The Psychological and Scientific Events of 2012: Yawns, Pouts, Crabs and Earworm

Everyone has a year-end retrospective.  Let’s join that bandwagon. Here is a retrospective on some of the events and studies that highlighted the psychological, scientific and health context of the times.   Some events went viral (Item number 1); some studies went relatively unnoticed (as most research articles do). I am here to make note of them in my own snarky way.  It was a year where mental health needs became part of the national consciousness and social bonds and networks became embedded in our collective and individual psyche.  Whether social media is a force for good is still up for debate.  Many are pathologizing its use.  Here is to the good, the bad and the ugly. Onwards to 2013.

  1. Coming in second and the concept of counterfactual thinking.  This year, due to the infamous “I’m not impressed” look that McKayla Maroney had while she stood at the Olympics podium the world was reminded of a major psychological finding (Medvec, Madey & Gilovich; 1995). Psychological research has shown that coming in second can feel emotionally worse than coming in third: winning silver feels worse than winning bronze.  When you come in third (winning bronze) you may think “oh my god, I did it. I got a medal.” When you win a silver medal, you may think to yourself “oh my god, IF only I had tried a little harder, I could have won.”  The reason for the increased feeling of frustration is explained by the concept of counterfactual thinking. People who win silver oftentimes evaluate their situation in terms of “what might have been.” To adapt Marlon Brando’s famous Waterfront line, winning silver feels like “I could have won, I could have been a contender for the gold.”
  2. Bullying is everywhere (including nature) and changes many environments (including DNA).   Research on bullying is all the rage. Type into Google “bullying research findings” for 2012 and you get over 9000 hits. This past year research was published on homophobic bullying, cyber bullying, workplace bullying, prisoner bullying, social identity theory & bullying, ecological models of bullying, and multifactor models of bullying –just to name a few thousand articles. I wonder how many people read any of those?  Here are two articles that I found of interest and that I actually read.  Research out of UC Berkeley (Laidre, Patten, & Pruitt, 2012) found that terrestrial hermit crabs have been observed grouping together to ‘evict’ a larger hermit crab from its shell, and then each trade up with each other to each get a larger shell.  It’s outright bullying behavior out in the wild.  Hermit crabs bully others just the same way people bully others in the workplace.  Another study (Ouellet-Morin, 2012) found bullying may have a serious physiological impact on children, altering their DNA and affecting the way they deal with stress in later life. The take home message from this research is that DNA may not be immutable. That’s big news. Plus, the gene responsible for producing serotonin is impacted by social interactions leading it to become less capable of managing moods and depression. Psychology does matter (despite my tough love attitude) and so does context!
  3. Changes in the DSM: Sign of the times?  The bible of psychology—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)— has been set to change during the past decade. Many different groups lobbied for inclusion, exclusion or new definitions of certain disorders.  Perhaps due to the popularity and downright creepiness of the Hoarders show, hoarding is now a disorder listed in the bible. Asperger’s disorder will no longer be a separate condition, but is now under autism.  Now, we have “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder” which I think I can use to classify employees?  Specifically, it is a “persistent irritability and frequent episodes of behavior outbursts three or more times a week for more than a year”.  Yup, definitely can be used in the workplace.  A major change, that got much media attention, is that identifying as transgender will no longer be listed as “gender identity disorder.”  The term is replaced by “gender dysphoria.”  Such a change has been met with cheers by many but also with some trepidation.  It may now be harder for people who identify as transgender to receive medical services.  All together, these changes reflect, to a certain extent the times we live in; although they are supposed to reflect the best scientific evidence out there. Can’t wait to see what 2023 brings in terms of the next DSM.
  4. Mental health needs are becoming part of the national discussion.  The DSM changes shined, to some degree, a spotlight on mental health issues.  However, it took a mass shooting at an elementary school to bring mental health needs to the forefront of the national consciousness. What will result from this discussion is still to be seen.  How will mental health be de-stigmatized? Interestingly and oddly, late in 2012, Lady Gaga announced that she will be offering free counseling at her Born Brave Bus before each show on her 2013 Born This Way Ball Tour. Is that the start we need in this discussion?
  5. Identity is a sum of a whole being and not a fractured set of items. Considering the previous items on this list, Obama’s evolution on gay marriage, the election of the first lesbian to the Senate, and the passage of state laws allowing for gay marriage, it has been a year of progress for LGBT rights and overall health. In that vein, researchers (Vega, Spieldenner, & Tang, 2012) found that Latino gay men want to be seen as a whole person instead of just being gay, Latino or a New Yorker.  Go figure, people want to be seen as the sum of their whole being instead of as individual parts. Speaking of which, this past year, many celebrity gay men (Frank Ocean, Anderson Cooper, Jim Parsons and Andrew Rannells came out, the world didn’t end and they continued doing what they do best and were continued to be beloved for it. For that matter, Hispanics/Latinos also came roaring in the national spotlight and noted they weren’t just a one-issue voting block.
  6. Health issues do rise from the 9/11 ashes. Personally, I do not understand why this is still being disputed.  It’s distasteful, offensive and nonsensical.  Yet, we needed to have another study remind the powers that be that there are health consequences to the recovery efforts that took place at Ground Zero.  Researchers (Stellman, et al., 2012) found that five to seven years after 9/11, rescue and recovery workers face a 43% higher risk of prostate cancer compared to other residents of New York State during that same time, even after the scientists adjusted for age, sex, race, and smoking status. Can we please help these people out?
  7. Flab, organ fat, chewing and musculo-skeletal fitness are part of the diet and health watercooler talk.   According to a study conducted at U of Birmingham (Higgs & Jones, 2012) the secret to fighting flab is to chew each mouthful of lunch for 30 seconds before swallowing it.  In a different study (Hairston et al., 2012) researchers found that an increase in visceral fat (fat around the organs) was associated with a lack of sleep for those under the age of 40. Note that organ fat is associated with really bad health outcomes, as you can imagine. What’s more, researchers noticed that Hispanic men and black women showed the strongest association between lack of sleep and the increase in abdominal fat.  We were also reminded this year that thin flab can be a harbinger of future heart disease (Bell et al., 2012).  So, you may not be overweight, but you could be over-flabby. Lastly, a study (Araújo et al., 2012) that kind of creeped me out found that musculo-skeletal fitness is “strong predictor” of mortality in the middle-aged and older.  Try sitting on the floor using as little hand- or knee-support as possible. Then try to stand up without resorting to using their hands or knees if they were able.  Can you do this without support? If no, get thee to a gym and work on that flab pronto!
  8. Solo rock stars need a support network in order to Not Die Young—AND Twitter may just save them! Ok. I have combined two “findings” to create this headline.  What? It’s not like I work for Fox News (wait, this headline may just get me such a dreamy job). A study released this past year (Bellis, Hughes, Sharpell, Hennell, & Hardcastle, 2012) found that 10.2%  of North American band performers died young, compared with 22.8% of solo artists. In Europe, 5.4 % of band performers died young, compared with 9.8% percent of solo artists.  The authors note that substance abuse and car crashes accounted for nearly 40% of the deaths and they also note that many of these artists reportedly had endured childhood traumas.  Solo artists face tremendous amount of adulation and adoration and may not have a social support network to lean on. Here is where social media comes in! A recent analysis by the reputable research journal called Entertainment Weekly noted singers, in comparison to actors, had more social media (twitter; facebook) followers.  The primary reason is that singers have a distinct brand.  Thus, those of you who follow singers on twitter-go look for the solo artists and give them some social media love and social network support. You will be doing a good deed.
  9. Motivation to work hard and good study techniques, not IQ, lead to better math skills (Murayama, 2012).   This study to me is a bit of a Duh! Yes, many believe that certain ethnic groups will be better with math than others (the stereotype of Asians and Jews being good at math). Thus, a study that finds that motivation is a key factor is highly welcomed. It gives hope for the future of the United States –a country that has fallen way behind other countries in terms of children’s math scores.   The problem with this study is that psychologists know that behavior is the product of the person by the environment-so, of course, motivation (being part of the context) will be a key factor. The other problem is that the study was done with German participants. We all know historically what they can accomplish when highly motivated we need a study with lazy US students. In all seriousness, a recent study (German Pension Fund, 2012) found that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Germans seeking early retirement because of psychological problems.  Specifically, depression and burnout force more people out of work than cardio vascular diseases or cancer.  41% sought early retirement in 2011 because depression or burn out made it impossible for them to continue working.  Is this due to increased workload or less stigma surrounding mental health problems?
  10. Yawning is supposedly a sign of social bonding. First, we were told that yawns can occur contagiously across species (dogs and humans) and are a sign of your bond with your pet. I bought into that. Now, researchers (Norscia &  Palagi, 2012) found through rigorous statistical analyses (their words) that people are more likely to respond to a yawn with another yawn if the other person is a family member or friend. Contagious yawns are least likely among strangers.  Hmm. Perhaps one is bored by family members and not so much by strangers? Move on to the next study and next set of statistical analyses requiring high levels of rigor. Before moving on, I do want to note that due to 4-D technology, we now know that fetuses yawn (Reissland, 2012). Apparently, fetuses do not yawn contagiously, nor do they yawn because they are sleepy.  Instead, they may yawn as a brain development milestone. Hmm. That sounds more telling to me. It would explain all my yawns at business meetings, academic presentations and ego-maniac’s monologues. My brain is developing at an enhanced rate (probably due to trying to figure out how to not poke my eyes out but still look interested).
  11. Apparently, humans-especially Americans- are addicted to many things, including their cell phone.  Based on a study conducted with college students (Roberts & Pirog, 2012) researchers found that cellphone use appears to be driven by both materialistic and impulsive tendencies.  What type of cell phone? If it is a smart phone-of course, you will be attached to it night and day. It is your phone, computer, camera, note taker and connection to a wide network outside world. If you have said phone, you are probably more likely to get real-time information and perhaps be able to act on that information in a quicker manner. To me, it seems that many researchers these days are looking for all sorts of things for us to be addicted to.  Find an addiction, sell a cure. Find an addiction, attain tenure. Find an addiction, get coverage from the mainstream media. Perhaps there is an addiction to finding an addiction? Do I sound skeptical?  Perhaps we are addicted to technology because it’s new and exciting and we will move on to the next exciting thing shortly thereafter? Speaking of addictions, two conflicting reports were released this year in which the Tobacco Harm Reduction project explained that e-cigarettes might actually help smokers kick the habit; while the Italian Health Ministry found that there is currently no scientific proof that e-cigarettes can help people stop smoking. What’s a smoker to do?   Now, while there are attempts to classify cell phone use as an addiction, note that Hypersexual disorder — what’s popularly termed sex addiction — did not make it into DSM-5.  So, Russell Brand can be a cell phone addict but not a sex addict?
  12. Does your ear ring with a consistent nagging song? Its earworm! A study (Hyman ,2012) found that  “earworms,”  which are songs that get stuck in your head,  lodge themselves in our brains one verse at a time. It’s sort of like an unfinished thought that just stays below awareness level. More often than not, it’s a recent song that you have heard.  However, the study doesn’t give us a solution for that earworm. As Entertainment Weekly noted (Year End Special ) 2012 was the year “the lyrics ‘shine bright like a diamond’ never left our head [and] we need a lobotomy to remove them.”  Personally, my earworm was Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”:

Cause I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now, flew me to places I’d never been
Till you put me down

Trouble trouble trouble


         13. The recency effect is alive and well. The majority of the entries in this blog are from the latter half of the year; just as most of the Oscar-nominated films  will be from the latter half of the year.  In terms of primacy versus recency, I think recency wins. It’s kind of like earworm.

So, there you have it!  My completely random choices for 2012.

What were your main science, psychology or health events/findings of the year?

What was your earworm?

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