Category Archives: Research

Your Brain Has No-Fault Insurance

Hey, remember that time you cheated, stole, lied or [insert another lapse of ethics here]?

No? If your memory of past transgressions is hazy, there’s a scientific explanation for that. It seems that humans are blessed with “unethical amnesia.” We have trouble recalling our own bad behaviour.

A set of studies at Harvard and Northwestern University shows that when we act dishonourably, we tend to forget the details more quickly compared to other kinds of memories. Apparently, we’re so invested in maintaining a positive self-image that our brains try to avoid any evidence to the contrary. So when people cheat on their taxes or lie to their bosses, they unconsciously refrain from thinking too hard about it – lest it threaten their belief that they are good, kind and pure souls.

What’s the solution? If you start a practice of reflecting back on your day’s deeds, your brain won’t be able to blur out the bad times quite so easily. “A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them,” co-author Maryam Kouchaki says in a press release.

Sure, it may be painful to relive your more imperfect moments. But perhaps it’s worth it, if it helps you behave better next time.


Watch out, son, it’s a slippery slope. Today it’s just cheating on a math test, but tomorrow it’s offshore tax evasion… (Photo by stockimages/

Bitter Pill

A pill that lowers your empathy for others – not real, right? Strictly science fiction, right?

Wrong. It’s very real. And chances are, you already have it in your medicine cabinet at home.

In a crazier-than-Hollywood finding, researchers at Ohio State University have announced that acetaminophen – that’s the active ingredient in Tylenol – doesn’t just dampen your own feelings of pain. It actually seems to reduce your empathy for the pain that other people are feeling.

That applies to both pain in the physical sense, as in, “Boy, that stubbed toe sure smarts!”, as well as emotional suffering, as in, “Boy, I sure could use a hug!”

In their experiment, the researchers gave acetaminophen to half the participants, while the other half got a placebo. After waiting for the drugs (or pretend drugs) to kick in, the two groups listened to different scenarios in which a person experienced some kind of pain: a cringeworthy knife cut, for instance, or the loss of a parent. The participants were asked to rate how much pain they thought the person was feeling.

Weirdly, the group on acetaminophen seemed rather numb to the suffering of others. On average, compared to the group on placebo, they tended to rate the pain lower on a scale of 1 to 10.

The researchers describe it as a decrease in empathy.

“Empathy is important,” the study’s senior author points out in a news release. “If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

He went on to say that if we want our loved ones to care about us, we should keep all their medications hidden away.

Okay, I’m not serious about that last part. But it’s certainly a thought-provoking experiment. Now, if they could just discover a pill that has the opposite effect…


Imagine a pill that makes you sweeter… for me, it would be gourmet jelly beans. (Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee /

Send Hugs. They Help.

It’s rather creepy to think that folks at Facebook are reading everything you post on their social network. But they are. It’s fine because it’s in the name of science. Besides, their findings are fascinating.

Two Facebook researchers recently analyzed millions of status updates. (Not to worry, the identities were removed, so they don’t actually know what your restaurant meal looked like or how much you enjoyed Zootopia.) The researchers did uncover some notable differences, depending on whether the posts were positive (“My brilliant kid just scored a full scholarship to her top university!” “My husband is the most attentive man on earth!” “I may never come home from this amazing dream vacation in Tahiti!”) or negative (“Blew the job interview!” “Will this back pain ever go away?” “Missing my dog…”).

It turns out that when we write about our struggles, it’s much more likely to provoke comments from friends. And these comments are more emotional, more supportive and lengthier compared to comments made under positive status updates. Friends are also likely to send us private messages of support when they hear troubling news.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that this is a good reason to share our troubles on social media. “Your tough times can bring out the best in your friends—and help make Facebook a better place for everyone,” says an article on the centre’s website. Your network will rally, admirably, to help you get you through a challenging situation. You won’t suffer alone.

Well, we all have our own comfort levels and TMI buffers, so I’m not so quick to suggest that we should paste all our problems onto Facebook, sit back and wait for the fruit baskets to arrive. But on the other hand, I’ve also witnessed what a comfort it has been for friends and colleagues, after experiencing an unspeakable tragedy, to have that tremendous online support. It doesn’t excise the pain, but it does provide some solace.

For me, the takeaway is this: If you’re considering reaching out to your network with bad news, don’t hesitate. They’re there for you. And, conversely, when we read about a friend’s terrible distress, and we’re debating whether or not to post a comment, we should feel encouraged to extend our sympathy and support. Because chances are it will make a difference. And at a time like this, that’s all we want to do for our friend, isn’t it?

This post is dedicated to the memory of A.S.


It’s Always Darkest Before the Yawn

She loves me, she loves me not: If you want to know how connected your pal feels to you, try yawning in her presence. The tighter your social bond, the more likely she is to yawn in response to you.

There are a lot of theories about why we yawn, why it’s contagious, and how come some people are more susceptible to infectious yawning than others. It could be genetic. It might be a survival instinct to keep a group out of danger. And it has something to do with age – older people and younger children seem more immune.

Currently, there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest links with empathy. That’s why a group of biologists at the University of Pisa figured that since women are known to have more developed empathic abilities than men (sorry, guys, but it has to do with our traditional roles of tending the kids and making sure our clans get along), perhaps they’d be more susceptible to contagious yawns. They tested this out and found that not only were women, as expected, more likely to catch a yawn than men – but yawns were also more contagious between close friends and family members, and less contagious between people they barely knew.

So if you want to measure the loyalty of your female friend, catch her eye and do some dramatic yawning. (Either that, or ask for a loan, and see how that goes.)

Personally, I’m convinced I have a severe case of yawnitis. I yawn when I see someone else yawning, when I look at a picture of someone yawning, when I write the word yawning, when I think about yawning, even when I watch a drawbridge opening. In fact, I’ve yawned thirty-six times already while writing this blog. Either I’m tight as glue with every person on the planet… or I need another go at the morning coffee. Suspicions are strong it’s the latter.


Aw, look at that. She likes you, she really likes you. (Photo by David Castillo Dominici /

All Smiles

How about this new study from the Psychology department at the University of British Columbia? Researchers found that young children aged five to seven have stronger reactions to happy, smiling faces than angry ones. They perceive these positive facial expressions as more intense, and they’re more tuned in to the information conveyed by human beings who are beaming.

That’s a surprise, because apparently by adulthood we’re more attuned to negative faces than positive ones. Presumably, that’s because there’s survival value in picking up quickly on threats and other bad news. When someone is frowning, we know we ought to pay close attention to whatever it is they’re about to tell us. (If we’re lucky, it’s more on the scale of an outrageous dry-cleaning bill, as opposed to a massive alien invasion.)

So why do little kids show the opposite pattern? Why do they have a stronger response to happy smiles? Maybe it’s the way we’re raising them, suggests co-author Rebecca Todd in a press release, noting: “In North American culture we really give a lot of positive reinforcement to our kids.”

I guess what she’s saying is that our kids are used to receiving all their critical information – don’t pick your nose, keep your hands away from the stove, say thank you to Grandma – from a happy-looking face. We don’t scowl at them, but rather guide them with never-ending patience and sweetness. (Are you laughing as hard as I am right now? Hm, maybe that’s where the smiley-face business comes from.)

But seriously, as 21st-century parents go, we are a pretty nice sort. And I like the idea that we are capable of teaching them crucial life lessons without anger or physical force. That our children are getting a whole lot of loving-kindness in their lives. Maybe we do raise our voices once in a while – we’re not perfect. But at least our kids are learning that smiles are important.

If you ask me, that’s a crucial life lesson right there.


“Son, next we’re going to talk about why you shouldn’t flush the hamsters down the toilet… uh, ever again.” (Photo courtesy of stockimages /

Chocolate, Sweetness: Now I See the Connection

Today’s the fourth annual Giving Tuesday. It’s a relatively new tradition of taking stock of your wallet after Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and thinking more about charity, less about the sale price you scored on that stainless-steel, one-touch espresso machine.

A recent British survey by Galaxy Hot Chocolate shows we’re not too shabby when it comes to giving. (You already knew this, didn’t you, readers?) The survey found that about 3 in 4 people will pay it forward whenever someone does them a good deed. In fact, they do 1.27 acts of kindness for every one good deed done to them. That’s an average, of course – I don’t think these sweet-lovin’ folk are suggesting people will pick up only a quarter of a piece of garbage, or give a quarter of the directions to a lost stranger.

The same research found that the most frequent good deed – at least in Britain, although I can personally verify that this is not uncommon in Canada – is holding the door open for someone else. (Again, we recommend you go more than a quarter of the way on this one.)

These good deeds don’t take more than a few seconds of your time. And yet, if this survey is accurate, they spawn even more acts of kindness for other people. It’s like a virus, only with fewer sniffles…


I’m looking for the ripple effect, but it’s hard to see under all those mini-marshmallows… (Photo courtesy of OZphotography /


Happy Twits

“Boy, am I hungover!” Truthfully, as I’m writing this, I don’t yet know the outcome of our federal election. So I can’t actually predict how I’ll be feeling when this blog is posted on Tuesday morning. I suspect I’ll be tired, having stayed up past my bedtime for the voting results and speeches. And yes, maybe I really will be suffering the wrath of grapes, either from toasting a victory… or from trying to drown my sorrows.

I can guarantee, though, that social media channels will be humming like a high-powered jackhammer on Tuesday morning. Almost everyone will have something to say about the election results, whether positive or negative.

Believe it or not, that distinction makes a difference when it comes to the staying power of a post.

And you know I have a research study to back this up, don’t you? Computer scientists at the University of California just released an analysis of almost 20 million tweets. The messages were filtered through an automatic sorting program and assigned scores of positivity or negativity. So, for instance, “Pedicures are beautiful #footfetish” is assigned to the positive group, while “Over-boiled spinach is the bolus of Satan” gets put with the negatives. (Note: These are fabricated examples and are not extracted from actual study data.)

The researchers then looked at what happened to the tweets, and their retweets, over time. (Wow, now there’s a sentence that would fail you in English in 1999.) They found that positive messages did tend to spread more slowly than negative ones. But they were also shared and favourited more. Eventually, positive tweets reach more people than negative ones.

The researchers call this positive bias. You may recall a study I reported on back in March that found that languages around the world are universally skewed to the positive. Whether we’re writing or speaking or composing lyrics, we refer to flowers and sunshine more often than doom and gloom.

Nice to know we have a natural urge to share positivity. And it’s such an easy good deed: Click “Retweet”; make your followers happy. On that note, I just made a point of logging onto Twitter, saw something positive, and retweeted it.

You’re welcome.

Flowers and sunshine.

Flowers and sunshine.