Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Yawning is a reflex that we usually associate with tiredness or boredom. When we feel quite sleepy or feel that it is bedtime, we will involuntarily take a deep breath in and stretch our muscles. It used to be believed that yawning is the brain’s response to lack of oxygen, which seems logical as we take a deep breath in during a yawn. However, studies have shown that yawning actually decreases the level of oxygen in the brain. The reason for yawning is still a mystery, but there are many theories suggesting that it cools the brain or to keep the muscles stretched and ready. It may even be a primitive reflex designed to display dominance and signal that they are not threatened by an incoming danger.

An interesting thing about yawning is that it is extremely contagious. It is thought that yawn contagiousness serves a social purpose. Our brains contain certain types of neurons called mirror neurons, that are responsible for copying an action that we see (hence the proverb “monkey see, monkey do”). It has been suggested that by copying the yawn of another member in the group, a sense of camaraderie is established, acting as a social lubricant (much like mirroring to build rapport). The contagiousness is surprisingly strong, even working when you see a video of a person yawning or even reading about yawning. It spreads to animals as well, such as other primates (e.g. monkeys, apes) and dogs. Interestingly, autistic children are less likely to yawn when someone nearby yawns, suggesting that there is indeed a social element to yawning.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Abilene Paradox

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (a city 53 miles north of Coleman) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted. One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

This anecdote was written by management expert Jerry B. Harvey to elucidate a paradox found in human nature, where a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is against the best wishes of any individual in the group. Essentially, the group agrees to do something that would not benefit any one, or the group as a whole. This is the Abilene paradox, colloquially known to us through the idiom: “do not rock the boat”.

As seen in the anecdote, there is a breakdown of communication where each member assumes that the majority of the group will decide to follow the action, pushing them towards conformity. There is a mutual mistaken belief that everyone wants the action when no one does, leading to no one raising objections. This is a type of phenomenon called groupthink (coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four), where people do not present alternatives or objections, or even voicing their opinions simply because they believe that will ruin the harmony of the group. They are also under peer-pressure, believing that by being the one voice against the unanimous decision they will become ostracised.

The Abilene paradox explains why poor decisions are made by businesses, especially in committees. Because no one objects to a bad idea (falsely believing that that is what the group wants), even bad ideas are accepted unanimously. This is particularly dangerous when combined with cognitive dissonance, where the group will believe that they chose that decision because it was rational and logical. To prevent this paradox from destroying individual creativity in the group, one should always ask other members if they actually agree with the decision or are merely the victims of groupthink.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Transactive Memory

It is common to find couples, families or teams where someone always asks another member about a certain memory, while the opposite happens for a different memory. For example, a mother might always consult his son about computers and technical difficulties, while the father might always consult the mother about his plans for the month. This kind of “shared memory” is named transactive memory, where a group becomes organised in a way to share memory around in an efficient manner. This is usually done by the group reorganising itself so that each member specialises in a certain field, with the other members only remembering that that person is the expert. This means that instead of memorising every field, you can simply remember who is the expert in that field. It is much like learning where the reference text is rather than learning the contents.

Although it may look like dependence, transactive memory is an extremely useful tool in tight groups such as a couple or a small team. By having members specialise in certain domains of knowledge, the group is able to expand their capacity to acquire knowledge and create innovation. Transactive memory allows for a group to become efficient and effective in learning and retrieving knowledge. Overall, it improves decision making processes and the efficiency of the group, allowing for better outcomes. This is achieved by the division of responsibilities from specialising, shortening the time needed for finding the appropriate knowledge (as everyone knows the “guy” or “gal” to go to) and the shared understanding of the teammates regarding the interpersonal relations in the team. This means that everyone knows exactly who to go to for a certain domain of knowledge, while understanding their strengths and weaknesses, allowing for well coordinated interactions. Because of this, transactive memory only works in groups with limited numbers, with the maximum number being similar to the Monkeysphere (150).

Many studies prove the effectiveness of transactive memory. It has been found that couples have much better memory recollection compared to when they are paired with a stranger. In the modern technological era, transactive memory has expanded to the internet, with studies showing that people are more likely to know the source of information (such as Wikipedia) rather than the actual information. Given the ease of access to the internet and large databases containing all the information we need, sometimes it is far more efficient learning how to find these sources rather than rote learning all the information.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


In 1967, a group of scientists designed an experiment where five monkeys were put in one cage with a ladder in the middle and a banana suspended over it. When a monkey tried to climb the ladder to reach the banana, it was hosed down with ice cold water to discourage it. However, at the same time the four other monkeys were sprayed as well. This was repeated until the monkeys were conditioned not to climb the ladder as it meant being blasted by cold water. Interestingly, even when the reward was tempting enough for a monkey to brace the cold water and climb the ladder, the monkey was swiftly taken down by the other monkeys – fearing the cold water – and was punished by a beating. This further discouraged the monkeys from climbing the ladder even when the researchers stopped spraying the monkeys with water.

The researchers then substituted one of the original monkeys with a new monkey who had not been in the cage before. This new monkey immediately noticed the banana and started to climb the ladder. The other monkeys saw this and responded with rage, enforcing their unspoken “rule” of never climbing the ladder. The new monkey quickly learned that climbing the ladder was a bad thing.
The researchers substituted another original monkey for a new monkey and the same thing happened. They repeated this until all monkeys were replaced.

When they substituted the last monkey in (number 10), the cage was already filled with “new” monkeys who had never been hosed before, but nonetheless knew not to climb the ladder. When the monkey was punished for climbing the ladder, it gave an expression that seemed to question why he was being punished. The other monkeys did not know why; none of them had been punished with cold water and only knew that the other monkeys would beat him up. Even though none of them knew why the punishment was required, they dished it out regardless. The rule had been engrained into the mob, with each monkey following it without any logical reason.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


We often see people who criticise others for being “sheeple” – people who blindly conform to the majority and follow someone like sheep do. They protest that as human beings, we have a right and duty to exercise free will, sticking up for one’s own opinions. However, according to an infamous experiment from the 1950’s, we know that human beings are bound by our natural instincts to be social creatures, obeying the collective will of the group we are in.

In 1953, Solomon Asch designed an experiment to study the power of conformity. He told participants that they will be taking part in a vision test with a group of people. They were shown a picture depicting lines of various lengths, asking which line on the right matched the line on the left:

It was a simple task of matching the line to another line of the same length with the answer being blatantly obvious. But as with so many psychological experiments, there was a trick. The group of “participants” were actually in on the experiment other than the one subject. During the experiment, the group would all put their hands up on the blatantly wrong answer instead of the actual correct one. How did this action affect the subject’s answer?

Although it seems clear that the answer is A in the given example, when in a situation where the majority of people put their hands up for “B” or “C”, up to 32% of the subjects gave the incorrect answer. No matter how large the differences were between the sizes of the lines, the results did not change. Although 32% is only a third of the study group, one must bear in mind that this experiment only looked at black-and-white scenarios of lines of different length. If the issue at hand was much more “grey” – such as an ethical dilemma – it can be extrapolated that the person would easily sway and conform to the majority opinion.

The reason for the level of conformity exhibited in the experiment is quite simple: it’s the one who is different that gets left out in the cold.