Category Archives: Psychology

Finding solitude in an era of perpetual contact

Being alone has many benefits. It grants freedom in thought and action. It boosts creativity. It offers a terrain for the imagination to roam. Solitude also enriches our connections with others by providing perspective, which enhances intimacy and fosters empathy.

To be sure, solitude is not always experienced positively. At times, and for certain people, it can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In that sense, solitude is a two-sided coin, as is the case with other necessities in life, like food. As with food, we can benefit from being mindful of the quantity and quality of solitude we experience in daily life.

This is true of both deliberate solitude and those moments of being alone that are inadvertently stumbled upon. Both varieties of solitude have the capacity to deliver the benefits mentioned above, but the latter may be heading toward the endangered species list, at least for some folks.

In social psychology, solitude has traditionally been defined and measured as being physically alone, or in some cases not engaging with people who are also physically present. Since that foundation was laid, times have changed, as have the possibilities for “being with” others.

You are probably familiar with the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” After combing through the scholarly research on solitude last summer, I came up with a new version: “If a person is alone in the forest when a tree falls, but they don’t notice it because they’re texting, does it still count as solitude?”

Did you notice, or were you too busy texting?
nahidv/flickr, CC BY

What is it to be alone?

With mobile and social media, we now carry our networks around with us, and new possibilities for perpetual contact pose problems for solitude – not only for how it is experienced, but also for how it is studied. If all of our old ideas for thinking about and measuring solitude no longer apply, then we lack the scientific tools needed to further our understanding of it. Without accounting for the ways people connect in the digital realm through the Internet and mobile media, we have no way of knowing how much solitude people get, how they benefit or suffer from it, or different ways in which it is experienced. When I finished reading up on solitude last summer, I was left with the feeling that the study of it had hit a dead end, and was ready for a reboot.

That reboot began last fall when MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s book “Reclaiming Conversation” was published. Turkle’s book has garnered both high praise and rebuke for its critical view of digital media and the degradation of face-to-face conversation. Setting that debate aside for the moment, the book also makes some points that help push the conversation about solitude into the digital era.

One of Turkle’s arguments is that being able to connect anytime-anywhere means never having to experience unwanted solitude (see also Louis C.K.’s comedic rant on the topic). This is a problem because, as Turkle puts it, “In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation.” For her, the fundamental problem is how technology, especially mobile communication, makes it easy for us to avoid mundane boredom in daily life. Beyond boredom, we can talk about some other key reasons why someone might opt for a smartphone over their own thoughts during periods of downtime – and why there is a greater need for deliberate solitude for those interested in the benefits of being alone.

‘Work anywhere’ – but you’d better be working 24/7!
Working person on cliff via

Always connected, and more automatic

We live in a time when expectations for being accessible are high. Sociologist Rich Ling attributes this to mobile communication’s transition from something new into a taken-for-granted assumption, like telling time. When mobile communication was a novelty, it was special to be able to connect “on the fly.” No longer. Ling’s theoretical argument about high expectations of accessibility is well-supported by a recent survey in the U.S. in which 80 percent of teens reported checking their phone hourly, and 72 percent said they feel the need to respond to messages immediately.

As mobile communication becomes embedded at the social level, it also moves toward the background of cognitive processing. People do not put as much conscious thought into their use of common artifacts, such as watches, staplers, and now mobile devices, when they become a taken-for-granted part of everyday life. In fact, habitual (i.e., less conscious) mobile phone use is part of the explanation for why people text while driving.

Mobile communication is now more like a second skin than a new innovation. When it beckons, people respond, often automatically. Even when our mobile devices do nothing at all, we sometimes automatically react to “phantom vibrations.” Mobile habits can also be triggered by emotional states and the environment.

A few years ago I was part of a small group visiting a primate sanctuary near Miami. The gimmick was that the monkeys roamed free while the humans were caged. The management set us free for a few moments, and we found ourselves completely covered in spider monkeys who wanted to make friends (friends who had nuts and raisins). Our initial impulse was to pull out our mobile devices to take photos and video. We didn’t even think about it.

If people turn to these devices without thinking during life’s amazing moments, it makes sense that we would do the same during those moments of unintended solitude. This tendency is exacerbated by the pull of expectations to be accessible anytime and anywhere. I am not arguing that everyone needs more solitude in their life. However, with unintentional solitude no longer mandatory, it might be a good idea for us to direct more thought into intentionally carving out times, places, and activities for being alone, not just in the realm of atoms and molecules, but in the realm of bits and bytes as well.

The Conversation

Scott Campbell, Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs Professor of Telecommunication, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Are our smartphones afflicting us all with symptoms of ADHD?

When was the last time you opened your laptop midconversation or brought your desktop computer to the dinner table? Ridiculous, right? But if you are like a large number of Americans, you have done both with your smartphone.

Less than a decade after the introduction of the first iPhone, more people reach for their smartphones first thing in the morning than reach for coffee, a toothbrush or even the partner lying next to them in bed. During the day, with a smartphone in our pocket, we can check our email while spending time with our children just as easily as we can text a friend while at work. And regardless of what we are doing, many of us are bombarded by notifications of new messages, social media posts, breaking news, app updates and more.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this pervasiveness of smartphones is making us increasingly distracted and hyperactive. These presumed symptoms of constant digital stimulation also happen to characterize a well-known neurodevelopmental disorder: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Could the pinging and dinging of our smartphones be afflicting even those of us not suffering from ADHD with some of that condition’s symptoms? As a behavioral scientist, I set out to test this idea in a well-controlled experiment.

Studying digital interruption

My colleagues and I recruited 221 millennials – students at the University of British Columbia – to participate in a two-week study. Importantly, these participants were recruited from the university’s general participant pool, rather than from a population of students diagnosed with ADHD.

During the first week, we asked half the participants to minimize phone interruptions by activating the “do-not-disturb” settings and keeping their phones out of sight and far from reach. We instructed the other half to keep their phone alerts on and their phones nearby whenever possible.

In the second week, we reversed the instructions: Participants who had used their phones’ “do-not-disturb” settings switched on phone alerts, and vice versa. The order in which we gave the instructions to each participant was randomly determined by a flip of a coin. This study design ensured that everything was kept constant, except for how frequently people were interrupted by their phones. We confirmed that people felt more interrupted by their phones when they had their phone alerts on, as opposed to having them off.

Measuring inattentiveness and hyperactivity

We measured inattentiveness and hyperactivity by asking participants to identify how frequently they had experienced 18 symptoms of ADHD over each of the two weeks. These items were based on the criteria for diagnosing ADHD in adults as specified by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V).

The inattentiveness questions covered a wide range of potential problems, such as making careless mistakes, forgetting to pay a bill and having difficulty sustaining attention or listening to others. The hyperactivity questions were similarly broad, assessing things like fidgeting, feeling restless, excessive talking and interrupting others.

The results were clear: more frequent phone interruptions made people less attentive and more hyperactive.

Because ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder with complex neurological and developmental causes, these findings in no way suggest that smartphones can cause ADHD. And our research certainly does not show that reducing phone interruptions can treat ADHD. But our findings do have implications for all of us who feel interrupted by our phones.

Smartphone ubiquity poses risks

These findings should concern us. Smartphones are the fastest-selling electronic gadget in history – in the 22 seconds it took to type this sentence, 1,000 smartphones were shipped to their new owners. Even if one of those 1,000 users became more likely to make a careless mistake, ignore a friend in the middle of a conversation or space out during a meeting, smartphones could be harming the productivity, relationships and well-being of millions.

As with all disorders, symptoms of ADHD form a continuum from the normal to the pathological. Our findings suggest that our incessant digital stimulation is contributing to an increasingly problematic deficit of attention in modern society. So consider silencing your phone – even when you are not in the movie theater. Your brain will thank you.

The Conversation

Kostadin Kushlev, Research Associate in Psychology, University of Virginia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Early Celebrity Deaths Related To Stress and Overworking

When the medical journal Circulation printed a study last year about stress and depression being the cause of early deaths, it was generally overlooked by the public as being somewhat obvious and a given. What most people seem to forget is that the celebrities they love who die early are most likely the result of the stress their career puts on their bodies.

Seven researchers from the Department of Medicine at Columbia University wrote in their study Perfect Storm: Concurrent Stress and Depressive Symptoms Increase Risk of Myocardial Infarction or Death that patients with coronary heart disease are more at risk of early death if their mental state is also ill due to depression and stress. Considering one out of every four people that die in the United States every year suffer from coronary heart disease, this isn’t surprising at first, but when you also consider that stress affects the same number of adults, all you need to add to the mix for the “perfect storm” that leads to an early death is depression.

Depression is known to affect around 7% of American adults, although the definition of depression is often controversially discussed as being ambiguous to laymen. This study, however, assessed its 4487 participants based on showing signs of stress and signs of depression over a five year period, being categorized as either low stress/low depression or high stress/high depression, and the subjects with the most heart attacks happened to be the ones with high stress and high depression.

With the recent deaths of Prince and David Bowie, it might make sense to assume that Prince, known for being a workaholic, spiritually disrupted (for lack of a better explanation) and argumentative or “difficult” person, was prone to an early death despite being clean and sober — that is if he also had heart disease (reports are uncertain as this writing). Bowie, on the other hand, may have made it further if he hadn’t succumbed to liver cancer, most likely caused by a lifetime of alcohol and oral drug use (pills).

Of course this is just speculation, but it’s still may help to dispel the notion that celebrities, with all their millions and fan love, live longer, healthier lives then the rest of us..

When we want something, we think everyone does

We can’t read minds, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to guess what other people are thinking. Will the person in line ahead of us order the last everything bagel? Will that group of people occupy that spot at the bar you’ve been eyeing? We anticipate other people’s intentions and goals because we often assume everyone else wants exactly the same thing we do, even if they don’t. How often do we correctly guess what the person in line ahead of us will do?

This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon known as “goal projection.” Given little to no information about someone else, we will resort to the only knowledge we have access to – our own thoughts – and project this knowledge onto them. Projecting one’s goals can have vast consequences for our behavior, like how we act toward the person onto whom we are projecting. For example, we can become unnecessarily competitive with that person or even act more helpfully toward that person, depending on the situation.

But do we always project our goals onto others? Are we more likely to do it in certain situations and less likely in others? The answer is yes – researchers have found that the more committed you are to reaching your goal, the more likely you will project it onto others.

To find out, researchers randomly approached people at a multiplex movie theater in New York City preparing to buy tickets. These test subjects were asked to identify the movie they came to see and how committed they were to watching that movie. Then researchers pointed out the first person waiting in line to purchase a ticket at the multiplex and asked the test subject which movie they thought the individual was going to see.

The results indicated that the more committed a person was to the goal of watching the movie of his/her choice, the more he/she projected that same goal onto the other movie patron. So if you go into the theatre thinking that you really want to see Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ll assume everyone else wants to as well, and not, say, Jurassic World.

This effect even remained when researchers controlled how often test subjects attended the movies and the popularity of the movies playing at the multiplex – two variables that may increase the likelihood of making informed guesses rather than ones driven by goal projection.

Going my way?
Departure/arrival board via

We think people who are similar to us have the same goals

Researchers also pointed out that people are more prone to project onto someone else when they perceive that person to be similar to them.

In a different study examining commuters at Penn Station in New York City, researchers approached people waiting for the track number of their train to appear. Dozens of trains depart every hour during rush hours from Penn Station. Test subjects were first asked to indicate their destination and their level of goal commitment to get there.

At this point, experimenters singled out another commuter who was waiting in close to the subject and was easily observable. Test subjects were asked to indicate how similar they felt that person was to themselves and how likely it was that person was headed to their own destination.

Test subjects with strong goal commitment were more likely to believe the target person would go to the same destination the more that person was perceived to be similar. In other words, viewing someone as more similar to yourself might enhance your goal projection.

Goal attained.
Cashier and shopper via

We think other people want what we want, until we get what we want

So when we really want something, we assume that people around us do too. But there are times when we don’t project our goals onto others. For example, if you were really focused on getting blueberries to make a pie, you might assume everyone else in the store might also be there to buy blueberries. But once you leave the store, with a box of blueberries in hand, you would no longer project that goal onto others. Now that you’ve got your blueberries, you stop assuming everyone else was after the same thing.

This is precisely what was found in a final study. Researchers identified when people are especially unlikely to project their goal – after they’ve attained it.

At a grocery store, researchers surveyed people before they had gone grocery shopping (yet to attain their goal) and people after they had finished grocery shopping (goal attained). Test subjects were asked to name the main item (eg, blueberries) they came to purchase, or had just purchased (depending on when they were approached), then indicated their goal commitment to purchase that item.

Then researchers chose another shopper who was just about to enter the supermarket at that very moment. Test subjects indicated how similar they felt that new shopper was to themselves, and the probability that the shopper would purchase the same item (blueberries) they purchased or were planning to purchase.

Results showed that people projected their goal onto the other shopper only when their own goal commitment was strong and they viewed other shopper as similar.

However, when people attained their goal (they had finished shopping), they no longer projected their goal. So we assume other people have the same goals we do, until we achieve those goals ourselves.

Such research could be used to explain why there is so much tension within crowds even before doors open on Black Friday and why people might offer unwarranted and unsolicited advice to others (for instance, offering a tip on how to get to Doctor A’s office when the person actually wants to go to Doctor B).

When there is no other way to make informed guesses about other people’s intentions and goals, people have no choice but to rely on their own internal states – their own intentions and goals – and project them onto others.

The Conversation

Janet Naju Ahn is Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Teachers College at Columbia University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.