Category: Sin Week

Envy is a stronger motivator than admiration

Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion. Søren Kierkegaard

Mind Hacks, Not Exactly Rocket Science, The Frontal Cortex … there are so many successful blogs out there for the Digest to admire. Or envy. In fact envy might be better. Although considered a sin, envy rather than admiration, drives us toward self-improvement. That’s according to Niels van de Ven and colleagues who provoked envy and admiration in their Dutch participants and then observed the effects this had.

For a preliminary study, 17 undergrads were asked to describe someone they knew who was better at something than they were. The more ‘benign envy’ (the person’s superior achievements are seen as deserved) provoked by this thought, as opposed to malicious envy (their success is seen as undeserved), or admiration, then the more likely participants were to say that they planned to ramp up their study time in the next semester.

It was a similar story when 82 participants were asked to recall a time they’d felt either benign envy, malicious envy or admiration (there was also a control group who didn’t do the recall task). Afterwards, those participants who’d recalled an experience of benign envy performed better at a word association task, compared with the other participants.

For a third study, a further 96 participants read about a fellow student called Hans de Groot, who’d just won a prize for his excellent scholarship. Some of the participants were asked to imagine feeling benign envy towards him, the others malicious envy or admiration. To strengthen the effect, they were asked to ponder how they’d feel and react if they met him. Once again, the participants primed to experience benign envy went on to perform better, and spend longer, on a word association task, compared with the other participants.

Having established the contrasting effects of admiration and envy, the researchers turned to the circumstances that tend to elicit one emotion more than the other. Perhaps the effect a successful person has on us depends in part on whether we think their achievements are beyond our reach. In a final study, van de Ven and his colleagues primed half their participants with an ‘effort is futile’ mindset by having them read a fictional biography of a successful scientist who’d enjoyed good fortune all his life. The other participants read a version in which the scientist’s success was all down to effort, not luck. Next, in what they thought was a separate task, the students read about the prize-winning scholar from the previous study, Hans de Groot. The important finding here was that students primed with an ‘effort is futile’ mindset were more likely to say they felt admiration towards de Groot, whereas those primed with an ‘effort pays’ mindset were more likely to say they felt benign envy. Moreover, it was the participants who felt more envy, rather than admiration, who said they planned to work harder in the next semester.

‘Is benign envy therefore better than admiration?’ the researchers asked rhetorically. ‘It might be, but although self-assertion increases performance, self-surrender feels better. So, the answer to the question whether to admire or to be envious might depend on what matters most: feeling better or performing better.’
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ResearchBlogging.orgvan de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., and Pieters, R. (2011). Why Envy Outperforms Admiration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211400421

Want to read more about the psychology of sin? Check out the Digest’s Sin Week special feature.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

A week of sin

Click for full feature

Welcome to the menu for Sin Week on the Research Digest blog, which started on 8 February 2011. Each day for Seven days (with a break on Sunday, naturally) we posted a sinful confession by a psychologist; a new sin fit for the twenty-first century; and an evidence-based way to be good. These online festivities coincided with a feature-length article in the latest issue of The Psychologist on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins.

Here’s the full menu of Seven confessions:

John Sloboda – my Wrath
Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher – our Envy
Mark Griffiths – my Pride
Jon Sutton – my Sloth
Wray Herbert – my Gluttony
Cordelia Fine – my Greed
Jesse Bering – my Lust

The Seven new sins:

The Seven ways to be good:
Learn healthier habits
Have an energy drink
Use your inner voice
Practise self control
Clench your muscles
Form if-then plans
Distract yourself

Many thanks to our confessors for baring their souls.

Sin week compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Jesse Bering – my Lust

Jesse Bering is director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast

I have been happily tasked, on this Valentine’s Day, with writing about the sin of lust. But before I expurgate my lascivious soul, let us first get the concept of lust straight—and I should warn you that this will be the only thing straight about my confession.

Lust is not an easy psychological construct to operationalise. Although it can be used in non-sexual terms, its sexual connotation is primary, as well as the theological incentive for diagnosing it as a deadly sin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the theological variation as “a sensual appetite regarded as sinful: of the flesh.” And it is in this carnal sense of the word that I have sinned mightily.

In a 2004 treatment, psychologists William Cupach and Brian Spitzberg concede that, ‘one who lusts possesses the wish to experience sexual union with another.’ But they also note that sexual arousal alone does not capture the entire phenomenon:

‘[L]ust is usefully distinguished from sexual arousal (e.g., erect penis, swollen clitoris) and  sexual behavior (e.g., intercourse, oral copulation). The awareness of one’s own physical stimulation does not necessarily entail desire for sexual union, although arousal can be either a precursor to or a consequence of lust. One can experience lust without concomitant physical arousal. Similarly, sexual activity can occur with or without lust. The experience of lust may motivate sexual activity, or sexual activity may breed lust that leads to further sexual activity. [But] sometimes the lust object does not desire sexual activity with the lustful person and sexual union is thwarted.’

It is this “unrequited lust” that best describes the nature of my particular sin, which is in fact more an epoch of lust rather than it is a single lewd act. I may have played, in weaker dosage, a version of the other role in someone else’s narrative. But in this story, I am the lustful party and a specific individual from my adolescent past, who shall go unnamed to protect the innocent, the object of my lust. It is easy to describe him, because his visage I worked deliberately to imprint deep onto my mind’s eye, cognizant even then of my future self reflecting continually back on this image and therefore the eternal need for accuracy. To this day I would recognize the shiny half-moons just above his cuticles or the crook of his knees behind his bronze legs.

I’ll sketch a portrait, but it is, of course, only anaemic compared to the vitality by which the ghost of this boy burns brightly in my head. Olive-skinned, bright-eyed, golden-haired, a Donatello David perfect and cruel. He was little more than an acquaintance, really, but I did try, in my own cloudy, puerile ways, to imbibe his essence within the moralistic constraints I was dealt. And these were not insubstantial, since our only regular field of interaction was a suburban high school cloistered away in a rather conservative part of early 1990’s Ohio. We shared a disease—both being insulin-dependent diabetics—and this discovery of our mutual endocrinal failures was one of the few times that I ever was tempted to believe in God. Through the good fortune of our mutually dysfunctional pancreases, we were tied together symbolically as if by fate. More importantly, this, along with my eventual befriending him on the school tennis team, gave me an ironclad excuse should someone ever suddenly turn the conversation to my curious and frequent mentioning of him.

According to psychologist Dorothy Tennov, I was suffering from a tell-tale case of limerence—a neologism that meant intense emotional and sexual attraction for a desired romantic partner. Here are its key symptoms: intrusive thinking about the person; a yearning for the other person to reciprocate the feelings; the inability to have such feelings for any other person; a fear of rejection; heightened sensitivity to signs of interest on the other’s part; and the tendency to dwell on the person’s positive characteristics and avoid the negative. Tennov believed that nearly all adolescents are stricken with a hobbling bout of limerence at some point in their burgeoning sex lives. Indeed, empirical evidence demonstrates that limerence—also known as “passionate love” and “infatuation”—is strikingly common. In a 1997 study from Personal Relationships, psychologist Craig Hill and his colleagues found that such experiences are concentrated primarily between the ages of 16 to 20 years. Although there are no differences between the sexes in having a mutual infatuation, males are significantly more likely than females to have a meaningful unrequited lustful relationship.

Bering’s new book

When lust levels are mismatched due to differences in physical attractiveness or an even more formidable hurdle of having different sexual orientations, limerence can be rather painful. Very little research, so far as I can gather, has been done on the subject of homosexual limerence, but I suspect my case is not so uncommon among gay males, who may find themselves lusting after others who are completely naïve, distressed by, or even hostile to their advances. The need for ambiguity in gay male courtship in homophobic societies, coupled with the perceptual biases inherent to the state of limerence wherein one is hypervigilant to even the slightest signs of potential interest in the lustful object, complicates matters profoundly. I remember quite clearly how this boy would steal glances at my lips as I spoke to him, how he asked to sit next to me in the crowded back seat of a hot car, our bare legs sticking together in perspiration, his innocent sharing of a can of soda (a can which, along with a helpful stack of peculiarly homoerotic Men’s Fitness magazines, I kept for beastly pleasures at least a month at my bedside, since his essence had been soldered onto it). All of these things were, in my distorting and wanting mind, delicate little tortures that failed to disconfirm the statistically probable null hypothesis of his heterosexuality.

Given the scalding moralistic climate of the times, my sensitivity and fears of being ostracized, my lust simmered for years, often boiling over into my dreams. I was not out of the closet yet and would not be until my early twenties. I moved away at graduation, pathetically scribbling his name in my notebook like a lovesick schoolgirl at a distant college; he stayed behind, completely unaware of the deep impact that his sheer being had rendered. I knew that my lust for him was a cosmically irrelevant craving, never-to-be relieved, so I threw myself into other things, and other people.

Many years passed until my pancreas intervened again and brought him back into focus. In my late twenties, I went into hypoglycaemic shock in a hotel room in Atlanta while attending a conference; luckily, a friend found me unconscious, called the paramedics, and thirty minutes later, a line of glucose was being transfused into my veins. I’d known this intellectually before, of course, and had already written a good deal about the illusion of an afterlife, but this intimate flirtation with my own mortality taught me that existence really was the equivalent of an on/off light switch. And what a shame, I thought, if I squandered the rest of this absurd gift worrying about making people uncomfortable. It’s time to live an honest life—you can call it a life of sin if you’d like. It doesn’t matter; you’ll perish all the same.

And so, eleven years after I’d last seen him, my great smouldering sin, my limerent lust, finally saw daylight. I’d heard through the grapevine that the object of my attraction had become a rather pale haze of his former glory, an average, married man and father living a very traditional life—but still I wrote him a letter. I purged myself of my feelings for him, sympathizing with the strangeness he must feel as the target of someone whose passions are so misplaced, explaining that this was more a letter for me than it was for him, that it was an exorcism only. I tried to articulate how, in spite of all this, it was important for him to know that I’d loved him.

I can only imagine how bizarre that letter must have seemed to him, how out-of-the-blue and, indeed, probably disturbing (particularly if it had been opened by his wife). For that I apologized, profusely. Still, I wouldn’t apologise for my feelings. They were what they were, and all facts are godly. The letter was my only way to break the spell, once and for all, by facing his rejection, which alone could free me to really love other people.

And his rejection did come, in the form of deafening silence. Whether he was flattered, flabbergasted, or disgusted I’ll never know. But his avoidance is okay. In his work on interpersonal relations, Roy Baumeister has highlighted the fact that, by contrast with a rich cultural stock of guidelines to get someone to fall in love with you, namely through persistence, there are no clear cultural scripts for how people should handle an unwanted lover’s attention. ‘In a sense,’ write Baumeister and his colleagues, ‘both the rejector and the would-be lover end up feeling like victims—one of intrusive pursuit and unwanted attentions, the other of heartbreak and rejection.’

But no matter, since mailing that letter five years ago, there is no more ambiguity, no more haunting regrets. Shortly after placing it in the mailbox, Asmodeus, the demon of lust, kindly turned my attention to a more fitting object, one that is lying in bed next to me now and for whom I am free to lust after in peace and guilt-free carnality.


Jesse also contributed to our special feature The Bloggers Behind the Blogs.

This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven new deadly sins: 7) Insert your sin here

Our panel of psychologists suggested Truthiness, Iphonophilia, Narcissistic Myopia, Entitlement, Mobile Abuse, and Excessive Debt as new Deadly Sins relevant to the 21st century. What do you think of these and what new sins do you propose? Celebrity worship? Environmental vandalism? Xenophobia? Please use comments to have your say …


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven ways to be good: 7) Distract yourself

If at first you don’t succeed, cheat. In Walter Mischel’s classic studies of young children’s self-control, he found that the kids able to resist cookies and marshmallows for longer periods tended to adopt distraction strategies, such as covering their eyes or singing to themselves. Even our chimpanzee cousins are adept at this, although admittedly in their case it’s for greater gain rather than to avoid sin. In a 2007 study Michael Beran at Georgia State University showed that chimps played with toys as a way to distract themselves from a self-filling jar of sweets. The longer they waited before grabbing the jar, the more sweets they’d get. If the jar was out of reach, they didn’t play with the toys so much, which suggests they really were using the toys as a form of distraction.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Cordelia Fine – my Greed

Dr Fine is at Macquarie University

Last year I applied for a research fellowship, and while putting the application together I emailed my sister to ask if there is some standard way of describing the impact of your academic work. In less than five minutes she was on the phone to tell me my “h-index”.

Publications are the currency of researchers, and the idea behind the h-index is that it’s sensitive to both the quantity and impact of publications. Basically, the h-index is the academic equivalent of reading someone’s bank statements.

“And you can look up anyone’s h-index online?” I asked.

“Yep,” my sister replied. And then, even though I’d put the question casually, she added, “But don’t go there.”

My first thought on putting down the phone was, “The application can wait.” My second thought was, “Oh. I thought I’d grown out of that person.”

Greed is a rapacious desire and pursuit of wealth and power, and in secondary school it was the status of class swot that I was hungry for. There was a girl at school – let’s call her ‘Alison Stevens’. She played first oboe in the school orchestra, hit a hockey ball with unerring deadliness, but – most importantly – she was smart. The possibility that she might be smarter than me was intolerable and, without ever explicitly acknowledging it, the two of us vied relentlessly to be top of the class. When I scored 97 per cent in a biology test, it was not the sense of wonderment for photosynthesis enabled by my solid grasp of the material that brought me satisfaction. It was the 2 per cent I got on the test that put me ahead of Alison Stevens.

This, I realise now, was excellent preparation for life in academia. Because ‘Publish or Perish’, the mantra of the aspiring researcher, can give rise to a competitive mindset that is basically a grown-up version of ‘Beat Alison Stevens’. We aspire to more, better, bigger…what we do is rarely enough and the academic coffers can always be swelled more. A colleague recently described to me the tense, protracted negotiations that took place over authorship position on a paper about to be submitted to a prestigious scientific journal. Nobody, it seems, said, ‘Oh, just put my name wherever you like. The important thing is that I contributed to the acquisition of new scientific knowledge to the benefit of the our community and society at large, and that’s enough for me.’ If no one has ever actually been murdered for the first author spot, I suspect it is only because that prized position could be retained posthumously.

Of course scientists simply don’t work in a climate where they can afford to be what philosopher of science Philip Kitcher calls the ‘epistemic purist’ – a virtuous scientist for whom the reward of work comes solely from the heady joy of acquiring reliable, generalisable knowledge about nature. The epistemic purist has no interest in the external rewards their work can also bring: the social recognition, the status, the ability to casually say things like, ‘Your coat? Oh, just sling it on the mass spectrometer.’

The idea of a scientific community populated by people for whom external rewards are as nothing certainly has appeal. Moreover, as psychologist Barry Schwartz has pointed out, the seeking of external rewards can sometimes undermine science’s proper goal. Schwartz notes, for example, that the internal goal of science is not served when scientists perform easily publishable but unimaginative and uninformative work in order to maximise their publication output, or keep their results secret from other researchers in order to maintain a competitive edge. At its most extreme, a focus on external rewards tempts scientists to fabricate data.

Fine’s latest book is out now in paperback

Then again, just as I probably have Alison Stevens to thank for the A-level results that got me a place at Oxford University (where my intrinsic reward lever was adjusted to the ‘on’ position), so too may the pursuit of external goods bring about valuable scientific discoveries. Kitcher makes the case that ‘sullied’ scientists – those whose motives are a more recognisably human mix of internal and external – may actually make for a cognitively healthier and more productive scientific community. As he concludes, ‘starry-eyed idealism is by no means necessary to serve the community well.’

All of which leaves me unsure whether I want to give up that greed I still carry with me from my school-days, assuming I even could. Some days I think I’m too greedy. But other times (especially when preparing fellowship applications), my magpie eyes are hungry for the prize and I can’t help but wonder if I’m not greedy enough.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven ways to be good: 6) Form if-then plans

When your willpower levels have been drained by an earlier test, that’s when you’re most vulnerable to temptation. One way to protect yourself is to form so-called ‘if-then’ plans. For example, imagine that you wanted to avoid getting angry the next time your boss is overly critical, you could form the plan ‘if my boss says my work is amateurish I will recall the time that I won an award’ – a thought which will hopefully have a soothing effect. The effects of so-called ‘implementation intentions’ have been researched in-depth by Peter Gollwitzer at the University of Konstanz. In one recent study he tested students’ ability to persevere with anagram tasks after they’d resisted laughing while watching comedy clips, thus leaving their willpower depleted. Those who followed the vague plan ‘I will find as many solutions as possible’ performed poorly on the anagram tasks as expected. However, willpower depletion had no such adverse effect on students who followed the additional, more detailed plan: ‘…And if I have solved one anagram, then I will immediately start work on the next!’. [For further information, visit Prof Gollwitzer’s website where you will find links to many of his articles]


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Seven new deadly sins: 6) Excessive debt

‘The financial crisis we’re in originated partly because of people running up huge debts they couldn’t pay,’ says Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. ‘Politicians and governments also spend beyond their means, creating debts that future generations will be stuck with. If people were mindful of avoiding the sin of excessive debt, both they and society would be better off.’


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Wray Herbert – my Gluttony

Wray Herbert is director of science comms at the APS

When I first entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous some years ago, one of the long-timers—a rough guy, with more than two decades of sobriety—pulled me aside after a meeting to share his personal view of alcoholism. We were in a bright, hard-floored church basement that carried the sound, and his half-whisper made the words sound a bit conspiratorial: ‘I figure everyone is given a share of booze to drink in his life. You can drink it any way you want, and most people spread theirs out over a lifetime. But I drank all mine up. I was a glutton.’

Glutton. It’s not a word you hear much at all these days. In fact, when he uttered the archaic word, my mind rushed to the English literary giants of long ago—the diarist Pepys and Dr. Johnson—consuming enormous quantities of mutton and fowl, and paying with gouty, swollen toes. Those literary gluttons seem to be a thing of the past, and the word has fallen into disuse, too. You certainly don’t hear it in recovery circles, and indeed most sober alcoholics would likely reject this old-timer’s view of the disorder. You’re much more likely to hear alcoholism described as a medical disease, or a spiritual crisis.

But I like the idea of alcoholic gluttony. It rang true to me back then, and it still does. It cuts through a lot of hair-splitting debate and gets right to the heart of the matter: lack of self-control. Call it what you like, but at the end of the day there’s no getting away from the behavior—the excessiveness, the lack of restraint, the—yes—gluttony.

Yet labeling alcoholism as gluttony does not make it simple to understand. Indeed, alcoholic gluttony is maddeningly complex, and in a way this vice—this deadly sin—captures human nature in all its irrational nuance. Looking back now, I believe that my career as a science journalist has paralleled my drinking career; my unfolding relationship with alcoholic gluttony shaped the questions I asked, and how I asked them.

My scientific interest in boozing preceded my own excesses, because my father died a full-blown alcoholic. But my memories from childhood were not of a reckless man, but rather a vibrant, engaged man—a hiker, a sailor, an educator. Then somewhere along the way things changed, for no obvious reason. There was no tragic trigger, just the usual disappointments, and he drank more and more. I recall sitting at his kitchen table late in his life, and he was drinking Passport Scotch disguised with OJ—his drink of choice—and thinking: He’s chosen this path freely, with full understanding of the tradeoffs. But I watched him clinically and warily, because I knew I carried some of his genes, and his transformation reflected back on me.

As I watched my father’s alcoholism progress—and then my own—I began asking other questions: Do we have a brain disease? Are there particular neurotransmitters run amok. I read widely in the literature about genetics and addiction and stress, about suspect neurotransmitters, and brain anatomy related to pleasure and risk and will, and even wrote a newsweekly cover story on the interplay of genetics and misfortune. None of this got me very far. Alcoholism appears to run in families, and many experts believe there are genes—probably a handful of them—underlying the disorder. There are candidate brain chemicals and structures. So I probably inherited a propensity of some kind. But so what? As one geneticist explained to me years ago, there is no elbow-bending gene. That is, no genetic or neuroscience findings will ever alter the fact that alcoholics—at every stage of their drinking history—are making decisions. Every time we pick up a bottle or pour a finger of whiskey, it’s a choice—it’s the option we’re freely selecting, at least for that moment.

So I moved on from what I now saw as a reductionist neuro-genetic view of alcoholism to an interest in cognitive psychology. Specifically, I wanted to know how we make decisions and judgments and choices, and why so many of our choices are not in our own best interest. Ironically, my preoccupation with irrational decision making coincided with a sharp spike in my own drinking. I was increasingly isolated in my alcoholism—skipping my favorite watering holes for a bottle at home; I drank at lunch every day, and often in the morning. The “holidays” I took from booze were more and more difficult. My drinking life wasn’t feeling like a choice—but I had no other way to explain it. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. Even self-destructive decisions are decisions, and I began devouring the scientific literature on emotions and distorted thinking, looking for an explanation for my own poor life choices.

And that’s where I am today. My research as a science journalist led me to the study of cognitive biases—the heuristic traps that, once helpful, now lead us all too often into perilous territory. I focused on irrational thinking, and as my own head cleared in my chosen sobriety, I explored all kinds of distorted thinking—culminating in a book on the topic, called On Second Thought. On Second Thought is about the surprisingly automated lives we live—often at the price of our happiness—and it’s also a guide of sorts to more deliberate thinking. It’s not about alcoholic gluttony, but the title could well describe my own questioning of my own harmful life choices—and the change I made.

My next project—in the works—is on alcoholic gluttony. In the course of researching and writing On Second Thought—I was sober by then—I kept stumbling on psychological science that illuminates the process of recovering from alcoholism. Much of it is counterintuitive—the need for powerlessness, the dangers of self-reliance, the power of moral inventory and honesty. Many recovering alcoholics see the steps of recovery as a spiritual path, with no need for scientific explanation. I don’t argue with that, but I also think there’s a breed of sober alcoholics who are curious about the workings of the mind as it chooses—first a destructive path, then a life-changing one. They are the audience for the next book. Let’s call them recovering gluttons.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven new deadly sins: 5) Mobile abuse

Mobile abuse: ‘Shouting into your cell phone on the bus, or as the curtain is going up at the opera – that happened to me,’ says Helen Fisher at Rutgers University. ‘I mean where are these people coming from, where is their brain? It is extreme narcissism.’


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.