Richard G. Petty, MD

Making the Effort


Today’s comment may seem a bit stern and unappealing, but he is really saying something very important. Most of us do well if we are presented with effort-based rewards: you do something well, or you go the extra mile and you get some kind of payoff.

On the other hand, there is increasing evidence that one of the problems that we face has to do with unearned rewards: people getting accolades and awards – free stuff – without doing anything much to deserve it or them. And unearned rewards can actually have some quite negative effects on personal development.

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”          

–Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (French Historian, Educator and, as Founder of the International Olympic Committee, Considered the Father of the Modern Olympic Games, 1863-1937)   

The Genetics of Wall Street

After seeing the recent ups and downs of Wall Street, I was fascinated to see a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by an international team of researchers that has demonstrated for the first time that genes exert an influence on people’s behavior in a very common experimental economic game.

The Nobel Laureate Jim Watson once quipped that there were only molecules and everything else was sociology. I don’t think that he was being altogether serious, but he did highlight a yawning chasm between different ways of describing human experience.

Social scientists have been a bit reticent about acknowledging a role for genes in economic behavior. But a study by David Cesarini, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Economics and colleagues in Sweden indicates that there is a genetic component to people’s perception of what is fair and what is unfair.

The researchers looked at the ultimatum game, in which a proposer makes an offer to a responder on how to divide a sum of money. This offer is an ultimatum; if the responder rejects it, both parties receive nothing.

Because rejections in the game entail a zero payoff for both parties, theories of narrow self-interest predict that any positive amount will be accepted by a responder. The intriguing finding in the laboratory is that responders routinely reject free money, presumably because they feel that they want to punish proposers for offers that they think are unfair.

To study genetic influence in the game, the researchers recruited twins from the Swedish Twin Registry, and had them play the game under controlled conditions. Because identical twins share the same genes but fraternal twins do not, the researchers were able to detect genetic influences by comparing the similarity with which identical and fraternal twins played the game.

The results suggest that genetic influences account for as much as 40 percent of the variation in how people respond to unfair offers. This is much larger than the effect of common environmental influences such as upbringing.

The research indicates that many of our preferences and personal economic choices are subject to substantial genetic influence, and it will be interesting to see how they interact with social and environmental factors.

Hormones, Addictions and Mood

People working with mental illness have been for years now been puzzled by two observations. The first is that mood disorders and schizophrenia follow quite different trajectories in men and women. Women tend to be more vulnerable to mood disorders and if they get schizophrenia it tends to be less severe and to have fewer “negative” symptoms, such as flat, blunted or constricted affect and emotion, poverty of speech and lack of motivation until after menopause. We have looked at some of the reasons for the different rates of mood disorder, in terms of relationships and social pressures, but there must also be a biological component. The second puzzle is that women are more vulnerable to addictive drugs in the days before they ovulate.

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may provide part of the answer to both puzzles.

Colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have conducted a fascinating imaging study that has shown that fluctuations in levels of sex hormones during women’s menstrual cycles affect the responsiveness of the reward systems in the brain.

The reward system circuits include the:

  • Prefrontal cortex, which has key roles in thinking, planning and in the control of our emotions and impulses
  • Amygdala, which is involved in rapid and intense emotional reactions and the formation of emotional memories
  • Hippocampus, which is involved in learning, memory and navigation
  • Striatum that relays signals from these areas to the cerebral cortex

It has been known for some time that neurons in the reward circuits are rich in estrogen and progesterone receptors. However, how these hormones influence reward circuit activity in humans has remained unclear.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to examine brain activity of 13 women and 13 men while they performed a task that involved simulated slot machines. The women were scanned while they did the task, both before and after ovulation.

When anticipating a reward, in the pre-ovulation phase of their menstrual cycles the women showed more activity in the amygdala and frontal cortex. When women were actually winning prizes, their reward systems were more active if they were in the phase of their menstrual cycle preceding ovulation. This phase of the cycle is dominated by estrogen, compared to postovulatory phase when estrogen and progesterone are both present. When winning, the main systems that became active were in the parts of the brain involved in pleasure and reward.

The researchers also demonstrated that the reward-related brain activity was directly linked to levels of sex hormones. Activity in the amygdala and hippocampus was in directly linked to estrogen levels, regardless of where a woman was in her cycle. When women won prizes during the post-ovulatory phase of the cycle, progesterone modulated the effect of estrogen on the reward circuit.

Men showed a different activation profile from women during both anticipation and delivery of rewards. Men had more activity in the striatum during anticipation compared with women. On the other hand, women had more activity in a frontal cortex when they won prizes.

This research could have a number of important implications. The most obvious is that it confirms what many women know already: they are more likely to take addictive substances or to engage in pleasurable – but perhaps impulsive or risky – behaviors just before they ovulate.

It is not difficult to imagine why this might have developed during evolution.

“Coming to terms with the rhythms of women’s lives means coming to terms with life itself, accepting the imperatives of the body rather than the imperatives of an artificial, man-made, perhaps transcendentally beautiful civilization. Emphasis on the male work-rhythm is an emphasis on infinite possibilities; emphasis on the female rhythms is an emphasis on a defined pattern, on limitation.”
–Margaret Mead (American Anthropologist and Writer, 1901-1978)

The Omnipresent Ohrwurm: Ten Secrets for Having an Idea Remembered

Last month I wrote something about a phenomenon that I’m sure that you’ve experienced: having a tune get stuck in your head. James Kellaris has used the term “Ohrwurm” to describe this phenomenon.

I made brief mention of the way in which research into the ohrwurm may inform other fields, such as addictions.

The other big topic that may be illuminated by the ohrwurm phenomenon is the way that ideas, trends and fashions gain traction.

Some successes are created: you may or may not like Madonna or Britney Spears, but both of them are talented. The question is this: why did they first make it? In some senses both had the right set of talents be molded into a highly successful products. People in the music business saw their potential and that both were just right for the market of the time. Thousands of similarly gifted people just never had the opportunity to be made into stars.

Some successes are the results of memes. I’m speaking here about memes with a little “M,” to differentiate them from the Memes of spiral dynamics. Ideas, fashions and trends spread through society like the measles.

But are there any characteristics of psychological or social ohrwurms? What is it about some ideas, concepts or products that just have a great big hook that makes them not just memorable but irresistible?

People have been asking that question for years, but now it begins to look as if we might be getting close to generating some sensible answers based not on market research or focus groups, but on neuroscience.

A book called Made to Stick will be coming out in the New Year and identifies some of the characteristics of ideas that become popular and stick in people’s minds. The authors’ have come up with:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional Story

I’m sure that they are on to something.

But I think that there is more.

In the original piece about the ohrwurm I mentioned three characteristics of a tune that gets stuck in our heads:

  • Simple
  • Incongruous
  • Repetitive

The same principles and a few more are crucial in getting a message to resonate:

  1. Simplicity: It’s much easier to believe that the motivators of human behavior are pain and pleasure, or that Men are from Mars and Women from Venus, than getting into the messy realities of human motivations and interpersonal relationships
  2. Clarity: The simple idea must be expressed in a cogent and incisive way
  3. Incongruity: This is essential: we know that the brain is hardwired to respond to novelty. Yet despite being incongruous, the odd, strange, unexpected idea must afterwards fit into the rest of our knowledge and beliefs about the world. We can only take so much incongruity!
  4. Repetition: Few ideas – whether true or false – are embraced and adopted if they are only heard once
  5. Emotional resonance: You are unlikely to be interested in or remember something that has no emotional meaning for you
  6. Integrity: The idea or concept must have internal consistency
  7. Believability: The idea needs to come from a trustworthy source
  8. Consonant: The idea or concept needs to resonate with your own core beliefs or core values
  9. Practical: Most people need to be able to see simple, concrete actions that they can take
  10. Beneficial: There is a sliver of self-interest within all of us: something else that is hardwired. Unless we can see that we will derive some benefit from an idea, it is unlikely to have much traction

Now I am going to let you in on a secret. I do a lot of public speaking and I could not work out why my talks, lectures and speeches seemed to be so popular.

One day a friend from Canada told me that he had also been mystified by my popularity as a speaker. Then he told me that he had discovered my secret: I am a storyteller. It took me a while to grasp what he was saying, but then I realized that it was true. Whether presenting research data, ways to improve your life or an inspirational speech I constantly tell stories. And so does every other good speaker that I know. And the keys to telling good stories?

They are these ten points.

Try them out for yourself and see what you think.

“A man’s success in business today turns upon his power of getting people to believe he has something that they want.”
–Gerald Stanley Lee (American Professor, Writer and Lecturer, 1862-1944)

Food, Reward and Weight Gain

There’s a short review with a link to an online research paper that you might find interesting.

Although the paper has to do with the mechanisms of weight gain in people with schizophrenia, many of the same principles apply to many people with weight problems. The systems of the brain involved in salience – deciding what is important in the environment – appear to be disrupted.

Gene-Jack Wang at the Brookhaven National Laboratory has discovered that the brains of morbidly obese people seem constantly to be turned toward finding food: The regions of the brain connected to the mouth lips and tongue are overly active, and, like the addicts who get the biggest rush from drugs, they seem to have fewer dopamine receptors in the reward systems. Perhaps like the addict, the morbidly obese eat to compensate for an underactive dopamine system.

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose, we coined the term, “Salience Disruption Syndrome,” to describe a group of problems that are normally thought of as separate entities, but which are inextricably linked. They include not just over-eating, but:

  • Impulse control disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Pathological gambling
  • Pathological shopping
  • Attention deficit with ot without hyperactivity
  • Bipolar disorder

The list is a long one and the reason for highlighting it is that we have been able to devise new treatments based on this new principle of a disruption in salience. If there is interest, I shall post some more about the methods that we have devised.


“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-)

I am always on the look out for tips or techniques that might help my clients and students. But sometimes I come away scratching my head, after reading about some “new” technique or hearing someone discussing a life principle or healing method. So often I wonder why the author or he speaker hasn’t checked his or her facts.

I’ve recently seen an entire self-help system based upon a discredited psychological model of a disease. There’s a book and a website and loads of glowing testimonials. Maybe the methods work, and maybe they don’t. But if the basic principle is wrong, it’s impossible to apply the methods in a new situation. One of the fruits of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was the creation of the “barefoot doctors” – peasants who provided basic medical care throughout much of rural China. They had little training but had a set of manuals that told them exactly what to do with most common ailments. And when they came up against something that was in the book, they were fine. But because the practitioners had not been trained on the basic principles of anatomy, physiology or subtle systems, the system had no flexibility. If you had a chest infection, and the same signs and symptoms that they had in the book, then everything was fine. But if you had symptoms or an illness not in the book, you were out of luck.

In recent years a lot of people have gone back to talking about pleasure and pain as the principle motivators of human behavior. Of course, these two factors play some part in our behavior. And the idea that they are the key drivers is simple, easy to understand and easy to explain.

And dead wrong.

Eighty-six years ago Sigmund Freud published a short essay entitled Jenseits des Lustprinzips, which was eventually translated into English as Beyond the Pleasure Principle. All those years ago he had already come to the conclusion that there were other equally important drives, and that to try and reduce human motivation and behavior to pleasure and pain is very misleading.

We have a very large scientific literature on some of the factors involved in human motivation, how to achieve change and improvement in our lives and how to motivate others. Let me give just a few of the more important ones that cannot be reduced to pain and pleasure, and for which we have good empirical data:
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

There are others, like emotional congruence, that can, perhaps, be reduced to the pleasure/pain axis. But it is the last of these that I am going to spend more time on in the near future: the differences between motivation and inspiration, and how combining the two together may have an important impact upon your life.

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Attention Deficit, Money and Motivation

People often say that I’m someone who’s glass is always half full. Well, that’s not quite correct: I’m a huge realist, but I don’t like the idea of pathologizing everything that happens to us. One example of this is ADD.

Though untreated clinical ADD can lead to a great deal of distress and the ever-present risk of impulsive behaviors and substance abuse, I am also eager to examine the positive aspects of having attentional problems. Many of the young people and adults with ADD are also extremely successful in settings that don’t require the academic type of concentration. I have met entrepreneurs with ADD, as well as some highly creative people and athletes. A question has been whether ADD might confer some others gifts, benefits or advantages on people.

Although a year old, we recently came across an item that is not as well-known as it should be. Studies using fMRI have indicated that some of the regions of the brain that do not normally show much activity in young people with ADD become highly activated by monetary rewards.

This is not to say that giving young people money is the way to “conquer” ADD. Instead it suggest that rather than just thinking about people with ADD as just having an attention problem, we should also think of them as people who derive pleasure from different things than the bulk of the populations. Not having to spend all their time attending to linear learning may actually lead to greater freedom of imagination, creativity and emotional expression.

People with sever attentional problems can run into a lot of problems in relationships, even losing attention during sex. But it may be that may also be that minor degrees of loss of attentional focus may also enhance some people’s ability to feel empathy.

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