Tag Archives: Psychology

The foreword to The Psychology of Dementia Praecox pays homage to the psychiatric master of the age, Freud — though at the time there were relatively few who acknowledged Freud’s achievement. Jung declared that those who disdained Freud’s theorizing without seriously trying to see through his conceptual lenses were as bad as the seventeenth-century scoffers who had refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. Having studied Freud with the attention he deserves, Jung places himself inestimably in the great man’s debt — with caveats. Important as sexuality is, for Jung it is not as important as Freud makes it out to be — and for Freud there is nothing more important. Despite Jung’s respect, even reverence, the fissure that separates the two minds is apparent already in Dementia Praecox, and in time it will become an impassable chasm.

Jung sent Freud a copy of his monograph. Freud’s response has been lost, but in Jung’s following letter he alludes to Freud’s apparent displeasure: Jung had reprimanded Freud for failing to distinguish clearly between the origins of hysteria and those of dementia praecox. But Freud and Jung had been corresponding with mutual esteem for several months by then — Jung had sent him his major word-association paper, and Freud had answered admiringly — and this new difference of opinion did not derail their relationship. Indeed, Freud quickly put to rest Jung’s fears that he had crossed him: “In reality I regard your essay on D. pr. as the richest and most significant contribution to my labors that has ever come to my attention, and among my students in Vienna, who have the perhaps questionable advantage over you of personal contact with me, I know of only one who might be regarded as your equal in understanding, and of none who is able and willing to do so much for the cause as you.”

Comrades-in-arms, with Freud the superior officer by agreement, the two thinkers fought to advance their revolutionary understanding of the human psyche. Personal warmth stemmed from the two men’s intellectual fellowship: as is often the case with embattled intellectuals, shared ideas drew them ever closer. Freud gushed that Jung’s letter of introduction had been the voice of salvation, breaking in upon a solitude that seemed like doom. Jung wrote back, from the First International Congress of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Psychology in Amsterdam, that hearing from his mentor reminded him he “was fighting not only for an important discovery but for a great and honorable man as well.” Surrounded by sickening dolts and scoundrels, who knew nothing of Freud’s theory but arrogantly trashed it nevertheless, Jung did what he could to defend truth and honor. He closed the letter with “a long cherished and constantly repressed wish: I would dearly like to have a photograph of you, not as you used to look but as you did when I first got to know you.” It was a desire that he had felt again and again. Freud obliged, with a formal portrait of himself, seated with his arms folded sternly and his trademark cigar between his fingers. Sometimes, one trusts, a cigar is only a smoke.

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According to developmental psychologists, three types of knowledge determine a child’s understanding of the world: intuitive physics, intuitive psychology, and with certain reservations, intuitive biology. Part of this knowledge is characterized as core knowledge, that is, knowledge that children learn without instruction; for example, intuitive comprehension of physical, biological, and psychological entities as well as different forms of processes in which these entities engage. Core knowledge — developed by preschool age — provides the foundation for further development. It is based on what psychologists call domain specialized learning mechanisms, or modules, which evolved in response to our Paleolithic environment.

Developmental studies show that core knowledge of physical entities includes the understanding that the world is composed of material objects which have volume and an independent existence in space. Core knowledge of biological entities represents a species-typical adaptation to the problem of food selection and illness avoidance. Even if cultures lack a scientific understanding of disease transmission they still possess an intuitive understanding of it through their core knowledge. Similarly, 4-year-olds know that abnormal behaviors are not contagious, and they can discriminate between contaminated and safe substances despite a lack of visible evidence. Core knowledge of psychological entities includes the understanding that animate beings are intentional agents which have a mind. By the middle of the second year children understand that animate beings can reciprocate actions and have a capacity to move and initiate actions without external force. In addition, small children understand that the contents of mind — thoughts, beliefs, desires, and symbols — are nonmaterial and mental, and that they do not contain the properties they stand for.

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“There’s an intriguing study about to be published in Psychological Science finding that people wearing prism glasses that shift everything to the right overestimate the passage of time, while people wearing left-shift glasses underestimate it.

The researchers, led by psychologist Francesca Frassinetti, asked participants to watch a square appear on-screen for varying time periods, and then reproduce the duration or half the duration with a key press.

Glasses that skewed vision to the left seemed to shrink time, while glasses that skew everything to the right expanded it.

Apart from the interesting perceptual effect, it gives further evidence for the idea that our internals model of space and time are heavily linked, to the point where modifying one has a knock-on effect on the other.

In fact, there is increasing evidence that other abstract concepts are implicitly understood as having a spatial layout. Experiments on the SNARC effect have found that numbers seem to have a ‘location’, with larger numbers being on the right and smaller numbers on the left.

At least, that seems to be the case for native English-speakers, but for Arabic speakers, where text is written right-to-left, the reverse seems to be true.

It would be interesting to whether Arabic speakers show a reverse time alteration effect of if they wear prism glasses. Whatever the answer, it would raise lots of interesting questions about how much language influences our abstract ideas and whether it only applies to certain concepts.

Prism glasses have long been a tool in psychology and there is a mountain of research on how we adjust to living in the world even when everything is shifted through the lens.

Tom recently found a fantastic (1950s?) archive film called ‘Living in a Reversed World: Some Experiments on How We See the Directions of Things’ where several volunteers are asked to wear prism glasses for weeks on end.

Hilarity ensues, at least at first, but as co-ordination skills adapt the volunteers can go about their daily tasks, to the point of being able to ride bicycles, even when their vision has been flipped around.”

Link to summary of prism and time perception study.
Link to Living in a Reversed World

The visions seem to swirl up from the brain’s sewage system at the worst possible times — during a job interview, a meeting with the boss, an apprehensive first date, an important dinner party. What if I started a food fight with these hors d’oeuvres? Mocked the host’s stammer? Cut loose with a racial slur?

“That single thought is enough,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in “The Imp of the Perverse,” an essay on unwanted impulses. “The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing.”

He added, “There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge.”

Or meditates on the question: Am I sick?

In a few cases, the answer may be yes. But a vast majority of people rarely, if ever, act on such urges, and their susceptibility to rude fantasies in fact reflects the workings of a normally sensitive, social brain, argues a paper published last week in the journal Science.

“There are all kinds of pitfalls in social life, everywhere we look; not just errors but worst possible errors come to mind, and they come to mind easily,” said the paper’s author, Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. “And having the worst thing come to mind, in some circumstances, might increase the likelihood that it will happen.”

The exploration of perverse urges has a rich history (how could it not?), running through the stories of Poe and the Marquis de Sade to Freud’s repressed desires and Darwin’s observation that many actions are performed “in direct opposition to our conscious will.” In the past decade, social psychologists have documented how common such contrary urges are — and when they are most likely to alter people’s behavior.

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

“We know that what’s accessible in our minds can exert an influence on judgment and behavior simply because it’s there, it’s floating on the surface of consciousness,” said Jamie Arndt, a psychologist at the University of Missouri.

The empirical evidence of this influence has been piling up in recent years, as Dr. Wegner documents in the new paper. In the lab, psychologists have people try to banish a thought from their minds — of a white bear, for example — and find that the thought keeps returning, about once a minute. Likewise, people trying not to think of a specific word continually blurt it out during rapid-fire word-association tests.

The same “ironic errors,” as Dr. Wegner calls them, are just easy to evoke in the real world. Golfers instructed to avoid a specific mistake, like overshooting, do it more often when under pressure, studies find. Soccer players told to shoot a penalty kick anywhere but at a certain spot of the net, like the lower right corner, look at that spot more often than any other.

Efforts to be politically correct can be particularly treacherous. In one study, researchers at Northwestern and Lehigh Universities had 73 students read a vignette about a fictional peer, Donald, a black male. The students saw a picture of him and read a narrative about his visit to a mall with a friend.

In the crowded parking lot, Donald would not park in a handicap space, even though he was driving his grandmother’s car, which had a pass, but he did butt in front of another driver to snag a nonhandicap space. He snubbed a person collecting money for a heart fund, while his friend contributed some change. And so on. The story purposely portrayed the protagonist in an ambiguous way.

The researchers had about half the students try to suppress bad stereotypes of black males as they read and, later, judged Donald’s character on measures like honesty, hostility and laziness. These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Smokers, heavy drinkers and other habitual substance users know this confusion too well: the effort to squelch a longing for a smoke or a drink can bring to mind all the reasons to break the habit; at the same time, the desire seemingly gets stronger.

The risk that people will slip or “lose it” depends in part on the level of stress they are undergoing, Dr. Wegner argues. Concentrating intensely on not staring at a prominent mole on a new acquaintance’s face, while also texting and trying to follow a conversation, heightens the risk of saying: “We went to the mole — I mean, mall. Mall!”

“A certain relief can come from just getting it over with, having that worst thing happen, so you don’t have to worry about monitoring in anymore,” Dr. Wegner said.

All of which might be hard to explain, of course, if you’ve just mooned the dinner party.


Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, and also the awareness of one’s behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.


Dissonance normally occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency among his or her cognitions. This happens when one idea implies the opposite of another. For example, a belief in animal rights could be interpreted as inconsistent with eating meat or wearing fur. Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, stress, and other negative emotional states. When people’s ideas are consistent with each other, they are in a state of harmony or consonance. If cognitions are unrelated, they are categorized as irrelevant to each other and do not lead to dissonance.


just one of many ways in which our prior beliefs, interests and expectations shape the way we perceive the world and cause us to overlook the obvious

a psi proponent reported a meta-analysis of [a class of telepathy experiments] with an average effect size that significantly differed from zero with odds of more than a trillion to one while another meta-analysis … concluded that the average effect size was consistent with zero.




Though most of us spend a lifetime pursuing happiness, new research is showing that that goal may be largely out of our control. Two new studies this month add to a growing body of evidence that factors like genes and age may impact our general well-being more than our best day-to-day attempts at joy.

In one study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggest that genes account for about 50% of the variation in people’s levels of happiness — the underlying determinant being genetically determined personality traits, like “being sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious,” says co-author Timothy Bates. What’s more, says Bates, these happiness traits generally come as a package, so that if you have one you’re likely to have them all.

Bates and his Edinburgh colleagues drew their conclusions after looking at survey data of 973 pairs of adult twins. They found that, on average, a pair of identical twins shared more personality traits than a pair of non-identical twins. And when asked how happy they were, the identical twin pairs responded much more similarly than other twins, suggesting that both happiness and personality have a strong genetic component. The study, published in Psychological Science, went one step further: it suggested that personality and happiness do not merely coexist, but that in fact innate personality traits cause happiness. Twins who had similar scores in key traits — extroversion, calmness and conscientiousness, for example — had similar happiness scores; once those traits were accounted for, however, the similarity in twins’ happiness scores disappeared.

Another larger study, released in January ahead of its publication in Social Science & Medicine this month, shows that whatever people’s individual happiness levels, we all tend to fall into a larger, cross-cultural and global pattern of joy. According to survey data representing 2 million people in more than 70 countries, happiness typically follows a U-shaped curve: among people in their mid-40s and younger, happiness trends downward with age, then climbs back up among older people. (That shift doesn’t necessarily hold for the very old with severe health problems.) Across the world, people in their 40s generally claim to be less happy than those who are younger or older, and the global happiness nadir appears to hit somewhere around 44.

What happens at 44? Lots of things, but none that can be pinned down as the root cause of unhappiness. It’s not anxiety from the kids, for starters. Even among the childless, those in midlife reported lower life satisfaction than the young or old, says study co-author Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at the University of Warwick in Britain. Other things that didn’t alter the happiness curve: income, marital status or education. “You can adjust for 100 things and it doesn’t go away,” Oswald says. He and co-author David Blanchflower, an economist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, also adjusted their results for cohort effects: their data spanned more than 30 years, making them confident that whatever makes people miserable about being middle-aged, it isn’t related, say, to being born in the year 1960 and growing up with that generation’s particular set of experiences.

At first glance, the new studies may appear at odds with some previous ones, largely because in happiness research, a lot depends on how you ask the question. Oswald and Blanchflower looked at responses to a sweeping, general question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?” (The wording changes slightly depending on where the survey was conducted, but the question is essentially the same.) In a 2001 study, Susan Charles at University of California, Irvine, measured something slightly different: changes in positive affect, or positive emotions, versus negative affect over more than 25 years. Charles found that positive affect stayed roughly stable through young adulthood and midlife, falling off a little in older age; negative affect, meanwhile, fell consistently with age.

Charles thinks that feelings like angst, disgust and anger may fade because as we get older we learn to care less about what others think of us, or perhaps because we become more adept at avoiding situations we don’t like. (The Edinburgh researchers, too, found that older study participants scored lower than younger ones on scales of neuroticism — worry and nervousness — and higher on scales of agreeableness.) Oswald chalks up the midlife dip in happiness shown in his study to people “letting go of impossible aspirations” — first, there’s the pain of fading youth and the realization that we may never accomplish all that we had dreamed, then the contentment we gain later in life through acceptance and self-awareness. “When you’re young you can’t do that,” Oswald says.

An oft-cited finding from other happiness research suggests, however, that neither very good events nor very bad events seem to change people’s happiness much in the long term. Most people, it seems, revert back to some kind of baseline happiness level within a couple years of even the most devastating events, like the death of a spouse or loss of limbs. Perhaps that kind of stability is due to heredity — those happiness-inducing personality traits that identical twins have been shown to share.

Still, lack of control doesn’t necessarily mean lack of joy. “The research also shows that most people consider themselves happy most of the time,” says University of Edinburgh’s Bates. “We’re wired to be optimistic. Most people think they’re happier than most [other] people.” And even if you aren’t part of that lucky majority, Bates says, there’s always that other 50% of overall life satisfaction that, according to his research, is not genetically predetermined. To feel happier, he recommends mimicking the personality traits of those who are: Be social, even if it’s only with a few people; set achievable goals and work toward them; and concentrate on putting setbacks and worries in perspective. Don’t worry, as the saying goes. Be happy.