fulfilled, and I’d go on to explain that much of what we take to be memory loss has other explanations. For instance, as our values change with age, we often don’t care about certain things to the degree we used to, and we therefore don’t pay much attention to them anymore. The “memory problems” of the elderly are often simply due to the fact that they haven’t noted something that they find rather uninteresting. And then, while I was weighing whether to treat him as a child because part of me still felt that he would enjoy winning, he put his cards down and declared that he had gin.


Ellen Langer is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard. The first chapter of her latest book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility is available to read on her website.

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Brian Knutson: (anti)complementarity

It was a gray fall day in Duluth, and icy wind whipped off of Lake Superior, funneling down the road my fiancée and I trundled along. Ahead on the sidewalk, a large dark figure appeared, angrily stalking towards us. Thoughts of escape evaporated as the absence of side streets or other exits became apparent. I recall the looming local’s intensifying scowl and the smell of alcohol on his breath just before he rammed into my shoulder, knocking me back several steps. For a split-second, instinctual questions hung in the air – should we fight or flee?

Then, I did something unexpected. Stepping forward expansively, I smiled and boomed “How’s it going? — it’s been a long time!” The would-be assailant rocked back on one foot, his face registering confusion (or even the hint of a grin?). He paused – long enough for me to spot an open pharmacy two doors down on the left. Edging past, I grabbed my partner and hustled towards the lighted store. “Wish there was time to talk, but we’ve got to go!” Once inside, we heaved a sigh of relief.

Only upon reflection could I consciously piece together what had happened. Before taking the mantle of countercultural psychedelic guru, Tim Leary actually did research. Based on hours of recordings of group therapy, he came up with the notion of an interpersonal circle defined by independent dimensions of affiliation and dominance. His successors showed that people prefer interactions that are dimensionally complementary: whereas affiliation similarly begets affiliation, dominance complementarily begets submission. By corollary, people are confused by anticomplementary responses. In my case, responding in an outgoing way to a hostile opening was anticomplementary (i.e., a dominant affiliative response to dominant nonaffiliation). My assailant lacked an obvious script for dealing with this anticomplementarity, and I benefited from his momentary confusion. On that freezing day in Duluth, anticomplementarity literally saved my hide.


Brian Knutson is presently an associate professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Stanford University. His laboratory seeks to elucidate the neural basis of emotion (affective neuroscience), and explore implications for decision making (neuroeconomics) as well as psychopathology (neurophenomics).

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Bruce Hood: Storytelling

Over the past five years, I have spent an increasing amount of my time talking to the general public. In doing so, I have learned to change the way I communicate by relying much more on the presentation of ideas, the audience reaction, timing and context. Content is vital but it is the way that you say things that makes all the difference. As a social animal, we are highly attuned to each other and I find audiences respond better when you think beyond the content of what you are saying and think about it as telling a story. The human brain is always seeking structure and meaning. Psychology reminds us that it is the ultimate storyteller. Professional speakers have known this for years and the best ones are naturally and often intuitively skilled. Whether they are aware of exactly what they are doing or not, the best practices tap into well established principles of social psychology that I now recognize when I get up and talk to a room full of strangers. People want to like you. People want to believe what you are saying. People want that emotional experience. Even when you have read the book or know the story well, audiences still want to hear it said. That’s why there will always be the live performance and public lecture.


Bruce Hood is Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. He is giving this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on the topic of Meet Your Brain.

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Emily Holmes: My inner CBT therapist

Imagine you are about to give the “best-(wo)man’s” speech at your friend’s wedding: vast audience, huge hall, microphone, lights, wine, flowers, expectant faces … but words fail you. Worse than that, I was consumed with an overwhelming feeling of nausea. I’d just found out I was pregnant and not told the world yet. I could see myself about to vomit at the photographer and over the bridal couple … looming panic. “I’ve given hundreds of speeches, it’ll be fine”. But reassuring words alone didn’t help. More nausea. “OK! Stop the internal focus” – my inner CBT therapist suddenly kicked in. “This isn’t real – this is just an image of vomiting”. The inspirational CBT work on mental imagery and social anxiety (David Clark, Ann Hackmann, Colette Hirsch and others) zoomed in. “Focus outwards! Look at the audience “. OK, deploy “cognitive science” – “external perception will compete for resources with internal images. Focus on the flowers”. Oh, and a bit of image restructuring – “mentally photoshop that image of myself, I’m not looking nauseous at all, just moved by emotion at the happy couple”. Here we go … External reality started to win. I was smiling and dinner was staying down. “Good evening everyone …”


Emily Holmes is Professor in Clinical Psychology and Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow at the
Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford. She is co-author of the Oxford Guide to Imagery in Cognitive Therapy.

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Howard Gardner: Forming a synergistic team

For many years I have hired research assistants. In the past, without realizing it, I always was looking for someone like me, with the same strengths, mode of communication and the like. This tendency continued even after I arrived at my theory of multiple intelligences. But about 15 years ago, I realized that it was pointless to try to duplicate myself – one of me sufficed. Now, drawing on the practical implications of “Multiple Intelligences theory” I think much more about individuals’ different strengths and profiles and how to put together an effective and synergistic team. That said, I still depend on complete trustworthiness and sense of responsibility – those remain non-negotiable.


Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University. He is the author of many books on intelligence, creativity, leadership, and, more recently, professional ethics.

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Chris French: Seeing what we want to believe

I sometimes find myself investigating ostensibly paranormal phenomena in the role of “rent-a-sceptic”. I was recently invited to investigate apparently ghostly goings-on in a house in Leicester for ITV’s This Morning. Don, a paranormal investigator, claimed that he could communicate with the spirits involved. The Sun newspaper had posted on its web site a recording of Don apparently coaxing spirits into lowering the room temperature. As Don politely asked the spirits to lower the temperature, the digital display of his handheld thermometer appeared to show that the spirits were obliging. Armed with my knowledge of unconscious muscular activity and a tip-off from an ex-ghost-hunter, I was able to quickly solve this apparent mystery. The tip-off was that the investigator was misusing his equipment. He thought he was measuring ambient temperature but he was actually measuring the temperature of whatever the handheld device was pointing at – in this case, the wall. Heat rises, so the top of the wall was warmer than the bottom, as I was able to personally confirm. By unwittingly changing the angle of the device, thanks to unconscious muscular activity, Don was unintentionally producing the evidence of “paranormal activity” that he was so keen to find!


Professor Chris French is Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, and editor of The Skeptic.

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Susan Fiske: Nerdy but nice

I was a high-school nerd. Worse yet, a girl nerd. I did learn quickly to hide my A grades and not talk too much in class. At the high-school reunion, my classmates thought it was obvious I would become a professor (they could have saved me much agony, had they only told me sooner!). As a student at Harvard, I learned to tell strangers that I went to school “outside Boston.” Then I had a respite from having to hide my academic self, as my first jobs did not excite much public envy. Moving to Princeton changed all that (now I work “outside New York”), so maybe it’s not surprising that I came to work on how status divides us. Now, our lab’s research brings home the idea that status/competence is only one of two universal social dimensions, but that interdependence/warmth is the other. It’s OK to be respected or even enviable for status (in an aspirational, you-can-do-it-too way), if you also communicate that you also appreciate the cooperative side of the relationship. If I am on your side, and we are in this together, then my success is good for our tribe.


Susan T. Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton and author of Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us (2011).

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David Buss: Derogation of competitors

Once I attended a large party with a date. We separated and each began talking to different people. I was introduced to a stunningly attractive woman, and it was instant sexual chemistry. As we continued our animated conversation, an older woman approached, looked at the two of us, and said “You are such a perfectly matched couple.” I insisted that were not a couple at all, and in fact had just met. She refused to believe me. I saw my date approaching just in time to overhear the older woman’s comments.

My date said that she was ready to leave the party. As we left, she casually mentioned “Did you notice that her thighs were heavy?” Well, I hadn’t. But I was in the midst of writing up a publication on “derogation of competitors,” the ways in which people use verbal tactics to denigrate same-sex rivals to make them less desirable. The research gave me insight into the tactical arsenal people use to compete for mates—not just tactics of attraction, but also disparagement of rivals.

Men worldwide place a premium on physical appearance in mates. And my research showed that women, far more than men, are especially observant about the most minor physical imperfections in other women, and in mate competition point them out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

What is strange is why verbal input would have any influence at all on a man’s perceptions of a woman’s attractiveness. A woman’s attractiveness should be something that men can gauge perfectly well with their own eyes. But in fact verbal input matters. The next time I ran into the attractive woman, I found myself looking at her thighs. And indeed, they were a tad heavy. She still looked good, but my perceptions of her attractiveness lowered a bit.

I think there are two reasons for this. One is that pointed out imperfections amplify their perceptual salience in men’s minds, making them loom larger. The second is that men have evolved to desire attractive women not merely because cues to attractiveness signal fertility. Men also want attractive mates because they raise their social status. So other people’s perceptions of a mate’s attractiveness are important.

Perhaps none of this puts men and women in an admirable light in the mating arena. Derogation reveals one of the dark sides of mate competition, and men may seem superficial for putting such importance on attractiveness. But armed with research findings on derogation of competitors, I was able to understand more deeply the psychology of mate competition that goes on all around us.


David M. Buss is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and author and editor of more than a dozen books, including The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating and Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind.

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Paul Broks: My confession

Here’s a confession. I’ve been a professional psychologist for 30 years, clinician and academic, but I can’t think of a single instance when I’ve made personal use of my psychological expertise. Even in the darkest times, especially in the darkest times, I never turn to scientific psychology for illumination. I write these words within a few days of the first anniversary of my wife’s death, so there have been some very dark days of late. All through, my knowledge of clinical psychology has seemed irrelevant, or if not irrelevant then certainly peripheral to my deepest needs and concerns. This, I know, will sound smug, or disingenuous, or wilfully contrarian. But it’s true. I am by natural inclination a Stoic. I don’t mean in the loose sense of ‘grimly determined’ or ‘long-suffering‘, and especially not ‘stiff upper-lipped’. I mean Stoic in the tradition of that broad church of Greek and Roman philosophers – Epictetus and Seneca among them – for whom the question, ‘How best to live?’ was the most important of all. Their collective wisdom boils down to this: negative emotions are a bad thing; banish them through thought and deed. These are the roots of CBT, of course, the difference being that the Stoics offer an overarching philosophy of life, not just a bag of psychological tricks. There’s a world of difference.


Paul Broks is a neuropsychologist based at Plymouth University. He gained international recognition as a writer with his first book ‘Into the Silent Land‘, a mix of neurological case stories, memoir and speculative fiction. A second volume, ‘Next’, is forthcoming.

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Sue Blackmore: Coping with demented patients

When my mother began a vendetta against next door’s dustbins and conceived a hatred of seagulls, we thought it was just Mum at her worst and even found it quite funny, but when she began getting lost and demanding to move to a cottage in the middle of a field, we realised she had no idea she needed looking after. A few awful years later and she was hurling abuse, and furniture, at my poor dear father, who had no idea what day it was, let alone why she was attacking him. Stories from Paul Broks and Oliver Sacks came to mind, and the psychology of illusions and the mystery of consciousness. Above all, knowing about the brain came to my rescue. With every step of their awful journey I was reminded that we are all no more and no less than brains functioning in bodies in a world full of other such creatures. No one is a spirit or soul. The self is not some entity; some inner spark of selfhood that gets born and lives a life until death. A self is just one of the brain’s many constructions – ephemeral and fleeting, here for a while, then gone, ever springing up again in a slightly new guise. And in the case of dementia ever less coherently.

I learned about myself as I learned to let them go.


Sue Blackmore is a psychologist and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She blogs for the Guardian and Psychology Today, and often appears on radio and television. The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into 15 other languages; more recent books include Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011), and a textbook Consciousness: An Introduction (2 ed 2010).

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