Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"I never lie"

In the 1978 film, Superman, there's a scene in which the guy in the blue tights and red cape is with Lois Lane up on her balcony, giving his first interview. The two have this exchange:

Lois Lane: I mean, why are you here? There must be a reason.
Superman: Yes. I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.
Lois Lane: [Laughs] You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!
Superman: I'm sure you don't really mean that, Lois.
Lois Lane: I don't believe this.
Superman: Lois, I never lie. (The last line can be seen here.)

Of course Superman does lie, if not by commission, then frequently by misdirection and by omission--for instance, not telling people that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person.

But his "never lie" statement conveys his boy-scout-like moral code: he tries to be honest and forthright. Is Superman's honesty a superpower--a pattern of behavior that requires superhuman effort? That is, does it require a strong "will" to be honest? Or are people who are basically honest, like Superman, simply not tempted to lie, and so no great effort is required to tell the truth?

This is a question that psychologist Joshua Greene and graduate student Joseph Paxton set out to investigate. In their study, they gave participants an opportunity to make money by accurately predicting the outcome of flips of a coin. For some coin flips, participants were asked to make their predictions aloud; for other coin flips, participants did not but instead after the coin flip reported whether their prediction had been accurate (and thus in this second type of procedure participants would easily lie without anyone else knowing that they were doing so). Here's the twist: all of this was happening while participants were in an fMRI scanner.

Participants should make accurate predictions, on average, in about 50% of the coin flips and that's what happened in the first condition--in which they reported their predictions out loud. In the second condition--in which people didn't make a public prediction before the coin flip but instead reported after the flip whether their prediction was correct-people reported being correct over 80% of the time. As with the first condition, the chance of correctly predicting is 50%, so participants must have been lying about their accuracy some of the time.

Examining the data more closely, it turns out that not all participants lied during the second condition. Some participants (the "honest" participants) reported 50% accuracy rates in the second condition, the same as in the first condition, and what is statistically plausible. It seems that these folks aren't tempted to lie, and their brain scans did not look different between the first and second conditions, which suggests that they weren't tempted to lie when they had the opportunity and motive (remember, the more accurate their predictions, the more money they would receive). Their honesty was relatively effortless, like Superman's appears to be.

In contrast, the folks who lied in the second condition (the "dishonest" participants) had more activity during both conditions in the parts of the brain involved in planning and decision-making. This set of brain areas was activated when participants had to decide what to say. It would appear that for these folks, being honest--at least about coin flip predictions--takes more work.

The study authors suggest that parents may be best off trying to instill honesty in their very young children so that they grow up with honesty that is automatic, effortless, and not subject to temptation. How do you think Ma and Pa Kent instilled honesty in Clark?

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bipolar II—What’s That?

You may have read recently that Catherine Zeta-Jones was briefly hospitalized for the treatment of bipolar II disorder. While you may have heard of bipolar disorder, unless you took an abnormal psychology class in the last decade or so, or had direct experience with bipolar disorder, the numerical designations bipolar I and bipolar II are probably unfamiliar.

Here’s a brief primer: Bipolar I is what most people think of as bipolar disorder: episodes of mania that typically alternate with episodes of depression. During a manic episode, people aren’t simply in an “up” mood. They are euphoric—feeling that they can do most anything, that they’re creative, brilliant, supercompetent. Except that they’re not. Among the symptoms of mania are: less need for sleep, a sense of racing thoughts, beginning new projects (for which they may not have appropriate experience), being sexually promiscuous, going on spending sprees. Some people are extremely irritable during their manic episodes rather than euphoric (click here for the full criteria list).

People may become psychotic when manic; for example they may develop delusions. For a diagnosis of bipolar I, the manic episode must last for at least a week and significantly impair daily life. That’s a long time both for the individual and those living or working with the individual.

People who have had a manic episode typically previously have had and/or will go on to have episodes of depression. The term depression can sometimes be overused, so when mental health clinicians use the term, they mean a subjective sense of feeling “depressed” most of the day for most days and/or significantly less interest or pleasure in activities. Other symptoms of depression include feeling worthless or inappropriately guilty, difficulty making decisions or thinking clearly, and recurrent thoughts of death or of suicide (click here for the full criteria list). These symptoms must last for at least two weeks to be considered a major depressive episode. (People with bipolar I may have mixed episodes, which are symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time, rather than manic or major depressive episodes.)

Bipolar I is the form of bipolar disorder that used to be called manic-depressive disorder. Patty Duke Astin describes their experiences with bipolar disorder in a way that that sounds like bipolar I.

In contrast, bipolar II doesn’t involve manic episodes; instead, its hallmark is hypomanic episodes, which typically alternate with episodes of depression. Hypomania is a less intense form of mania that doesn’t impair functioning significantly. A hypomanic person may be overly talkative, but you can interrupt him or her (which is hard to do when someone is manic); the person may be overly self-confident, but not grandiose, and may even be more creative than in his or her normal state (click here for the full criteria list). For a diagnosis of bipolar II, the hypomanic episode must last for at least four days, and the person must also have had at least one episode of depression. Carrie Fisher reports that she’s been diagnosed with bipolar II.

Bipolar II is more common among women than men, whereas bipolar I is equally common among men and women. Moreover, women with bipolar (I or II) tend to have more depressive episodes than manic or hypomanic ones, whereas men with bipolar (I or II) tend to have more manic or hypomanic episodes, respectively, than depressive ones. When women are premenstrual, their mood symptoms (mania, hypomania, depressive) are likely to be worse than at other times of the month. The good news: Various treatments (e.g., medications, cognitive behavioral therapy) can help.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Being a Superhero--It's About the Costume?

I was at WonderCon--a convention for fans of comic books and related media--this past weekend. While there, I walked the floor of the exhibit hall and interviewed folks dressed in costume. My first question to each superhero was usually "Why dress in costume?" (I've written before about psychological issues related to wearing a costume--see posts here andhere for more about research on wearing a mask.)

People reported a range of reasons, though everyone conceded that there was a bit of an "ego boost" or opportunity for attention that they might not otherwise have.

Some folks in costume are altruistic, like the folks above from the Star Wars 501st Legion and other Star Wars groups (see this post about some folks in that group).

These two gentlemen from the San Francisco Fan Force talked about looking up to (super)heroes themselves, and wanting to give kids an opportunity to have a hero to look up to; they also said that they feel like they "can do more" and can do things beyond themselves when dressed as one of their heroes. These men (and others from Star Wars Fan Force and the 501st Legion) dress up at conventions, but they also go to children's hospitals to put "a smile on the face" of sick children who get to see their favorite hero walk into the room. For these people, putting on the costume of a superhero is a way of becoming a best version of themselves. That's a powerful incentive.

In fact, other costumed folks I talked to also mentioned feeling good when kids at the convention want to have their photograph taken with a "superhero." (The Batman in this photo below mentioned that he doesn't particularly like kids, but when in costume he finds himself more interested in being around kids and more patient with them! This difference he experiences speaks to the power of the situation, and how context can override your "personality.")

The idea that wearing a costume allows the wearer to become someone else-a different version of themselves-was mentioned by many people. The magician Zatanna (standing next to Batman) said that she was usually a very shy person; when in costume, though, she felt more freedom when talking to people.

People also talked about feeling like a part of a community-that costuming enabled them to feel more deeply engaged in the community of fans at the convention. Of course people also talked about it being fun to dress up in this context.

My second question was typically "Why that particular costume?" Many women in particular talked about wanting a superhero costume because they feel empowered when wearing it. They realize they don't become the superhero, but they feel that they become a different person than their usual selves. Other folks talked about feeling that they were honoring the values and actions of a particular hero. Still other people explained that their choice of character was based on a physical resemblance to the superhero (height, for instance, in the case of Hit Girl, below, or skin color in the case of Vixen, above on the left with Zatanna, Batman, and Raven).

Another reason for picking a certain costume among those who have multiple costumes: Because of a particular media event (e.g., an upcoming film release), or physical comfort based on the temperature of the venue.

Do you wear a costume to events (beyond Halloween)? If so, why do you wear a costume, and why the specific costume(s) in your closet? Let me know!

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com.