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Research Roundup 2: Sleep, Smartphones and Relationship Insecurity

How you can use findings from the latest psychological research in your practice

What does it all mean? Every six weeks or so I like to gather a little research and try to answer that very question. This month we’re looking at:

  1. The perception of immorality
  2. How sense of smell affects metabolism
  3. The vicious circle of relationship insecurity
  4. How a sense of purpose improves sleep
  5. How smartphones negatively affect cognitive performance.

Research piece one: Once a bad person, always a bad person

Once people see you as ‘bad’ – that is, morally dubious – they also see you as unable to do anything good. As the age-old adage has it, “a leopard never changes its spots.”

We sagely repeat platitudes: “Everyone deserves a second chance!” But do we really feel that we want to give one?

Well, according to the latest research, for most of us the answer is no.1 A new study suggests that once a person is judged as immoral, they will find it very difficult to reverse that perception. This can potentially cause workplace conflict or discrimination and disadvantage in the legal system.

Researchers from the University of Surrey and the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy studied the impressions of 400 people and found that most of us believe that someone who is basically moral can do the occasional bad thing (perhaps for the right reasons – think ‘white lie’), but we don’t seem to feel that someone who is basically dishonest or immoral is ever likely to do the right thing.

So we might say we think people can change, but we don’t feel it. This is tough for two reasons:

  • Someone who has changed and become a better person will be cast as though they haven’t, and be cut off from some opportunities. Reputation is important in both the social world and the work world.
  • If we incorrectly judge someone as morally inferior, we might never give them a chance when they are in fact a good person. This happens in politics when someone is considered immoral simply because they hold different views: “Give a dog a bad name and hang him!”

My take?

We all like to err on the side of caution. We evolved in groups during times of constant threat. Knowing who to trust, who would be loyal to the group and who might steal from it was vital.

I’ve written before about why erring on the side of caution has survival advantages but how it can, in modern life, also cause phobias. Erring on the side of caution is adaptive to a point, but in extreme cases it may present as obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoia – the inability to trust anyone – or even just the negatively biased sentiment of “everyone lets you down in the end!”

So if you ask me, at the heart of all this may be the evolutionary adaptive bias that it’s better not to trust someone who demonstrated they couldn’t be trusted in the past than to trust them and get it wrong. Feeling someone is incapable of good actions may make us feel safer because we can’t be hoodwinked.

How we cast someone in our minds is important. Previous research has found that we are more likely to stigmatize people with mental health conditions if we believe they have ‘faulty genes’ or a chemical imbalance than if we feel their problems result from a tough past. Why? Because we find it easier to relate to non-biological causes of emotional distress.2

So what’s the take-home message from this?

I think we need to try to remember that people can (and do) make mistakes, that they can change, and that we ourselves can make the mistake of misjudging someone negatively (which, if we can believe this research, is more than likely).

This awareness frees us up to watch people’s behaviour dispassionately, not expecting it to be ‘bad’ or ‘good’ until we see actual evidence in the here and now.

Okay, time to get a little weird(er!).

Research piece two: A moment on the nose, forever on the hips

Next time you’re tempted by a double cheeseburger and a mountain of chips the size of Everest, try holding your nose or clipping a peg over your nostrils. (Great if you’re out on a hot date!)

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that mice who wore tiny pegs over their noses (just kidding, their methods were slightly more scientific than that!) lost weight even when they ate exactly the same quantity and quality of food as their non-olfactory-challenged companions.3

Science Daily summarizes the research thus:

“Researchers developed ways to temporarily eliminate the sense of smell in adult mice, and discovered that those mice that lost smell could eat a high-fat diet and stay a normal weight, while littermates that retained the sense of smell ballooned to twice normal weight. Supersmellers gained more weight than did normal mice on the same high-fat diet. Smell-deficient mice burned excess fat instead of storing it, suggesting a link between smell and metabolism.”

Supersmellers? Really? Yes!

It is strange though. I mean, you and I know very well that smelling delicious mice food can make us want to eat loads of the stuff, but it seems that there is something about smelling that actually makes mice get fatter in and of itself, even when they don’t eat more.

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Remember, the smell-deficient mice were eating the exact same quantities. Not being able to smell didn’t make them eat less, but it did make them metabolize that food differently and store less of it as body fat.

So what’s going on here?

Well, it seems that the odor of the food we consume may have a large (if you’ll excuse the pun) roll (sorry, that was another one!)… I mean, role in how the body stores or burns calories. If you’re a mouse who can’t smell your food, you may burn it rather than store it. But who knows, maybe the same goes if you’re a human.

And now to be a little less facetious.

What really struck me about this was this comment by Céline Riera, a former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow now at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles:

“Humans who lose their sense of smell because of age, injury or diseases such as Parkinson’s often become anorexic [I’d like to know how often “often” is], but the cause has been unclear because loss of pleasure in eating also leads to depression, which itself can cause loss of appetite.”

It’s not so much how many calories we eat, but what those calories are made of and how they are used in the human body. Some calories, such as the ones we get from sugar, are great at being stored as fat in the body. Others, less so.

This is actually really interesting and will hopefully help us find ways or at least new understandings of a whole host of issues relating to obesity.

The next study to catch my eye could well be filed under “No sh*t Sherlock!”

Research piece three: The vicious circle of relationship insecurity

The most popular article I ever wrote was on relationship insecurity. It suggests that over-monitoring a partner because of relationship fears and doubts may cause the other person to withdraw (no one wants to be constantly questioned, spied upon, or doubted) and so bring about the very circumstances the insecure partner feared. A classic vicious circle.

Now, research has caught up with common sense. A study at Florida State University found that “High levels of fluctuation in how secure an individual feels in his or her relationship may actually doom its success.”4

So far, so obvious. But this element did make me think: “when women experienced this anxiety, their male partners experienced similar volatility in their feelings about the relationship.”

It seems that a woman’s feelings, or at least insecure feelings, determine the emotional temperature of the relationship, at least in these negative aspects.

My take?

Well, one thing’s for sure. Wanting something too badly can drive it away. Trying to force someone to love you is a form of control, and people don’t like feeling that others are trying to control them. And if you look for confirmation of your doubts, you’ll find them – so stop looking.

But whatever your situation, there is one ingredient in life that will help you buffer just about any storm. And that’s a sense of purpose.

The benefits of feeling a sense of meaning in life can be helpful not just in wakefulness, but in the hours between as well.

Research piece four: Purpose in life by day, better sleep by night

Having a strong sense of purpose, and presumably working hard to enact that purpose, leads to better sleep in older adults.

Science Daily reports the results of a new study at Northwestern University:5

Having a purpose in life means you are more likely to sleep better at night with less sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, reports a new study. Cultivating a purpose in life could be [a] drug-free strategy to improve sleep, scientists said.

The study participants were older adults – who tend to have more insomnia and sleep disturbances – but researchers said the findings are likely applicable to the broader public.

This study is significant because it is longitudinal, meaning it shows a correlation between sense of meaning – having a reason to get out of bed in the morning – and better sleep quality over an extended time period.

This makes perfect sense. Previous research has linked longevity to a strong sense of purpose.6 That is, people die less (well, we all die, but you know what I mean) when sense of purpose is strong.

Having a sense of purpose is one of the Human Givens, a central part of what it means to be human, and along with the other basic emotional needs constitutes a basic human drive. We need meaning. Things have to matter to us. Without a sense of personal meaning, things quickly go wrong.

One of the first signs of depression, or at least low morale, is a sense of meaninglessness: “what I do doesn’t matter, so why bother?”

I recommend concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ for an inspirational account of the importance of feeling one’s life and work matters in surviving the worst conditions you can imagine.

If we have a ‘why’, then we will discover the ‘how’ as far as overcoming adversity is concerned. Meaningless suffering is much harder than meaningful suffering. But the point is, we can make meaning.

Of course, people garner their sense of meaning in different ways. It may be work, family, some life quest, or to serve others. When working with clients or caring for anyone, perhaps the most important question to ask is this: “What does/could get this person really engaged in their life?”

People can have all the wealth and power in the world, but if they feel no sense of purpose depression will slowly wrap its freezing arms around them.

On a brighter note, let me share with you the world’s easiest way to be smarter.

Research piece five: Dump your smartphone, boost your brain power

A study published last month at the University of Texas at Austin demonstrated that people’s cognitive performance suffered merely by having their smartphones in view.7 But here’s the clincher – the phones were switched off.

In fact, it made no difference whether the phone was off or silent, face-up or face-down, nearby or far away. It wasn’t until the phone was actually moved to another room that thinking and performance returned to normal. It seems that just having the phone in the room is enough to make it harder to think.

Unsurprisingly, those who reported more phone dependency suffered the highest loss of cognitive ability when the phone was in sight.

The participants in the study weren’t being distracted by continual notification bleeps, so just what was it that was impairing their cognitive ability? The authors of the study suggest that there is a kind of brain capacity drain through the effort of trying not to think about your phone, and all the treasures it might hold for you. For the most part, this is unconscious.

I tend to agree. But I also suspect that the phone is a means of trance induction. If you want to see hypnosis in action, all you need do is walk out the front door. It won’t be long before you encounter someone completely lost to their immediate environment, gazing into the oracle of technology, this neat little bundle of distraction.

If you consider that hypnosis is essentially a state of abstraction, the trance element to smartphone usage doesn’t seem so weird.

Just having this symbol of “there must be something happening which is more significant/exciting elsewhere” primes us to lose focus on what is happening here. That’s my guess, anyhow.

Smartphones can cause us to lose focus on the present momentClick To Tweet

The smartphone is a symbol of possibility, and symbols prime us to feel and be a certain way. Symbols matter.

If you don’t believe in the power of symbols, try carrying a flag with a Nazi swastika around your local town. I dare you! Actually, please don’t, but you get my point. A few lines causes automatic association and might even get you arrested.

The smartphone is so much more than just a small metallic object. It lets you feel you are up to date, in communication, and perhaps not forgotten. It is the symbol of our time, a vehicle of profound meaning.

Like the click of a hypnotist’s fingers, symbols prompt us to feel and think in certain ways.

I am not against smartphones, by the way. In fact, there’s one about 30 centimetres from me right now, which might be why I’m going to have to rewrite parts of this.

But if we want to give our lives more meaning and find real purpose, we may have to stop being quite so led by the nose down every whimsical electronic pathway that demands we follow its course. The smartphone should be a tool – not a seductive tyrant.

Trance has its place, but it’s no way to live.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these random bits of recent research and my take on what they might mean in the wider scheme of things. Please feel free to add your own – possibly much better! – ideas in the comments below.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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