Oxytocin Raises Emotional Empathy in Men

A team of German researchers decided to see what would happen if they gave men a nasal spray of oxytocin and then had them look at photos of emotionally charged situations (like a girl hugging a cat or a grieving husband). As regular readers of this blog will remember, oxytocin—often called the “love hormone”—has long been shown to play a key role in our sense of trust and the desire to connect with others.
When the men were then asked to express the depth of their feelings for the person in the photo, “significantly higher emotional empathy levels were recorded for the oxytocin group than for the placebo group,” according to René Hurlemann of Bonn University’s Clinic for Psychiatry, who worked on the study.
But they also found something fascinating: While the men in the placebo group showed less emotional empathy, they appeared to be just as good at rationally interpreting facial expressions. What’s going on here?
It turns out that the brain appears to processes rational inferences about what someone is thinking and emotional inferences about what someone is feeling in different ways. When another team of researchers interfered with a part of the brain thought to be involved in rational inference—the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—they found that it affected men’s rational inference abilities but not their emotional inferences. According to neurologist Elke Kalbe, who led the research, this shows that the two processes “are functionally independent and that these subcomponents are mediated by at least partly different neural pathways.”

Does Mindfulness Training Help Protect Marines?

Past research has shown that mindfulness training—learning to deliberately stay in the moment without judgment or emotion— can protect people in high-stress situations, affecting how traumatic the experience becomes. Now, a new study shows that mindfulness training might even help soldiers perform under the extreme stress of combat—and better deal with the aftereffects.
For eight weeks, Amishi Jha, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Elizabeth Stanley, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a former U.S. Army officer, gave mindfulness training to a group of Marines preparing for deployment to Iraq. The training taught the Marines skills they could use to manage stress, regulate symptoms in their body and mind after a stressful experience, increase their psychological resilience, and improve their performance—making it particularly relevant to their lives. The researchers found that the training improved their working memory and how well they regulated their emotions, and the more time the Marines spent practicing the mindfulness exercises, the more their mood, problem-solving abilities, and emotional control improved.
Jha’s conclusion is that:

just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness. Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick-and-considered decisions and action plans. Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training may help anyone who must maintain peak performance in the face of extremely stressful circumstances, from first responders, relief workers and trauma surgeons to professional and Olympic athletes.

Why A New Car Won’t Really Make You Happy

Take it from Cornell University psychologist Thomas Gilovich: Soon after you bring a new car home, you’ll start to second-guess your purchase. You’ll compare it with your neighbors car, the cars you didn’t get, and the better deals you think you could have gotten, and your initial happiness will begin to fade. You’re much better off spending money on vacations, he says, which make us pretty happy in the short term, and even happier in the long term. Experiences bring us greater joy because they are more individual and harder for us to compare with other people’s (Telegraph).

For example, in one of the experiments Gilovich conducted with Travis Carter, volunteers who got a present that wasn’t as good as another gift they saw reported being less happy with their present than volunteers who got potato chips instead of a chocolate bar. The enjoyment that comes from the experience of eating chips isn’t undermined by seeing someone else eat a chocolate bar, the researchers explain, but material things don’t work the same way. As Gilovich explains in stark terms:

Imagine you buy a flat-panel TV. You come to my house, and I have a bigger, clearer picture than yours. You’re bummed out. But suppose you go on a vacation to the Caribbean. You find out I’ve done the same, and mine sounds better than yours. It might bother you a little bit, but not nearly to the same degree because you have your memories; it’s your idiosyncratic connection to the Caribbean that makes it your vacation. That makes it less comparable to mine, hence your enjoyment isn’t undermined as much (Cornell Chronicle)

But that’s not the whole picture, says another team of researchers, who reported last year that we’re happier with “experiential purchases” when they turn out well, but:

We show that the recommendation should include a caveat: Purchases that decrease happiness are less damaging when they are material purchases than when they are experiential purchases. (Journal of Consumer Research)

And as positive psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener told us yesterday, not everyone compares their possessions and experiences with those of others in the same way:

Comparisons can be either inspiring or demoralizing, and the specific turn of the screw depends largely on individual personality factors. To make matters even more complicated, researcher Alex Michalos introduced what he calls “multiple discrepancy theory.” At the heart of this theory is the idea that people do not simply make comparisons socially, contrasting themselves with friends and neighbors. They also compare themselves with other imaginary standards, such as past performance or future expectations.

Do Big Smiles Predict Longer Lives?

Ernest Abel is a researcher at Wayne State University who specializes in the role of emotions in longevity. He recently teamed up with Michael Kruger to sort through the official photos of a couple hundred pro baseball players from the 1950s. They parsed the photos into three categories: players with genuine smiles (the kind that involve the muscles around the mouth as well as those near the corner of the eyes), players who didn’t smile, and players with partial smiles (which involve only mouth muscles). Then they looked at these players’ lifespans.

Their findings? Players with full smiles lived an average of seven years longer than those who didn’t smile for the camera and five years longer than those with half smiles. The link between smile intensity and longevity held up even after the researchers accounted for other factors associated with longevity—things like education, body mass index, and career length.

Overall, 35 percent of the difference in the players’ longevity could be attributed to differences in the size of their smiles. And as the authors explain:

To the extent that smile intensity reflects an underlying emotional disposition, the results of this study are congruent with those of other studies demonstrating that emotions have a positive relationship with mental health, physical health, and longevity (Psychological Science).

Relatively speaking, only a few of the players had full smiles, which “indicates that even if smiles were requested” by the photographers, “smile intensity reflected a general underlying disposition,” the authors write. Then again, it’s hard to know the extent to which a large smile reflects a happy disposition—especially in photos that are staged rather than candid.

People who are conscientious might be more willing to heed a photographer’s request to “say cheese,” and conscientiousness has also been linked to longevity. Alternatively, players who smiled could be more sociable than others. “A long line of work indicates that greater and deeper social networks increase well-being and longevity in life,” Matt Hertenstein says (New Scientist).

Earlier this year, we spoke with Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University, after he published research showing that how intensely we smile in our childhood photos could predict our future happiness and marital success. Essentially, those who smiled least in their photos were five times more likely to get divorced down the road than those who smiled biggest. But there are many possible explanations for this link, as he points out:

Perhaps people who smile in response to the directive from the photographer to smile are more obedient people in general. Obedience may be a trait that leads to longer-lasting marriages. Of course, our findings are correlational, so no inferences of causation can be drawn with confidence. The task remains for researchers to better understand how such a small sample of behavior in a person’s life can predict anything about our future selves.

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