Psychology Archive


What is Music For?

concert crowdWhy do we take pleasure of bathing our ears in certain frequencies of sound, modulated at various tempos? What, exactly, is this thing called music?

Given how ubiquitous music is in our daily lives, you might be surprised to learn that scientists have come up with no really solid explanations of what it’s all about. Archaeologists tell us our species has been enjoying it for a long time—the oldest known musical instrument, a flute, was made out of an extinct bear’s thigh bone some 50,000 years ago—so it’s clearly a deep-seated part of our psyche. But no one knows why we love it.

And this is strange, because most of the things we enjoy are obviously useful from the perspective of natural selection. We like looking at attractive members of the opposite sex because they are crucial to reproduction. We enjoy playing sports because they involve skills (throwing, hitting, moving in coordination with a group) that were crucial in Neolithic hunting and warfare. We enjoy novels and movies because they allow us to learn about the interpersonal dynamics that are crucial to our survival as social mammals.

Music, in contrast, doesn’t seem to help us do anything. Read the rest of this entry »


How Real Life Change Happens

businessman lost in field using a mapIf the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then most of us qualify as nuts. We want to change our lives for the better; we believe that we are capable of change; and yet we find ourselves perennially stuck in the same old rut. One study found that 90 percent of coronary bypass patients go back to their old, unhealthy eating habits within two years of their operation. Another found that a substantial majority of dieters regain all their weight within a year—or wind up even heavier than when they started.

We fail to change time after time because we profoundly overestimate our stores of willpower. Psychologists call this failing “restraint bias.” We confidently make resolutions to change and assume we’ll be able to bulldoze our urges because we’re bad at remembering how tempting temptation can be. When we’re full, we forget how irresistible that bacon triple cheeseburger is when we’re hungry. So we allow ourselves to walk into situations in which our willpower is going to be overwhelmed.

That’s not to say that all resolutions are necessarily doomed. People do transform their lives, every day. But for the most part they don’t do it by relying on willpower. The key, it turns out, is to simply start behaving like the person you want to become. Instead of wondering, What should I do?, imagine your future, better self and ask: What would they do? Read the rest of this entry »


Deadly Mind Tricks

MIND TRICK: “One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.”

Domino Effect: The problem began with a minor malfunction. Scott Showalter, a 34-year-old Virginia dairy farmer, was trying to transfer manure from one holding pit to another when the pipe between them became clogged. As he’d done before, he climbed down to free the obstruction. But what he neither saw nor sensed was the invisible layer of hydrogen sulfide gas that filled the bottom of the pit. He keeled over within seconds. When an employee, Amous Stolzfus, climbed down to Showalter’s aid, he too succumbed, but not before his shouts drew the attention of Showalter’s wife and two of their daughters, ages 9 and 11. One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.

Readers’s Digest reprinted a condensed version of my Psychology Today article on the lure of fatal mistakes. You can read the whole thing here.



The Grandeur of Delusion

A patient lies in a hospital bed in the neurological ward, his head wrapped in bandages. He’s just suffered a major trauma to the brain. The injury has wiped out the region that controls motion in his left arm. More than that, it’s destroyed the man’s ability to even conceive of what moving his arm would be like.

He’s paralyzed, in other words, but he doesn’t know that. He can’t know.

“Would you be so kind as to raise your left hand?” his doctor asks.

“Certainly,” the patient. But the hand remains where it is. “It’s gotten tangled up in the sheets,” the man explains.

The doctor points out that his arm is lying free and unencumbered on top of the sheets.

“Well, yes,” the man says. “But I just don’t feel like lifting it right now.”

The inability to recognize one’s own disability is a disorder called anosognosia, and it offers an unusually clear window into that peculiarly infuriating and astonishing aspect of human psychology: our seemingly boundless capacity for delusion. Faced with stark and unambiguous information that a part of their body is paralyzed, anosognosia patients can effortlessly produce a stream of arguments as to why this is simply not the case. They’re not lying; they themselves actually believe in the validity of their claims.

The disorder sounds bizarre, but we all do something similar on a daily basis. Though we’d like to think that we mold our beliefs to fit with the reality that surrounds, but there’s a natural human impulse to do the reverse: to mold our reality so that it fits with our beliefs, no matter how flimsy their justification may be. Read the rest of this entry »


MIND TRAPS: The fatal mistake of hanging on too long — UPDATE

Alert reader Serbia Milan has dug up a bunch of fascinating historic film clips of the USS Akron tragedy of May 11, 1932, when 2 sailors died after holding on too long to the mooring lines of a US Navy dirigible.

Read the rest of this entry »


Laughter’s Secret Purpose

[This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Brain from Discover magazine.]

While a trilling ha-ha-ha or hearty chortle might seem like the simplest and most effortless thing in the world, but laughter is actually a multifaceted neurological process that recruits circuitry from all over the brain. And despite its tremendous familiarity, laughter has received little attention from science, at least until recently. Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University College, London, and her colleagues are using brain scans and field studies to document the diversity of human laughing behavior. They find that laughter is both universal and deep-seated, playing a crucial role in the social bonds that have helped us survive as a species. Laughter makes us happy because it ties us together, she believes. When it comes to parsing its cognitive significance, she finds the old verse has it right: Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

Laughter seems pretty simple: Something funny happens, and we laugh. What is the deeper aspect you are studying?

If you ask people what makes them laugh, they’ll tell you that they laugh at jokes. But if you go out in the field and observe people laughing, you’ll see that most of this behavior occurs in conversation. When you laugh, you’re saying that not only do you find something amusing, but that you’re agreeing with somebody, that you’ve got something in common with them, or that you’re part of the same group. It’s a social emotion: You laugh more if you’re with other people than if you’re on your own.  You laugh more with people that you like, you laugh more if you’re with people you would like to like you. Most of the work of laughter is to help you form bonds with people, maintain those bonds, and demonstrate that the bonds exist. Read the rest of this entry »


Slate: About That Overpopulation Problem

Photo by Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images.

[This piece originally appeared on on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013]

The world’s seemingly relentless march toward overpopulation achieved a notable milestone in 2012: Somewhere on the planet, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the 7 billionth living person came into existence.

Lucky No. 7,000,000,000 probably celebrated his or her birthday sometime in March and added to a population that’s already stressing the planet’s limited supplies of food, energy, and clean water. Should this trend continue, as the Los Angeles Times noted in a five-part series marking the occasion, by midcentury, “living conditions are likely to be bleak for much of humanity.”

A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.

And then it will fall. Read the rest of this entry »


In Pursuit of McAfee, Media Are Part of Story

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

[This piece ran in the December 9, 2012 edition of the New York Times.]

Late last month, the editor in chief of Vice magazine, Rocco Castoro, joined by a photographer, Robert King, managed to secure a plum exclusive: an invitation to travel along with the fugitive tech millionaire John McAfee.

Years earlier, Mr. McAfee had relocated to a Colonel Kurtz-like compound in the jungles of Belize, surrounding himself with armed guards and multiple young lovers. Then, with reports that he was a “person of interest” in the death of a neighbor, Mr. McAfee had gone on the lam. Last Monday, after several days of surreptitious travel, Mr. Castoro and Mr. King posted their first dispatch. It bore the smirking headline, “We Are With John McAfee Right Now, Suckers.”

The gloating was short-lived, however. Within minutes, a reader noticed that the photograph posted with the story still contained GPS location data embedded by the iPhone 4S that took it, and sent out a message via Twitter: “Check the metadata in the photo. Oooops …” Vice quickly replaced the image, but it was too late. “Oops! Did Vice Just Give Away John McAfee’s Location With Photo Metadata?” a headline asked. The article included a Google Earth view of the exact spot the picture had been taken — poolside at the Hotel & Marina Nana Juana in Izabal, Guatemala.

Soon, the Guatemalan police were with John McAfee. This weekend, he is in their custody and is expected to be extradited to Belize, where he faces questioning in connection with the murder of Gregory Faull, a 52-year-old American who was his neighbor. Mr. McAfee’s lawyers are appealing his extradition.

The Vice debacle was just one colorful twist in the relationship between the press, which is always willing to indulge a colorful subject, and Mr. McAfee, who was always eager to bend news coverage to his often inscrutable ends. Read the rest of this entry »


Is John McAfee Crazy?

[This piece originally appeared on on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012]

From the moment antivirus pioneer John McAfee went on the lam from Belize authorities three weeks ago, the basic question hanging over the story was: Is John McAfee crazy?

Questions about the soundness of his judgment began almost as soon as his neighbor, Gregory Faull, turned up dead with a gunshot wound to the back of the head on the morning of Nov. 11. Though the police in Belize hadn’t even named him a suspect (and still haven’t), McAfee went on the run, a move that seemed dubious to anyone familiar with criminal proceedings. “Why the hell would he move?” asks Ted Brown, an experienced criminal defense attorney. “If I killed my neighbor, I would stay put. Express surprise.” Read the rest of this entry »


Exclusive: John McAfee Wanted for Murder (Updated)

[The following piece ran on on November 12, 2012]

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee is on the run from murder charges, Belize police say. According to Marco Vidal, head of the national police force’s Gang Suppression Unit, McAfee is a prime suspect in the murder of American expatriate Gregory Faull, who was gunned down Saturday night at his home in San Pedro Town on the island of Ambergris Caye.

Details remain sketchy so far, but residents say that Faull was a well-liked builder who hailed originally from California Florida. The two men had been at odds for some time. Last Wednesday, Faull filed a formal complaint against McAfee with the mayor’s office, asserting that McAfee had fired off guns and exhibited “roguish behavior.” Their final disagreement apparently involved dogs.

UPDATE: Here is the official police statement:

On Sunday the 11th November, 2012 at 8:00am acting upon information received, San Pedro Police visited 5 ¾ miles North of San Pedro Town where they saw 52 year old U.S National Mr. GREGORY VIANT FAULL, of the said address, lying face up in a pool of blood with an apparent gunshot wound on the upper rear part of his head apparently dead. Initial investigation revealed that on the said date at 7:20am LUARA TUN, 39years, Belizean Housekeeper of Boca Del Rio Area, San Pedro Town went to the house of Mr. Faull to do her daily chores when she saw him laying inside of the hall motionless, Faull was last seen alive around 10:00pm on 10.11.12 and he lived alone. No signs of forced entry was seen, A (1) laptop computer brand and serial number unknown and (1) I-Phone was discovered missing. The body was found in the hall of the upper flat of the house. A single luger brand 9 mm expended shells was found at the first stairs leading up to the upper flat of the building. The body of Faull was taken to KHMH Morgue where it awaits a Post Mortem Examination. Police have not established a motive so far but are following several leads.

As we reported last week, McAfee has become increasingly estranged from his fellow expatriates in recent years. His behavior has become increasingly erratic, and by his own admission he had begun associating with some of the most notorious gangsters in Belize.

Since our piece ran on last week, several readers have come forward with additional information that sheds light on the change in McAfee’s behavior. Read the rest of this entry »