Posted in Life & Happiness

Silver Medal Effect

Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete. You have performed admirably and are stepping up to the podium to receive a medal for being one of the top three athletes at the game. Question: would you rather receive the silver or the bronze medal?

The logical answer would be that the silver medal is better, as second place is better than third. It is clear that the person who came second performed better and will also receive a more valuable prize. However, the opposite is true in reality.

In 1995, psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich studied video recordings and interviews of athletes from the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. They studied facial expressions of medalists and noted a stark contrast between those who won gold, silver and bronze.

Obviously, the gold medalists were ecstatic and were not afraid to show this. By contrast, silver medalists rarely smiled immediately after their achievement, often showing flashes of sadness or contempt instead. They would usually smile on the podium as they received the medal, but compared to bronze and gold medalists, they were far more likely to show a fake smile rather than a Duchenne smile – a true, involuntary smile associated with happiness.
Interestingly, those who won bronze looked far happier than the silver medalists.

This effect has been reported through other observational studies, such as a 2006 study that looked at athletes in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
In fact, almost everyone will have had similar experiences where coming second place somehow feels worse than not doing well in a tournament at all. This is because of counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactuals are essentially “What if?” scenarios that we dream up in our heads. Being imaginative creatures, we are prone to thinking of what could have been, then proceed to have regrets or be disappointed by something that never even happened. The closer we get to our goals, the bigger the disappointment we have when we fail to achieve it.

We all fall victim to counterfactual thinking. We often wonder what would have happened had we taken action earlier, or did something slightly differently, then lament that the best case scenario did not happen. We compare our reality to a hypothetical situation and become frustrated.

Many studies have confirmed this in various settings, showing that objective achievement means nothing in the face of the subjective perception of the achievement. Even if you work hard and get an A- in an assignment, you could be sad and stressed that you did not get an A+.

A simple antidote to counterfactual thinking is turning it on its head. Instead of thinking that it is a shame that you didn’t achieve gold, be glad that you achieved such a high result. Instead of fretting that you did not get the best mark, imagine how bad it would had been if you had failed. Instead of lamenting that you had a bad day, be grateful that you did not have an ill fortune such as being hit by a bus or suffering a brain aneurysm rupture.

At the end of the day, the problem with counterfactual thinking is that it is based on our own imagination. We are creating stress in our own heads, actively choosing to be unhappy.

Because of our high expectations, we fail to enjoy the pleasures of life or appreciate the absolute value of our achievements. We forget that we don’t have to be the best or that we don’t have to win every game.

We forget to be content.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Availability Cascade

We live in a complicated world that constantly throws complex issues at us. Because it is impossible for one person to be an expert in every field, we have to employ different strategies and tactics to navigate through these issues.

A fascinating way that our brain tries to solve a current issue is the availability cascade. This is a self-reinforcing cycle, where an idea essentially “infects” a group of people, displacing individual thought and opinion and overwhelming critical thinking.

The way this happens was described and modelled by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein.

First, a new idea that seems to be a simple and elegant solution or explanation to the current issue starts to gain traction. People easily adopt and embrace this idea because it sounds plausible and because it is easy to process.

Secondly, people who adopt these ideas spread it themselves, making it more available in the social network. Particularly, nowadays we see this in both reported and social media.

Lastly, as the availability increases, more and more people are pulled in and the idea seems more credible, because “everybody” seems to think it. People do less research and have less individual thoughts or opinions about the matter because the group consensus is more appealing or acceptable.

The availability cascade as a platform can be very effective at raising awareness of issues and banding people together to fight a common cause, such as when the AIDS epidemic was starting.
However, it is fraught with issues.

The availability cascade is mediated by a heuristic, which is essentially a mental shortcut. Heuristics are extremely useful in that it reduces our cognitive load and automates many of our decisions. However, because they are based on rule sets, they are not as effective for new, different situations.

We are less likely to think critically when using heuristics, meaning that we are more vulnerable to being manipulated. In this situation, people think “this is widely available information, therefore it must be important” and default to believing it (even if it is just to appear “current” and to fit in).

Because critical thinking is overwhelmed by the availability cascade, it can be extremely dangerous when misinformation spreads this way; or worse, disinformation – where people maliciously spread false information for their own gains.

A classic example is the anti-vaccination movement that spawned from a discredited, falsified article that claimed MMR vaccines increased rates of autism, despite mountains of evidence pointing towards the effectiveness and safety of immunisation. Subsequently, vaccination rates dropped and we now see outbreaks of illnesses such as measles, resulting in countless deaths and injuries that could have easily been prevented.

Information can be just as contagious and dangerous as an actual infection. Knowing about the existence of these cognitive biases and phenomena help protect us from falling victim to them.

Posted in History & Literature

The Egg

Short story written by Andy Weir

You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. And in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone!?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“I’m Jesus?”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

Posted in Science & Nature

Shooting Star

When an object from outer space enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it starts to burn up and creates a brilliant streak in the sky, which we call a meteor or shooting star. Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to friction with the air in the atmosphere.

An object entering the atmosphere is typically travelling at extraordinary speeds. Most meteors are travelling around 20km/s (or 72000km/h) when they hit the atmosphere. At these speeds, air molecules do not have a chance to move out of the way. The meteor will instead collide into the air molecules, pushing them closer and closer to each other, compressing the air in front of it.

As we know from physics class, compression increases temperature in gases as per the ideal gas law (PV=nRT). The impressive entry speed of these meteors result in so much air compression that their surface can heat up to 1650 degrees Celsius.

The heat boils and breaks apart the contents of the meteor, turning it into superheated plasma that gives off a glow. This is the streak of light that we see in the night sky when we wish upon a shooting star.

Posted in Science & Nature

Oobleck

If you mix 1 part water to 1.5-2 part corn starch, you create a strange mixture called “oobleck“, named after a Dr. Seuss story. It is so simple to make, yet it exhibits some very strange properties that makes it a popular science experiment.

Oobleck is what is known as a non-Newtonian fluid, where the viscosity (or “thickness”) changes with how much stress it is under. If you press your finger gently into it, it will feel like water, but if you strike it with a hammer, it will behave as a solid. It will stiffen when you stir it, but run when you swirl it.

Related image

You can even run over a tub of oobleck as long as you change steps quickly enough to apply enough pressure to keep the fluid under your feet solid. This is because oobleck becomes very viscous under high stress, making it behave more solidly (shear thickening).

We can learn from oobleck not only some interesting physics principles, but also how to interact with people.

Much like a non-Newtonian fluid, people will tend to react stiffly and with more resistance if you apply stress or force. But if you apply gentle pressure and be assertive, you will find people generally react more softly and fluidly.

This simple change in your approach will lead to much better conflict resolution and constructive outcomes when dealing with other people.

Image result for oobleck run gif

Posted in Life & Happiness

New Experiences

A theory on how the brain processes and remembers time is that it counts time by the number of experiences. For example, if you attend a party and meet many new people and have an exciting, fun time, then your brain will remember that day as feeling longer and with much more detail. In contrast, a normal, boring work day may not even register as a memory, because there is nothing new to remember.

This sounds obvious, but the theory has relevant implications.
Look back on your past week and try to remember what you did. Do you remember the weather three days ago, what you talked about with your friend over coffee five days ago, or what song was playing while you were doing paperwork?

It is not uncommon for our brain to go into autopilot and forget menial, daily routines. In other words, the more standardised and automated your daily life is, your brain will remember those times as “less time”. Ergo, the life you look back on is shorter than what it could have been if you stop having new experiences. Is that not such a waste?

Compare this to when you travel or start a new relationship. You are exposed to so many new stimuli and experiences that your brain light ups and frantically records every detail (the heightened emotions play a role also). This is why we can remember the scent of our partner, the conversations we had with a stranger we met in a French bookshop, and what movie was playing in the background when you had your first kiss. These are moments that you can remember in better detail than you can remember entire years.

The bottom line is that a boring life a short life. A way to make the most of the short time we have in life would be to continue having new experiences as we grow old. Travel the world, meet new people, try things you normally wouldn’t, fall in love and push your horizons.

Otherwise, you may end up on your deathbed looking back on your life, regretting that your highlight reel is much shorter than you expected.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Work-Life Balance

An important part of most of our lives as an adult is work.
We need money to pay for food and housing, but also to fulfil our wants and realising our dreams, such as indulging in gourmet foods and beautiful clothes, going on trips, funding a hobby or buying a nice house.
Careers can be an important source of personal pride and sense of purpose, challenging us and stimulating our growth.
Workplaces are also a valuable source of social interaction, as we meet people we might not have met in other settings.

But as important as work is, it is perhaps overemphasised in our society.
Money is great, but above a certain line, there is a diminishing return on how much happiness it brings, because it promotes greed rather than contentness.
Our pride in our job may lead to us making it too large a part of our identity, resulting in a crisis when we feel we are not good at our jobs or cannot keep working anymore.
Our colleagues and superiors may be the greatest source of stress and annoyance, leading to burnout at work.

Overall, work can be a source of great stress and misery in our lives.

Most importantly, life is a zero-sum game. If we devote time to work, it takes away time from other aspects of our life. We often overlook the “little things“, such as spending time with our loved ones, enjoying hobbies and interests, and taking care of our health.

But things such as relationships and health are what we do need to devote time to, as they can be irreparably damaged without proper care and maintenance.

So if you don’t have time for these “little things”, ask yourself what you are making time for. Is what you get out of your job really worth it all? Is it worth the stress and sacrificing the “little things” for?

Sometimes, it is necessary to work hard and make sacrifices to earn enough for survival or to achieve a certain goals. But more often than not, we are failing to be content and losing what we already have in the pursuit of something bigger (and out of reach).

To prevent work from taking over your life, we must balance it by making time for various outlets.

An effective way to balance the stress and burnout from work is by having a creative outlet. Having a hobby such as playing an instrument, writing (e.g. creative writing, journaling, blogging), drawing or some other activity that challenges you to grow outside of work helps you to feel engaged and active. Life is so much more interesting with a passion, especially when work fails to provide it.

Improving physical health through exercise gives you more energy so you can do more with your free time than just lie down and watch TV after work.
Meditation gives us tools to be resilient against various forms of stress by teaching us to let go of things we cannot change and to be mindful of the good things in life.

The last important outlet is connection. Friends and family provide love, support and compassion when we are going through tough times. Even being able to co-miserate about a mild annoyance over a coffee with a colleague can make work more bearable. Sharing a laughter and enjoying moments of simple pleasure together with a loved one helps remind us of how important happiness and contentness is in life.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is too deep of a topic to cover in one article, especially because it varies from person to person.
Nonetheless, it is worth asking yourself whether you are truly happy with the balance between work and your personal life, and how you may live a happier life by restoring said balance.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Photography

When the camera was first invented, it revolutionised the practise of capturing the moment. In the past, people would have to write or draw descriptively to portray something that happened. Nowadays, we can capture the essence of a moment with the click of a button.

But of course, photos are not a perfect representation of reality. What you see on a photo depends on numerous settings (such as the exposure, aperture, shutter speed), the photographer’s artistic direction (composition, lighting) and also the use of technology for post-processing. By tweaking these elements, a photographer can exert some creative license over how the photo represents its subject.

For instance, a photographer may decide to crop a photo to make a scene look more chaotic by removing negative space. They may choose to reduce the exposure to make the atmosphere seem more moody and grim. The shutter speed may be slowed to better represent movement and the passage of time. In short, a photo can easily be “manipulated” to distort the reality it is attempting to capture.

However, another interpretation would be that photos show the reality that the photographer really experienced. Reality is not purely objective because we all experience the world differently. Our perception of reality is affected by our emotions, our other senses and our past experiences, such as nostalgia and trauma.

The person with whom we are in love with appear brighter and more radiant than in reality, because our emotions affect our senses. Food may appear more colourful and richer when they smell amazing. Pain and suffering can make it feel as if the colours in the world are more washed out.

To better represent how we felt at that moment, we could increase the exposure to give the subject a “glow”, we can adjust the contrast to make the food look more appetising and we can reduce the saturation to make a picture seem more faded and sombre.

Photography is more than just a recording, but a way to capture intangible moments that we see with our minds and our hearts.

So look back on photos that you have taken and photos that have been taken of you: what emotional filter has been applied to those photos?

Posted in Life & Happiness

No Regrets

You will never regret being kind.
You will never regret having hope.
You will never regret prioritising happiness.
You will never regret being yourself.
You will never regret taking chances.

People think regret is born out of bad choices, but more often than not, regret is the result of not making a choice. Taking a chance may come with consequences, but that is a risk we have to take. Because if you’re too afraid of consequences or being hurt and refuse to take action on the important things, life will pass you by in the blink of an eye and you might miss it. On your deathbed, it won’t be the decisions you made that you regret, but the bites you didn’t take.

Happiness is an active process, not something that will come to you passively. So choose to be kind and choose to be hopeful. Choose to laugh and choose to love. Choose to be the person you want to be, living the life you want to live.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Baby Talk

Why do we talk differently to babies? Baby talk, also called motherese, parentese and infant-directed speech, is an almost universal behaviour where adults will talk in a special way with very young children. It is characterised by sing-songy, high-pitched voices and the use of simplified words with slow, accentuated vowels. It is seen across various cultures and languages across the globe, with some studies showing that babies show preference to baby talk over “adult talk” from as young as 7 weeks old.

As instinctive and silly as it may sound, baby talk actually serves many important purposes. Language acquisition is a complex developmental process. Language is not something we are born with, but something we learn. Baby talk happens to be an effective tool to help teach babies how language works.

There are many features of baby talk that makes it so effective.

First, there is the tonal element. High-pitched cooing voices are comforting for babies, as they associate it with positive emotions. This contrasts to grumbling, low tones and yelling, which would upset them. The musical element also attracts their attention.

Second, by slowing your speech and lengthening the vowels, babies can identify individual words easier, amongst what would sound like a “sound soup” to them. This also gives them a chance to try to imitate you and practise speaking.

Third, by using more adjectives in front of nouns, such as “big red car” or “choo choo train”, we help babies associate objects with their names, while giving them qualities to make it more memorable. The process not only helps them build vocabulary, but trains them in the art of forming associations in their head.

Fourth, we tend to state the obvious and give more of a running commentary, filling in the gaps with more descriptions. This lets the baby know what is happening and helps them be more aware of their surroundings.

Lastly, there is the social element, where by using a special voice, we mentally switch ourselves into “baby mode”. This lets us focus our attention on the baby, while conveying that we care and love for the child.

We tend to use baby talk when talking with pets and other animals as well, but there is research to suggest that in the case of dogs, it does not make much difference other than for puppies and dogs react no differently compared to “adult talk”. It is also commonly used as part of flirtation as part of acting “cute”.

Baby talk is not something that is explicitly taught, yet most people instinctively use it when interacting with a baby. It is an example of how our desire to do best for the next generation is ingrained into us – both naturally and socially.