Richard G. Petty, MD

Blondes Make Us Dumb??

No, this isn’t just a cheap excuse to display a picture of Pamela Anderson.

I just received this from a regular reader:

“Dear Dr Petty,

Have you seen this article Times Online?

“WHEN men meet fair-haired women they really do have a “blonde moment”. Scientists have found that their mental performance drops, apparently because they believe they are dealing with someone less intelligent.

Researchers discovered what might be called the “bimbo delusion” by studying men’s ability to complete general knowledge tests after exposure to different women. The academics found that men’s scores fell after they were shown pictures of blondes.

Further analysis convinced the team that, rather than simply being distracted by the flaxen hair, those who performed poorly had been unconsciously driven by social stereotypes to “think blonde”.

“This proves that people confronted with stereotypes generally behave in line with them,” said Thierry Meyer, joint author of the study and professor of social psychology at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. “In this case blondes have the potential to make people act in a dumber way, because they mimic the unconscious stereotype of the dumb blonde.”

Do you have any comment to make about the research??”

The answer is that I have seen this article all over the Internet, with all kinds of sage comments.

The trouble is that I have not yet been able to read and critique the research. As far as I know, neither the hard copy nor electronic versions are available yet, so I cannot evaluate the report.

This highlights one of the problems of the Internet: news travels across it like the wind, yet a lot of material is passed on without analysis. So the story is fun to read, but until we can see and analyze the data, we cannot comment.

As soon as I get a copy I shall see if I have anything to add to the firestorm of commentary!

Emotional Eating

A new study from Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, Rhode Island, has just been published in the journal Obesity. The research suggests that dieters who tend to eat in response to external factors like parties and celebrations, have fewer problems with their weight loss than those who eat in response to internal factors such as emotions. The study also found that emotional eating was associated with weight regain in people who had successfully lost weight

The researchers analyzed individual’s responses to questions in a well-known research tool called the Eating Inventory which is designed to assess three aspects of eating behavior:

  1. Cognitive restraint
  2. Hunger
  3. Disinhibition

The main focus was on the third item, since some previous research has suggested that disinhibition as a whole is an accurate predictor of weight loss.

The disinhibition scale evaluates impulsive eating in response to emotional, cognitive, or social cues.

There were two groups in the study. The first consisted of 286 overweight men and women who were currently participating in a behavioral weight loss program. The second group included 3,345 members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), an ongoing study of adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one year.

The investigators found that the components within the disinhibition scale could be grouped into two distinct factors: external and internal disinhibition.

An example of external disinhibition would be the person who overeats when they are with someone who is also overeating, or the person who just overeats at a party, picnic or celebration.

The person with internal disinhibition eats in response to thoughts and feelings such as loneliness, upset or anxiety.

In both groups internal disinhibition was a significant predictor of weight over time. For participants in the weight loss program, the higher the level of internal disinhibition, the less weight an individual lost over time. The same was true for maintainers in the NWCR: Internal disinhibition predicted weight regain over the first year of registry membership.

Before starting a weight management program it is very helpful to know which group you are in. It provides us with a quick and easy method of tailoring the program to the individual, and tells us where to put our efforts.

Motivation, Manipulation and Empowerment

It would be good to know how many people really change after they’ve done one of those motivational seminars. Undoubtedly some do, but most do not.

This stands in stark contrast to inspirational speakers who often change people for life.

If you try to “motivate” an adult to change their behavior, after an initial brief period during which they get excited about what they are learning, they will most likely resist what they perceive as manipulation. People who do change normally don’t maintain the new behavior because the primary motivation was external.

If we are trying to help people eat a more healthy diet, or take some exercise, research has shown that the best way to initiate and maintain a new behavior is for an individual to have an expert who can teach, guide and facilitate. That together with a peer supporter: someone who will help you along, and diet and exercise with you. You know yourself better than anyone else ever can.

The trick is to work with someone who may know a bit more about psychology, physiology and metabolism and can use that information to help you to develop a personalized program. The expert can help you move forward by asking question to identify your own motivators, locus of control (do you feel that you are the captain of your own ship, or do you believe that you are more a plaything of fate?) ego-fears, reward system and action style (do you like to break tasks down into small steps and work at one at a time in sequence, or do you like to work on one task, then pull out something else that like to do and do you have some other way of getting things done?)

There was recently a study from the UK that showed that the behavior of children with special needs was improved by a good diet and regular exercise. No surprise there. But the problem is this: how do you maintain the diet and exercise programs?

I spent many years working with young people with weight problems and/or diabetes. They usually also had some mood or behavioral problems. Issuing young people with a great long list of “Thou shalt nots” is guaranteed to backfire: youngsters are rebellious anyway. Tell them all the things that they can’t do, and force them into eating a certain way, and you will have a rebellion on your hands that will make the Storming of the Bastille look like a picnic. It is much better to come to an agreement that may include having days on which they can “cheat.”

A while ago I wrote about the way in which psychologists have moved beyond the pain/pleasure dichotomy as the major motivators of human behavior. Rewards and punishments are called extrinsic motivators, while intrinsic motivators are a composite of genes, learning, environment and temperament. I gave a few examples of motivators culled from the current literature:

  1. Clarity of vision
  2. Encouragement
  3. Personal engagement
  4. Recognition
  5. Pride
  6. Free flow of energy and information
  7. Appropriate reward systems (money is often not the best one!)
  8. Personal and group expectations
  9. Creating shared goals
  10. Transpersonal motivation: Inspiration and leaving a legacy.

I had several excellent questions: couldn’t people practice altruism because it gives them pleasure? Yes, they could, but that is not what the research data shows. Though people can derive pleasure from all kinds of things, the evidence base suggests that human motivations are far more complex.

It has also become possible to visualize regions of the brain while people are engaged in different tasks, and altruism does not seem to engage most of the circuits that we normally associate with pleasure or pain.

Yet more evidence that pleasure and pain and far from being the only – or maybe even the main – motivators of human behavior.

“No one ever does anything from a single motive”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English Romantic Poet, 1772-1834)

“No one can motivate you, until you motivate yourself.”
–Jawaharlal Nehru (Indian Politician and Statesman, 1889-1964)

“Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can’t be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people.”
–Lee Iacocca (American Businessman and Former CEO of Chrysler, 1924-)

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

–Jim Rohn (American Businessman, Author, Speaker and Philosopher)

“Do not brood over your past mistakes and failures as this will only fill your mind with grief, regret and depression. Do not repeat them in the future.”

–Sri Swami Sivananda (Indian Physician and Spiritual Teacher, 1887-1963)

“The need for devotion to something outside ourselves is even more profound than the need for companionship.”

–Ross Parmenter (American Expert on Mixtec Documents, Journalist and Music Reviewer for the New York Times, 1920-1999)

“He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own.”

–Confucius (Chinese Philosopher, 551-479 B.C.E.)

Over-Medicating America

There is an important study in this month’s issue of the Annals of Family Medicine It concerns something that most health care professional in the United States have been worried about for some time: it is direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines. I rarely watch much television, but out of interest I had one channel on for an hour this morning and saw six advertisements for medicines. It is not widely known that this practice is illegal in most of the rest of the world, with the exception of New Zealand.

The research suggests that this direct-to-consumer television advertising of prescription drugs may be influencing Americans to believe that they are sicker than they really are. This may in turn lead to taking more medication than they actually need.

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute’s Centers of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and was led by Dominick Frosch from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The researchers evaluated the educational value of 38 direct-to-consumer television advertisements for prescription drugs and analyzed how they tried to influence viewers. The drugs in question were for treating illnesses ranging insomnia and depression to high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Their findings suggest that the advertisements had virtually no educational value. Furthermore they failed to describe who is most at risk for which illnesses, what their symptoms might be, and whether non-medicinal alternatives such as lifestyle changes might also be viable options.

According to the figures cited, Americans watch up to 16 hours of television advertising about prescription drugs per week. The scientists watched the advertisements shown during the evening news and prime time periods. They used a coding system that takes into account a number of attributes of each ad. The attributes included the factual claims made about the illness the drug is aimed at, the method used to attract the consumer, and also what is revealed about the behavior and lifestyle of the people in the advertisement.

Although they found that over 80% of the advertisements did make some factual claims and put forward rational arguments for use of the drugs, only 25-26 per cent of them described symptoms and causes of illnesses, the associated risk factors and how common or rare they are.

The scientists also found some common strategies: many of the advertisements portrayed the drugs in terms of people losing control over their lives (58%) and then regaining it (85%) once they took the medication. 78% of the ads also portrayed the medication as engendering social approval, while 58% of them implied that the drug was a medical breakthrough.

The findings also show that nearly all advertisements (95%) used emotional appeal to influence viewers and none of them showed lifestyle and behavior change as viable alternatives, except for 19% of them that showed this as an adjunct to taking the drug. 18% of the advertisements suggested that changes to lifestyle would not be enough to deal with the illness.

The conclusion of the study is that despite the claims that television advertisements play an educational role, they contain limited information about causes and symptoms of their target illnesses, their prevalence and risk factors. They also show people that have “lost control over their social, emotional or physical lives without the medication; and they minimize the value of health promotion through lifestyle changes. The ads have limited educational value and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health.”

Dr Frosch said that “We’re seeing a dramatization of
health problems that many people used to manage without prescription
drugs,” and that the “ads send the message that you need drugs to
manage these problems and that without medication your life will be
less enjoyable, more painful and maybe even out of control.” He said
that the US should consider banning direct to consumer television
advertising of prescription drugs too. Something that was echoed in the
accompanying editorials.

I have spent a great deal of time weighing the pros and cons of direct-to-patient advertising with health care professionals and people in the pharmaceutical industry in Europe, the United States and Australia and New Zealand. Despite all of our work to empower people, I remain unconvinced that they are ultimately in peoples’ best interests.

Video Games and Violence

For years now, there has been a vigorous debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the impact of violence in the media and the behavior of young people. I’ve seen various statistics indicating that the average teenager, by the time he or she graduates from high school, will have seen thousands of people killed on television. Most professionals have seen young people who no longer have any concept of death: they assume that if someone is killed they will simply get up and play another scene. As bizarre as this sounds, there have been multiple reports of this happening with young people involved in some of the most notorious acts of violence seen in schools.

This month see the publication of an important report from Iowa State University, where a research team has been examining the effects of violence in the media for several years now.

This latest report, "The Effects of Video Game Violence on Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life Violence," was published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Previous research has come to the intuitively sensible conclusion that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviors and at the same time decreases helpful behaviors. This is very worrying when we discover that more than 85 percent of video games contain some violence, and approximately half of video games include serious violent actions.

The latest research involved 257 college students (124 men and 133 women). First, the investigators made some baseline physiological measurements of heart rate and galvanic skin response, which reflects sweating and blood flow in the skin. They then asked questions to control for the students’ preference for violent video games and general aggression. The participants then played one of eight randomly assigned violent or non-violent video games for 20 minutes.

When viewing real violence, participants who had played a violent video game experienced skin response measurements significantly lower than those who had played a non-violent video game. The participants in the violent video game group also had lower heart rates while viewing the real-life violence compared with the nonviolent video game group.

This research shows that people who play these violent video games get so used to violence that they become desensitized to it: it no longer affects them. Given the numbers of games and the enormous numbers of people playing them, the results are shocking: it could be said that modern entertainment media are systematically desensitizing millions of young people to violence.

Are you happy about that?

Shouldn’t we – both individually and collectively – be doing something about this?

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Toxins and Information Medicine

In Healing Meaning and Purpose, I twice mention the impact of toxins: first I mention that environmental factors are now generally believed to contribute to many tumors. Three years ago the World Health Organization estimated that environmental factors are responsible for between one-quarter and one-third of the global burden of disease. Since the creation of synthetic inorganic and organic chemicals in the late 19th century, the global community has faced an enormous rise in the production and subsequent exposure to environmental chemicals, many of which are potentially toxic. The concentrations of many of these chemicals remain quite low, but a key observations if that combinations of chemicals may produce significant health hazards not generally seen with small concentrations of each individual chemical. There is a synergy that forms between them.

Secondly I mentioned the intriguing hypothesis that environmental toxins are a factor in the obesity pandemic.

The first of these has just received significant support from a study by Tyrone Hayes and colleagues from the University of California at Berkeley. They studied frogs in York County, Nebraska, and found that a mixture of nine chemicals found in a seed-corn field killed a third of exposed tadpoles and in the survivors lengthened the time to metamorphosis by two weeks. This work confirms the point that I made: individually low concentrations of the chemicals have little effect on developing tadpoles. But add them together and the effects can be devastating. This study is cited together with several others in a thoughtful article in the current edition of Scientific American.

Understanding the damaging effects of combinations of chemicals, or the disease-producing effects of a combination of minor risk factors, was one of the planks that allowed us to construct the new and growing science of Information Medicine, in which combinations are the key to successful treatment.

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