current events

The psychological and biological science of selfies, alcohol, football and politics

What will you remember 2013 by? Obviously many will think of Miley Cyrus and her odd twerking revolution. Others will think of the National Security Agency (NSA) and how naive we were to think that they weren’t checking our phone logs. Others will remember the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing. Then the media went crazy after a website –albeit an important one-didn’t work well enough upon going live. Shocker!  We also did surprisingly get a new Pope, who was also subsequently named Time Magazine’s person of the year because of his grand sense of humility.

In the background, and occasionally in the foreground, of 2013 was the world of science (broadly speaking) and its impact on the world through innovation or explanations of what makes us tick.  Yet, the belief in science may be at an all-time low.  A recent poll found that only 36% of Americans report having “a lot” of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable.   Having worked with academics trying to do public health research in communities at risk, I have seen that lack of trust in science; or rather scientists. As a researcher myself I like to note that it isn’t data that lies, but instead people that manipulate it.  I get it. The recent poll, further found that Republicans were most likely to say that they have only a little bit of trust in scientists to give accurate and reliable information, and the most likely to say that they think scientific findings may be tainted by political ideology — possibly reflecting distrust in scientists over topics such as evolution and climate change. Below I summarize some key scientific findings as they may pertain to politics, diseases, the self and alcohol/food as this is a psychologistmimi posting.

1. Political Ideology

We had the do nothing 113th Congress this past year.  The politicians did nothing, in part, because congressional members seemed to just dislike each other immensely and could not reach any sort of compromise.  However, recent research (Funk et al., 2013) finds that our genetic makeup may predispose us to certain political views.  Hmm. We are not made into rabid conservatives or liberals? We are supposedly born that way. How this bridges the polarized political gap is anyone’s guess.

In case you think all is loss, don’t fret. Scientists found that the Myxococcus xanthus bacteria, which is actually a single-cell soil bacterium, manages to create a social network and band together to avoid getting eaten. If the Myxococcus xanthus can come together for a shared purpose, so can congress and other ideological opponents.   Furthermore, scientists found that squabbling meerkats make better decisions. Conflict can lead to better results. However, this depends on having an overall shared goal such as avoiding becoming prey.
2. Diseases

There was research released touching upon a wide range of diseases. However, none got more media fanfare than the supposed personality disorder of “affluenza”.  A rich teenager stole some beer, went on a joy ride and ended up crashing the car and killing four people. He did not get sentenced to jail time because of the affluenza defense.  When the term was first used, it was meant as a critique of excessive consumerism and its impact on the happiness of society as a whole. Psychologist Oliver James has argued that countries with higher rates of income equality and excessive consumerism also have rates of mental disorders.  In the case of Ethan Couch, the defense attorney argued that he was the product of wealthy parents that didn’t know how to set boundaries –a symptom of affluenza. California is now considering a bill that would ban the use of “affluenza” as a defense in criminal cases.  Along this lien of research, studies written up this past year found that successful people tended to be “bad” (unethical) people. Is that why we are supposed to feel sorry (by Scorsese’s portrayal) for Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street?

Angelina Jolie made headlines this year not because of her family, her movies or her relationship with Brad Pitt, but because of her painful yet public decision to undergo a double mastectomy.  She did so because she carries the BRCA gene mutation. We have known for a while that genetic mutations can be linked to breast and ovarian cancer, specifically those called BRCA1 and BRCA2. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) went onto note that women with a family history of these cancers should be evaluated for possible connections to genetic mutations. However, not all women need this test. The data is still coming, therefore stay tuned.

In another controversial study, considering the number of school shootings as of late in the United States, researchers (Granic et al., 2013) found that video games can boost learning, health and social skills by strengthening a range of cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception.  I suppose at this point it is all about that key word of moderation.   Speaking of which, much debate and scientific review occurred this year around the impact of football on the brain.  Specifically, the Neurology journal released research that found that Alzheimer’s and concussions may be linked.  Although, many feel the need to dispute the link between traumatic brain injury and later memory impairment, the findings seem like a no-brainer to me.  How this and other such findings change the course of American football is still up in the air.  President Obama even came out and noted that he wouldn’t let his hypothetical son play pro football.  There was other research that found that Alzheimer’s and diabetes may be associated as well in that people with type 2 diabetes often have memory problems.  Seems we need more research on memory and Alzheimer’s going forward.

3. The Self

Apparently, there is a new syndrome. It is called the Selfie Syndrome. We have heard by now that Millennials cannot stop taking pictures of themselves. Even at funerals they are posing and snapping away. To be fair, however, it isn’t just that generation. At Mandela’s memorial, Obama was seen taking a smiling selfie.  Many think well what is the big deal?   According to recent research taking pictures may impair memories. In a recent study, researchers (Henkel et al; 2013) found that they were less likely to remember objects they photographed than objects they simply looked at. Such a study makes me feel good about my experience in Florence, where I was not allowed to take a photo of the famous David Statue.  At the time, I wondered how without a photograph we prove our existence anymore.   In that vein, in a recent plane crash in Hawaii, where a health department official died, a fellow passenger that survived, took time during the crash experience to take a selfie.  Even as we are about to die and presumably not be able to see the photograph later, we are tempted to capture the experience on camera.

In a different line of research, have you ever wondered about those couples that look like each other?  Recent research has found that people prefer partners with a 22% resemblance to themselves.   I recommend that you take a selfie together and see how much you look alike.  Speaking of mating and dating, according to research published May 1 in the journal Psychology of Music a guy is more likely to get a date if holding a guitar versus a gym bag.  I ask, did they control for the confounding variable of sweat?  Either way, rock on.  If you are trying to be more empathic and understand others, including potential mates, try reading serious literature.  Reading heavy stuff like Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, will help you relate to others. No word yet on what reading In Touch on a weekly basis does to the psyche.  Do you use your restroom time for reading?  Research has found that all mammals pee for approximately 21 seconds.  I think that calls for a course in speed reading.

4. Alcohol and Food

Food fetishism and drink adulation are my thing!  Interestingly, researchers found that sound is important in the enjoyment of our food. More specifically, the sound that our food makes in our mouths can impact how much we relish the meal. Crunchy chips can be a delight.  To me if something is squishy and sounds squishy, it is yucky.

Next time you are having a difficult time at work trying to come up with a solution, serve yourself some vodka.  Researchers this past year found that drinking alcohol can help with creativity in terms of problem solving. Woohoo! Does that mean by my stocked bar is a business write off?  Lastly, researchers found that a moderate amount of alcoholic drinks can actually boost one’s immune system . Thus, can we state a rum a day keeps the doctor away?  In case you don’t engage in moderation all the time, it would behoove you to know that bourbon causes a worse hangover. Yes, that was a funded research study.
Overall, scientists are making some big strides for certain diseases yet we still have a way to go in tackling cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV.  Furthermore, we learn more about human nature each day with such insightful studies that tackle our urination patterns and mating preferences. And in case you were wondering, I leave with you with this last scientific nugget: hanging is bad for the heart.  Yes, it is true. Put away your shock face. Researchers found that, after reviewing emergency medical records in Melbourne, Australia,  that 4% of cardiac arrests treated were the result of hanging.

In conclusion, grab a martini and be creative.

spiced pear martini

7 replies »

  1. Great post!

    I personally blame the developed/ western countries obsession with reducing our unique complex and multiple methods of communication (Art, Music, community, conversing, listening) to the language of science.

    Yes, it’s great when you can measure and 100% identify this and that on a microbiological scale-but it isn’t actually doing anything.

    Also, I don’t think you need a complex high tech measurement to tell you that smoking, drinking alcohol and eating shit food will have some detrimental effect to your overall health.

    Just like in your example of ‘affluenza’ all this language offers excuses to the ones that are very good at using it (and generally not very good at respecting, thinking and caring), to argue against common sense, twisting ethics against ‘facts’- or numbers, and basically corrupting our perception- in order to make us complicit to all this ‘scientific fact’ nonsense. Information, facts only become useful if it is interpreted within a broader and complex context. 50 % of so and so agree with what ever, is completely meaningless statement with no tangible outcome.
    50% can mean one out of two people asked- or 1000 out of 2000. I’m sure that there is a difference if 1 person agrees or 1000.
    Also who and how were these people asked? Are they really representative of the overall population, the ‘statistics basher’ try to convince to purchase/ consume their product they magically come up with would offer the solution to the 50% expressed desire?

    The use of statistics in our every day life communication is so prominent because it is the language of consumerism, the market and economies, which run our lives (and government legislation in the ‘market economies’). As we got rid of most of our values (ethical, aesthetic, emotional, historical, etc…) along the way of becoming consumers we are eventually left with a language of profits, %, numbers and algorithms.

    The reason why people might not be too convinced about science (or trust it) is that we instinctively know we are better than mere numerical systems, communicating through binary algorithms in a digital (abstract) language, and the more we go down the path of this passive and indirect way of communicating, assessing, interpreting and ‘understanding’, the higher the frustration with ourselves, our ‘un-reliant physicality’ and existence in the real World, we no longer communicate with to understand and apply ourselves to live in and with it.

    So forget about the ‘satnav’ telling you to go straight ahead over the cliff- just use a good old fashioned map and your instinctive common sense, it’ll cost you nothing, you might discover interesting places off route and you either get the satisfaction of feeling success once you reached a destination- or you have a fun anecdote to tell to your (real) friends, if you got completely lost…


    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Absolutely agree that occasionally on the road of life we need to put the GPS away and use our instincts or good old fashion map. 🙂 hope you are having a great 2014


  2. Excellent post! You broached so many topics and somehow managed to tie them all together in a neat little bow!

    As a former videogamer, I’m not surprised to learn about the benefits touted from moderate gaming. An interesting observation: I’ve noticed my favorite lifestyle apps (Nike Running and MyFitnessPal) use number-crunching and competition, just like some of my favorite RPGs (role-playing games).

    The whole affluenza thing really upset me. The idea that you shouldn’t punish someone because they’ve never been punished before is ridiculous to me. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The whole point of the justice system is to make sure people learn their lesson — from first-time offenders to repeat offenders.

    With everything we learned about DNA, gene expression, brain wiring, etc., in 2013, I can’t wait to see what kind of things we learn in 2014!


    • Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I can see benefits to videogaming. I use my xbox kinect to do zumba exercise (although thats not gaming). I think the media and the defense attorney totally took affluenza to a whole other level. Just outright craziness. Im excited to see what science brings us in the new year. Happy 2014!


  3. Great post ! There’s a near social dissonance around acceptance of science: low numbers of people finding scientific research ‘reliable’ (as you cite), however, on the other hand there often seems to be a devolution of responsibility for individual action, followed by a phrase such as “I just don’t know why scientists haven’t come up with a solution yet”.

    Affluenza ? brilliant ! I thought I’d heard all of the ridiculous nonsense that could created…, oh no – that’s stup-endous.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like the way you frame it as dissonance. It’s really spot on. It’s something to discount but holds great hope simultaneously. Lets see what takes affluenza’s place this year. Lol


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