How to quickly and easily become a better person

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Eric Barker  -  
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Spend more time out in nature:

Four studies examined the effects of nature on valuing intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations. Intrinsic aspirations reflected prosocial and other-focused value orientations, and extrinsic aspirations predicted self-focused value orientations. Participants immersed in natural environments reported higher valuing of intrinsic aspirations and lower valuing of extrinsic aspirations, whereas those immersed in non-natural environments reported increased valuing of extrinsic aspirations and no change of intrinsic aspirations. Three studies explored experiences of nature relatedness and autonomy as underlying mechanisms of these effects, showing that nature immersion elicited these processes whereas non-nature immersion thwarted them and that they in turn predicted higher intrinsic and lower extrinsic aspirations. Studies 3 and 4 also extended the paradigm by testing these effects on generous decision making indicative of valuing intrinsic versus extrinsic aspirations.

Source: “Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity” from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

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Here’s How The Season Of Your Birth Affects Your Future Health And Success

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Eric Barker  -  
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No, I’m not talking about astrology. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog you can guess what my feelings on astrology might be.) This connection is indirect and has to do with who has babies when:

Research has found that season of birth is associated with later health and professional outcomes; what drives this association remains unclear. In this paper we consider a new explanation: that children born at different times in the year are conceived by women with different socioeconomic characteristics. We document large seasonal changes in the characteristics of women giving birth throughout the year in the United States. Children born in the winter are disproportionally born to women who are more likely to be teenagers and less likely to be married or have a high school degree. We show that controls for family background characteristics can explain up to half of the relationship between season of birth and adult outcomes. We then discuss the implications of this result for using season of birth as an instrumental variable; our findings suggest that, though popular, season-of-birth instruments may produce inconsistent estimates. Finally, we find that some of the seasonality in maternal characteristics is due to summer weather differentially affecting fertility patterns across socioeconomic groups.

Source: “Season of Birth and Later Outcomes: Old Questions, New Answers” from National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 14573, December 2008

From the paper:

…we find that the fraction of children born to women without a high school degree is about 10 percent higher (2 percentage points) in January than in May. By way of comparison, this 2-percentage-point-effect on the fraction of mothers without a high school degree is about ten times larger than the effect from a one-percentage-point increase in unemployment estimated by Dehejia and Lleras-Muney (2004). We also document a 10 percent decline in the fraction of children born to teenagers from January to May. This effect, which is observed every spring, is about as large as the decline in the annual fraction of children born to teenagers observed over the entire 1990s. We show similar seasonality in maternal characteristics using the 1960, 1970, and 1980 censuses.

A 10% swing? Holy crap. If you have an “at-risk” teenage girl, lock her in the closet during the summer.

There are times I just want to read the abstract and move on, but sentences like “Finally, we find that some of the seasonality in maternal characteristics is due to summer weather differentially affecting fertility patterns across socioeconomic groups” make me very curious…

Given that the relationship between season of birth and later outcomes seems in part driven by fertility patterns among different groups of women, it is natural to ask what causes these different fertility patterns. We explore one possibility, which is that the fertility-decreasing effects of hot summer temperatures disproportionately affect low socio-economic populations. To test this, we document fertility patterns for married and unmarried women, and add controls for weather at conception. We find that including weather controls attenuates the dip in births to unmarried women in the spring (nine months after the peak of summer heat), but does not affect fertility patterns for married women. This suggests that differences in exposure to extreme temperatures can account for some of the relationship between season of birth and family background.

And the possible reasons for this:

Lam and Miron (1996) show that extreme heat may reduce conceptions, in part because heat reduces sperm count and sperm motility. Low SES individuals may be more exposed to temperature extremes, and work has also shown that temperature may have larger effects on the health outcomes of low SES populations than others. If low SES women or their partners are more responsive to summer heat than other women, this may explain the dip in spring births in Figure 3 (nine months after the hottest months of summer)… There is some evidence that women would like to avoid giving birth in the winter—for example, Rodgers and Udry (1988) survey undergraduate students, and find that almost half of the respondents name either December or January as the worst month for birth. The winter dip to married women in Figure 3 could be generated if high-SES women are either more likely to have these preferences, or are better at executing them (perhaps because their births are more likely to be planned).

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Is retirement lethal?

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Previously I’ve posted on how retirement is correlated with cognitive decline. The proof keeps on rolling in:

We investigate the relationship between aging, cognitive abilities and retirement using the Survey on Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a longitudinal survey that offers the possibility of comparing several European countries using nationally representative samples of the population aged 50+. We use a version of the model proposed by Grossman (1972) as a guide for our empirical specification of the age-profile of cognitive abilities. According to the model, retirement plays a fundamental role in explaining the process of cognitive deterioration. Our empirical results confirm this key prediction. They also indicate that education plays a fundamental role in explaining heterogeneity in the level of cognitive abilities.

Source: “Aging, cognitive abilities and retirement in Europe” from Centre for Economic and International Studies Vol. 7, Issue 5, No. 152 – November 2009

And:

Some studies suggest that people can maintain their cognitive abilities through “mental exercise.” This has not been unequivocally proven. Retirement is associated with a large change in a person’s daily routine and environment. In this paper, we propose two mechanisms how retirement may lead to cognitive decline. For many people retirement leads to a less stimulating daily environment. In addition, the prospect of retirement reduces the incentive to engage in mentally stimulating activities on the job. We investigate the effect of retirement on cognition empirically using cross-nationally comparable surveys of older persons in the United States, England, and 11 European countries in 2004. We find that early retirement has a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s that is both quantitatively important and causal. Identification is achieved using national pension policies as instruments for endogenous retirement.

Source: “Mental Retirement” from RAND working paper WR-711, October 2009

However cliche, “use it or lose it” seems to be quite true across the board when discussing the human machine.

The more studies I read the more I see how our body generally follows our behavior, not leads, when it comes to decline.

From testosterone proving to be an effect not a cause, to aging being reversed by how you behave, to those repeated studies on how profound the effects of regular exercise are, the more I roll my eyes when people excuse lazy or bad behavior because of age.

Your metabolism did not “slow down.” You slowed down and your metabolism followed.

Okay, enough lecture. So what’s the new reason why retirement is bad? Well if dementia isn’t enough, retirement can out-and-out kill you:

This paper investigates the effects of retirement on various health outcomes. Data stem fromthe first three waves of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). With this informative data, non-parametric matching methods can be applied to identify causal effects. It is found that retirement significantly increases the risk of being diagnosed with a chronic condition. In particular, it raises the risk of developing a cardiovascular disease and being diagnosed with cancer. Estimates also indicate that retirement has quite diverse effects for different individuals.

Source: “How Does Retirement Affect Health?” from IZA Discussion Paper No. 4253, June 2009

Don’t retire. Everything I’ve been reading points in one direction: Never stop challenging yourself.

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How To Stress Out Less And Reduce Worrying

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Nobody likes stressing and worrying. And, no, even if you think it keeps you sharp it’s not good for you. It can cause all sorts of health problems over time, including messing up your memory and ability to pay attention:

The authors report the first direct assessment of working memory capacity when people engage in worry. High and low worriers performed a random key-press task while thinking about a current worry or a positive personally relevant topic. High (but not low) worriers showed more evidence of restricted capacity during worry than when thinking about a positive topic. These findings suggest that high worriers have less residual working memory capacity when worrying than when thinking about other topics and, thus, have fewer attentional resources available to redirect their thoughts away from worry.

Source: “Restriction of working memory capacity during worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

“GAH! Now I’m worried about my worrying! What do I do?!”

Other than worry about it some more? Worrying seems largely to be a problem of attention:

Research suggests that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) show an attention bias for threat-relevant information. However, few studies have examined the causal role of attention bias in the maintenance of anxiety and whether modification of such biases may reduce pathological anxiety symptoms. In the present article, the authors tested the hypothesis that an 8-session attention modification program would (a) decrease attention bias to threat and (b) reduce symptoms of GAD. Participants completed a probe detection task by identifying letters (E or F) replacing one member of a pair of words. The authors trained attention by including a contingency between the location of the probe and the nonthreat word in one group (Attention Modification Program; AMP) and not in the other (attention control condition; ACC). Participants in the AMP showed change in attention bias and a decrease in anxiety, as indicated by both self-report and interviewer measures. These effects were not present in the ACC group. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that attention plays a causal role in the maintenance of GAD and suggest that altering attention mechanisms may effectively reduce anxiety.

Source: “Attention modification program in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

Nobody can really stop paying attention, our brains don’t work like that. What you can do is shift your attention. Focusing on the possible benign outcomes of whatever you’re worrying about has been shown to help:

This research investigated whether increasing access to benign outcomes of ambiguous events decreases excessive worry. Participants reporting high levels of worry were assigned either to practice in accessing benign meanings of threat-related homographs and emotionally ambiguous scenarios or to a control condition in which threatening or benign meanings were accessed with equal frequency. Results were assessed by use of a breathing focus task that involved categorizing the valence of thought intrusions before and after an instructed worry period and a test of working memory capacity available to participants while worrying. In comparison with the control group, the benign group reported fewer negative thought intrusions (as rated by both participants and an assessor) and less anxiety during the breathing focus task and showed greater residual working memory capacity while worrying. These findings suggest that enhancing access to benign outcomes is an effective method of reducing both the persistence of worry and its detrimental consequences.

Source: “Looking on the bright side: Accessing benign meanings reduces worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t a replacement for real treatment if you’re experiencing serious problems, but if you find yourself just worrying a little too much, the above might get you back on the right track or at least give you a better understanding of what’s going on.

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Will you be able to cope when tragedy strikes?

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No, I’m not selling insurance. You may wonder about your ability to deal with extreme adversity — or even extremely positive events. Turns out we can usually anticipate major events and quickly adapt. Chances are, you’ll be fine:

This paper addresses the question of when and to what extent individuals are affected by major positive and negative life events, including changes in financial situation, marital status, death of child or spouse and being a victim of crime. The key advantage of our data is that we are able to identify these events on a quarterly basis rather than on the yearly basis used by previous studies. We find evidence that life events are not randomly distributed, that individuals to a large extent anticipate major events and that they quickly adapt. These effects have important implications for the calculation of monetary values needed to compensate individuals for life events such as crime or death of spouse. We find that our new valuation methodology that incorporates these dynamic factors produces considerably smaller compensation valuations than those calculated using the standard approach.

Source: “Happiness Dynamics with Quarterly Life Event Data” from Social Norms and Social Capital

The anticipation of difficult events is almost always far worse than the events are. Your mind can often be your own worst enemy.

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