Shopping- (Un)therapeutic?

Had a long day? Exams just got over? Get your credit card out then, and let’s go spend some money!

Go to a mall, a store, or anything, and in case you happen to come across something you love, and that fits you well, has the right colour, and even better- the right price, aha! You thank heavens, and you walk away a happy person.

But what happens when you don’t?
Frustration, anxiety, anger, annoyance.
I’m a very fussy shopper. I cannot get myself to go from place to place, searching for the ‘right’ dress. I want to go at one place, search my ass off, if I find what I’m looking for, hurray, wonderful, yay! But if I don’t, I just want to maybe try at one more place and then just go back home. Try another day.

The former sounds good, but the latter just bores a hole into my brain and gets me very frustrated. Which, according to experience, happens 80% of the time. Well, it’s not that I don’t find what I like, I do, but it’s either too lose, too tight, the wrong colour, and/or too pricey.

Something else that really is a worry comes as an inevitable result of being the 2nd most populated country in the world- people. Lots of them. Everywhere.

We all must have read the effects of crowding at some point. The same applies here too. All the bazaars in India are always filled with people. Especially on weekends (well, for obvious reasons).

Summers in India are, technically, hot. Like, very hot. Basically, you don’t want to step out of your house after 11 am, till at least 4 pm in the evening. You just don’t. However, the awesome weather that Bangalore has, you know it’s probably going to rain after 4. It’s a Sunday, the only day you get to relax. So, you decide to do some buying.
Let’s just consider you got what you were looking for. But at what cost? I don’t think I need to explain that.

So you come home all worn out, tired, frustrated. But you know that you at least got something. Although, now when you come to think about it, maybe you felt somewhat obligated to buy it because you didn’t want to go through all the suffering for nothing!

Don’t worry, there’s more- I came across a book by Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice- Why More is Less. In this book, Schwartz talks about how more choices around us actually produce an effect contrary to the assumed- confusion, stress, and even tyranny. I have read his book, subsequent articles, the critics’ opinions- and I think the man has a point! I did actually talk about the same in my previous blog posts, check it out if you are curious!

Here’s the link:

https://teenytinyways.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/the-paradox-of-choice/?preview=true

Online shopping might just be the answer to all this- little time, no travel expenses (save the delivery charges), NO PEOPLE and no worries about the weather! But that brings with it its own set of pros and cons.

Not to mention the confusing faces we all make while trying to see if the product delivered, in any angle, matches with the product images from the online shopping website.

If this freaked you out, well, don’t worry. Yet. As long as your shopping bills don’t cost you a lifetime, you are good to go. Cheers!

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A Friend In Need, Not A Friend Indeed!

Consider this: A friend calls you and asks for notes just a day before final exams. You hang out with this particular friend regularly and you’re together in college as well. You both get similar grades and both of you have some sort of a competitiveness when it comes to grades. On the other hand, a classmate calls you, asking you for notes as well. You both are not that close and don’t hang out that often.

Considering the two situations, who are you more likely to help? Your friend, or a stranger?

Research suggests something very surprising in this case- that you’re more likely to help a stranger than a friend! The basic idea is that it hurts more to see a friend get more grades than you, with the help of your own notes than seeing a stranger do so.

But why does that happen?

Well, we all like to feel good about ourselves. A psychological dimension to this feel-good factor would include a constant comparison that we make between ourselves and other people. Of course, we are more likely to compare ourselves to people who are lose to us than those who are not. Therefore, a friend would turn out to be a larger threat to our self-esteem than a stranger would. This forms the basis of the Self-evaluation Maintenance Theory, according to which we would be much more helpful to a stranger than to a friend; because helping a friend would mean they might just get better than you and this would affect your own self-evaluation. Whereas, you would hardly care if a stranger did better than you, because you wouldn’t care to even compare yourself with them!

On a parallel basis, this theory explains why it hurts more to see a friend in a relationship with your ex, or why in-group competition leads to conflict in the absence of a superior threat.

On knowing this, would it be possible for us to ignore these factors and still help a friend, even though it might mean that he/she might just do better than us? I don’t really think so. Because this is where our priorities take a complete U-turn. Its clearly more important for us to maintain a good self-esteem so that we can function well on a daily basis. If helping a friend means that our self-esteem goes for a toss, we wouldn’t want to do that no matter what happens!

On the other hand, we would have seen people who genuinely want to help other people and would not mind giving everything they have, so that he/she does well in the task, even better. I think here (and correct me if I’m wrong), the collective self esteem plays its part. In this case, the individual does not measure their self-esteem on the basis of comparison with another; rather, its in association with another. Their measure of self-evaluation and self-esteem depends on, and is connected to, another person’s well being. Even though you are helping another person directly, indirectly, at some level, you are helping yourself as well.

So at the end of the day, we all want to feel good about ourselves, especially when a close one threatens our self-esteem. Even though we are naturally inclined to help others, helping oneself becomes a priority in such situations.

The Art of Spacing Out

Maybe while you’re in the shower, or listening to your favourite music track, while reading/studying, during a boring lecture, or even while listening to someone else talk, spacing out really helps, saving us from the boredom, and taking us to a complete new world of endless possibilities. Ever noticed how fast time passes while you think about all kinds of random things? Your friend’s accent, your dog’s eye colour, about the hard working ants on the floor who recently found an old chocolate bar lying behind your bed and how they’re probably having the time of their life, about your future, your family, and the list never ends. At times I space out so bad that it’s difficult for me to come back to reality. It’s like an addiction- something that you need to do every once in a while, and every time it just comes back with increased tolerance. Sometimes that need to space out really takes over and I just have to let go; but the scariest part is that this tends to happen while I’m driving (I guess after saying this none of my friends is going to let me drive again). Just like getting lost while reading your favourite book, spacing out takes you to a complete different world altogether.

It’s definitely not something bad- escaping from reality is what everyone wants to do at some point or the other in their life. And then there will be people who complain about this habit of yours- about how it’s important for one to pay attention to what’s happening, and that its very ‘rude’ of you to be spacing out while someone is talking. Well, if one brings in manners and values, then pretty much everything we do will be undesirable in one way or another. My friends always complain about this habit of mine, that I space out at the weirdest of times- even while I’m crossing the road!

I agree it’s not very good for one to be thinking of other things while someone is saying something important or something significant. And in my defence, all I can say is that it just happens! There isn’t really a why or how to this, and I often find myself in a very vulnerable position after I come back (after spacing out for a significant amount of time, that is), only realising that I’ve missed a large chunk of the conversation and I have no clue of what everyone is talking about. Well, that’s when I dust off my green hat and try to become all Sherlock Holmes-y-ish!

I’d like to point out the fact that spacing out, for most, is a very pleasurable activity. When boredom encompasses you from all possible angles and you have nowhere to go, the art of spacing out really helps one cross all barriers of reality that this mortal world brings and you find yourself floating deep in the sea of thoughts, images, and words- all so haphazard and random! And by the time you come back, you realise a lot of time has passed and you can finally watch your favourite TV show!

While waiting for someone, or at the doctor’s, when the person before you is taking an inhumane amount of time chatting with the doctor while you are so impatient and angry, maybe when your stomach is begging for you to eat something but the lecturer won’t just stop talking, or while you are listening to your parents whine about how much time you waste on the internet, chatting away with friends- spacing out basically helps one survive at a very basic, yet important level.

I feel really proud to say this- spacing out actually has an evolutionary advantage! While we don’t focus on mundane things like showering, walking, or waiting for someone at the bus stop, our mind automatically starts to ponder about things on a larger spectrum- why you are doing what you are doing, the meaning of your existence, and even things like the origin of the universe, thus enabling insight, creativity, and a whole new level of imagination. This is why the greatest ideas and solutions reach one while they are spacing out. Another very similar term for this could be the ‘incubation period’, where you completely zone out after tirelessly thinking of solutions to a problem, and while you are randomly gazing at things, thinking of complete rubbish (not really, though)- it hits you, and ta-da! (or aha, if you may) and you have the solution. While this sounds very relaxing, remember that your brain never really rests- its working as hard as it was before, only now its unfocused, welcoming you to the world of genius thoughts!

So the next time someone points at you for spacing out while you should have been listening, you can proudly tell them that you were busy building up some mastermind ideas in your head.

5 Different Ways to Look at Psychology

The first thing every psychology student is made aware of, and something that we all need to set right at the back of our head, are the 5 current perspectives or schools of psychology. The best way to explain these schools of thought would be to pick a situation and look at it how any individual subscribing to any one of these perspectives would. So here it goes!

Situation: Angela has problems in social situations. She had experienced a highly stressful event in her childhood and she finds it really difficult and stressful to use public transportation or stand in line to purchase a good. She also gets anxious while in closed spaces like a theatre or a store, since she feels completely helpless. She is only 21, its normal for people of her age to socialise and make friends, but she cannot get herself to do that because of extreme fear of social situations. Finally, being unable to cope with the anxiety and stress, she locks herself in her room and doesn’t get out for days.

Angela’s situation can be analysed and treated in different ways depending on the school/ perspective of Psychology. Currently, there are five major schools of Psychology and I will be analysing and interpreting Angela’s situation according to all five of them.

Behavioural perspective: This school of thought believes that the observable behaviour should be the main component of study in Psychology- not one’s thoughts or beliefs. It focuses on overt behaviour i.e the behaviour that can be seen or observed. The behavioural school of thought emphasises on the role of learning (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, observational learning, trial and error, etc) in one’s life; and that the attitudes and beliefs that one holds are all learnt and can also be unlearnt. Abnormal behaviour, according to this perspective, is a result of faulty ways of learning.

In Angela’s case, the behavioural school of thought might diagnose her as an agoraphobic, i.e a person who suffers from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder, specifically a phobia where the individual is scared of social situations which include open or public places, from where escape is impossible. This disorder of hers will be seen as a learnt response during her early years and the psychologist will encourage her to ‘unlearn’ this behaviour by using reward, punishment and reconditioning processes. The behavioural psychologists will see it as a result of faulty learning and might suggest her with therapies. Therapies can be used to treat the disorder and bring the client back to normal social functioning. Behaviour therapy is initiated through behavioural analysis which involves interviewing the client and family members about the causes of such behaviour and depending on the results, a suitable treatment (for example: token economy, systematic desensitization or cognitive behavioural therapy) can be given.

 

Biological/ Neuroscience perspective: This school of Psychology focuses on biological basis of all behaviour. While the behavioural school of Psychology focuses on the ‘nurture’ (environment), the biological/ neuroscience school emphasises on the role of ‘nature’ (heredity), whereas both nature and nurture contribute largely to the behaviour and functioning of the individual. This perspective emphasises on the involuntary aspects of human behaviour (especially hereditary and evolution), like the secretions of hormones by different glands in the body, the different parts of the brain that perform different functions, how hereditary and inheritance of certain characteristics from our ancestors influences our behaviour, etc and the effects of these on the behaviour of the individual.

If Angela approaches a psychologist from the neuroscience perspective, she is most likely to be prescribed certain drugs- mostly antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications- to control her anxiety and fear during social situations. Agoraphobia is also connected to Panic disorder and can develop as a reaction to Panic disorder. If Angela has had episodes of panic attack before, she is most likely to avoid social situations in the fear that it will happen again. The biological school can find causes to the panic attacks as a natural fight or flight response triggered wrongly during certain situations, or imbalance in the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that influence emotions, or even that her brain is wired differently from most of the individuals.

 

Psychodynamic perspective: This perspective of Psychology focuses on the inner forces and conflicts which we have no control over. It focuses on the intrapsychic conflicts relating to the structure of the psyche- Id, Ego and Superego- and defense mechanisms. There is also a focus on the unconscious- a part of the mind that the individual is completely unaware of, and where all the repressed childhood traumas and incidents are stored and that these incidents may have led to the problem behaviour later on in life. It is also believed that slips, or accidents, have an inner or an unconscious hidden motive.A psychologist from the psychodynamic perspective might view Angela’s condition as a result a childhood trauma that is pushed into the unconscious, away from her awareness. Possibly, Angela was abused in her childhood- sexually, verbally or physically- and it’s causing her to behave this way. Not specific to abuse, any traumatic incident, like the death of a parent or a loved one could have led to the problem. In this case, the psychologist would use free association or dream analysis to identify the problem and to gain a clear understanding of the relationship between her mental distress and unresolved issues. The psychologist would then analyse the resistance and help her deal with the problems in a realistic manner. The development of transference by Angela towards her therapist will also play a huge role in the treatment process. Finally, the therapist will explain to her the causes of her problems and help her get over them.

 

Cognitive perspective: According to this school of Psychology, the way the individual perceives the world has huge effects on his/her behaviour. It mainly focuses on mental processes like thinking, decision making, memory, perception, etc. Many a times, our mental processes or thinking is compared to the working of a computer which also involves taking in information, analysing the information, storing it, and then retrieving the information. It is also believed that differences in information processing can lead to differences in behaviour. This school of thought believes that as the individual grows, thoughts that are faulty and beliefs that are wrong start to create problems in behaviour.Therefore, in Angela’s case, her thoughts and beliefs about the world and the way she perceives all social situations will be questioned. Maybe Angela has wrong beliefs about people, which she developed when she was younger, and now these thoughts and beliefs are causing her problems and are preventing her from looking at social situations in a positive way. A cognitive psychologist might advise her Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which clubs two principles- cognitive and behavioural- and aims at changing the thinking pattern of the individual by removing the distress that has both cognitive and behavioural causes. Also, Rational Emotive Therapy, which attempts to change the faulty belief system of the individual into a rationalistic one; and Beck’s Cognitive Therapy that aims at changing the illogical thoughts of an individual towards the world, self and the future, can be provided to Angela along with relaxation techniques

 

Humanistic perspective: The humanistic perspective of Psychology mainly came up as a rejection to all other perspectives of Psychology. Accordingly, this school of thought believes that an individual always aspires to reach self-actualisation, and have the capacity to reach fulfilment. It believes in free will, and the fact that every individual has a choice in each and every situation, and everything that is happening to them is their own choice and their own responsibility, and when an individual is unable to achieve self-actualisation, it leads to distress and problem behaviour. This perspective believes in helping people to complete their goals and reach the stage of self-actualisation.A humanistic psychologist will look at Angela’s condition as a result of failed attempt to reach self-fulfilment or self-actualisation and that whatever Angela is going through, it’s because of her own free will and choice and she is herself responsible for that behaviour. Therefore, the psychologist might conclude that Angela needs to be given a suitable environment and opportunity so she can reach her goal to eliminate the problem behaviour for which, a Client Centered Therapy can be used where the client is given unconditional positive regard. Also, the humanistic psychologist might be interested in knowing the effects of this behaviour on Angela and work on reducing them. The humanistic psychologist might suggest her methods that she can use to reduce the anxiety and fear that she is facing during social situations.

Therefore, one single problem can be looked at differently from different perspectives of Psychology. Depending on the condition and the situation of the individual, one perspective might be preferred more over the other and a suitable treatment (medication or psychotherapy) might be given.

Is There a ‘why’ to Terrorism?

The combination of terrorism and psychology is one field that has been grabbing the attention of media and the general public very recently. And just a few days back, another beautiful country fell into the plunges of terrorism. Although it was really upsetting to hear about the Paris attacks that happened on 13th November, what was even more upsetting was the fact that we couldn’t do anything about it- except of course, updating status on social networking sites with a bunch of hashtags.

There have been numerous terrorist attacks all over the world- hardly any country has been able to escape from its hands. All this just leaves one with one question- why? Why do people join such terrorist organisations? Why do they kill people based entirely on the group they belong to? Why do people choose violence over all other means to attain ‘peace’?

“We tend to think they are crazy,” said John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, “because of what terrorists do, we assume that can be explained via the pathology of those people, but trying to explain terrorism as mental illness is misleading”. Because psychologists who have studied several terrorists say that they are stable individuals, not paranoid or delusional .

And then there is the video message to the public from Poulin, who called himself Abu Muslim, and explained why he joined the Islamic State and why other people should join as well. According to Horgan, people are driven towards joining such organisations is because they want to “belong to something special”. And what follows is even worse; “they de-humanise members of other groups, seeing them as a collective rather than individuals, and viewing each member of the group as responsible for the crimes of others” .

Of course, as mentioned by Horgan, it was believed earlier that the roots of terrorism and the terrorist mentality lied in their pathology, and that something was probably wrong with their brain. More recently, this approach to terrorism has faded and the effect of situational and environmental forces in influencing individuals to join such organisations has gained attention. As Albert Bandura, a renowned social psychologist notes, “it requires conductive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce atrocious deeds”. Also, what is more interesting is the ability of these individuals to be able to ‘switch off’ the empathy they feel for other people. Lack of remorse, no pain or even the slightest of worry is shown on their face even when they very clearly know what they are doing.

But when it comes to why people commit such horrible crimes, it becomes pretty evident that the public justifications that terrorists make are only misleading as “private motivations cannot always be gleaned from public justifications.” Maybe then, to some degree, the individuals are aware of the consequences of the act they are putting up- and how much its hurting others, causing harm to them. Because if it was not so, admitting the actual reason for such crimes much not be a hard task.

However, people are motivated to do certain things without any particular reason- or at least, a reason that they are not consciously aware of. “The most valuable interviews I’ve conducted have been ones in which the interviewees conceded, ‘To be honest, I don’t really know,’” writes Horgan. It’s always been a puzzle answering questions starting with ‘why’- since human behaviour is so complicated and influenced by factors one cannot count or identify, and even so, it’s difficult to identify which factor played the most important part and to examine it in isolation, is just next to impossible.

After all the developments and research done in the field, one can only conclude that certain questions will always create some sort of mystery- and that the answer to them might not be available sooner or later. However, it has been clearly noticed that an interplay of both pathological and situational factors play a major role in determining why certain people join certain organisations, and why they do what they do.


Mindfulness Meditation

Several years ago, an experiment was done at Harvard University by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Students were asked to watch a bunch of people passing a basketball to each other and they had to count the number of times the ball was passed. Meanwhile, a man dressed as gorilla would walk in towards those people, stand right in between them, perform some action and then walk out. This might sound pretty stupid, but I bet you wouldn’t think so when I told you that half of the subjects in the experiment DID NOT SEE THE GORILLA. Surprising, isn’t it? I mean, how can anyone miss something that obvious? How can anyone not notice a gorilla pass by? The gorilla spent 9 seconds on screen- that’s a pretty long time- and yet, 50% of the people did not even notice it.

Just this video is enough to show us that we miss out so much of what happens around us- even if it’s right in front of our eyes. This nature of our brain to filter out information that we do not need to focus on, the information that is unwanted, and to focus on what is needed- is termed as selective attention. It’s better in a way that we can give all our attention to attend to what’s important- while filtering out what isn’t. However at the same time, it’s fascinating to think how it would be if we could be aware of, and focus on every little thing that happened around us.

And for that, meditation has been found to be very helpful. Meditation is a mental culture through which one can train their mind to increase concentration and awareness of what is happening in their body. It is broadly of two types- concentration meditation, that focuses on enhancing concentration, and insight oriented meditation or, more popularly known as mindfulness meditation, that focuses on the here and now. Mindfulness meditation helps you in being aware of what is happening around you- and of things as they happen in their natural way. This way, one can increase their attention span and even focus on little details that tend to be filtered out.

This can be done by anyone, provided he/she meditates in a particular posture. Its important that the person is calm and relaxed; and the surroundings are peaceful and quiet. The posture should be in the form of Padmasana, which is important so you don’t sleep. Eyes and mouth should be closed and spine should be straight.

Meditation not only helps you increase your concentration and attention, it also helps you become a better person. And when you successfully learn this art, maybe somewhere far away, you’ll see Buddha smiling. And till then, happy meditating!

THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

We live in a world with innumerable choices. Look around, and you will see each and every place filled with choices for you to choose from. Each products has sub types which again have variations in them. A supermarket can be the best example to analyse this. A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That’s a lot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit the shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure. (Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less)

The Paradox of Choice started with the famous jam experiment conducted in 2000 by Sheena S. Iyengar (Columbia University) and Mark R. Lepper (Stanford University). They both published a study entitled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 79 (2000)). In their paper, they discussed the two experiments they conducted in grocery stores. They set up 2 different displays of jam for about five hours to see the ordinary consumers would react in terms of tasting and purchasing. In one display, they set out 24 different exotic flavours of jam while in another, they set out only 6 varieties.

They found out that in both cases, the consumers tasted or sampled about the same number of varieties of the jams- about 1.50 but the “…consumers [who] were initially exposed to limited choices proved considerably more likely to purchase the product than consumers who had initially encountered a much larger set of options.” (Id. at 997.)

According to them, a limited number of choices ended up increasing sales.

I know that this is a complete different perspective from that we have of increased choices. To all of us, increase in choices is a boon and leads to better judgements since we get more products to choose from. But is it really so?

Has it ever happened to you that every time you buy a product from, suppose, a mall, which has innumerable choices and variations among products, that you regret your decision after a while, or maybe the very second you buy it? Maybe if you had searched more, you would have found a better product? This happens to me every time I shop for a gift for a friend. The reason for this could be that an increase in choices around us increases our expectations about those choices. These expectations rise so much that they are not realistic anymore. People start having unrealistic expectations with the increase in choice. Therefore, increased in number of choice does not give us more control. In fact, it gives us an overwhelming feeling and we are unable to cope with it.

So what makes us happy?

It is observed that people are generally happier when they are close to family, involved in religious communities and with good friends than those who are not. Therefore, being connected to others is better for the subjective wellbeing than being rich. It is also observed that close relations actually put restrictions on us- it limits our choices to some extent. For example; being with your family would mean you have to confide to the family norms, which in turn mean certain restrictions over our activities. That means people are happier with restrictions than those who do not have any restrictions over them. (Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less)

So does that mean more choices are bad? Certainly not. Maybe we should consider the possibility that we might actually be better off with lesser choices in our hands. ‘Less choice’ and not ‘no choice’. In fact, consumers actually repel the idea of no choice and when just provided with a single option, they tend to not make any choice even if there is the only product that they wanted to buy in the first place. This is called as the ‘Single-Option Aversion’. According to a Daniel Mochon in the Journal of Consumer Research, Inc., single-option aversion is an increase in consumer’s desire to search when faced with a single option. According to him, this effect can lead to a product being chosen more often when competing alternatives are included in the choice set, which contradicts the Paradox of Choice completely. This shows how our lives are dependent on choices, and that we will face high frustration if not given a choice. That means frustration with no choice, and frustration with many choices. So what should a consumer do?

Barry Schwartz, the author of ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’ in his article “Choice and Its Vicissitudes: A Lesson in How Science Works” talks about the ‘sweet spot’. According to him, the trick is to find the middle ground- the “sweet spot”- that enables people to benefit from variety and not be paralyzed by it. He says that choice is good, but there can be too much of a good thing, and that should be avoided by the consumers.

Obviously this paradox, like all others, is not free of criticism. Derek Thompson, in his article More Is More: Why the Paradox of Choice Might Be a Myth in 2013 called the paradox of choice a ‘complete hogwash’. He stated that the famous jam experiment was conducted again and the researchers completely failed to replicate the experiment:

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the [paradox of choice]. (Thompson, 2013)

He states that the average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. That is occasionally, you might find the results that agree to the paradox. Overall, says Scheibehenne, “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.”

The paradox of choice is thus a very controversial concept. The arguments both in favour and against this paradox make both researchers and consumer psychologists confused as to how, when and why this paradox occurs, even if it does. There are many questions and doubts regarding this paradox. Perhaps, more studies in this area might give us an answer to these questions and help us maximize our satisfaction, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Even with loopholes in this concept, it is hard to forgo such an important study that can be practically used in everyday life of a consumer, helping them make everyday choices and possibly make positive changes in this world of innumerable choices.