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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Don’t feel bitter about failing that exam: it’ll ruin your health

If, in following up stuff on Positive Psychology, you’ve looked at books like Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, you’ll have got the idea that there’s research that suggests that focussing on things to feel good about will improve your overall well-being. That’s one of those psychological ideas which are obvious common-sense – except that the reverse would seem like obvious common-sense too: “You mean, just reflecting each night on things to be grateful about is going to improve your life? Sounds like a recipe for being a loser.”
Here’s Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website:

Well, here’s some research which suggests the reverse applies, too:
“Constant bitterness can make a person ill, according to Concordia University researchers who have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life.”  

The press release about this is at

It refers to a chapter by Carsten Wrosch and Jesse Renaud in a book: Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives (Springer 2011).
“Unlike regret, which is about self-blame and a case of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” acrimony points the finger elsewhere – laying the blame for failure on external causes. “When harboured for a long time,” says Wrosch, “bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation (a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function) and physical disease.”  “

Yes, but what if the blame for failure really does lie in external causes, and what needs to be done is to “take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them” (we’re always quoting Shakespeare)? Wouldn’t bitterness be a positive motivation? Maybe it’s a matter of being bitter and powerless, so there’s no realistic chance of opposing and ending. Sort of like how run-of-the-mill lecturers might feel about senior management (and I’m not going to comment on the events of August).

If you read further down the press release, there’s a suggestion that bitterness should be recognised as a mental disorder:
“Michael Linden, head of the psychiatric clinic at Free University of Berlin in 2003 [argued] that bitterness is actually a medical disorder and should be categorized as post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED). He estimates that between one and two per cent of the population is embittered and by giving the condition a proper name, people with PTED will receive the therapeutic attention they deserve.” 
…that looks like something worth discussing under the heading of Ways of Being Mad.

Anyway, kids, don’t be bitter: bitterness is bad.
I guess any good Buddhist could have told you that. Or as Lao Tsu wrote so long ago (Tao Te Ching, 79):

After a bitter quarrel, some resentment must remain.
What can one do about it?
Therefore the sage keeps his half of the bargain
But does not exact his due.

A man of Virtue performs his part,
But a man without Virtue requires others to fulfil their obligations.
The Tao of heaven is impartial.
It stays with good men all the time.


The Myth of Water and Myth in Psychology

Recent article in The Guardian by Emine Saner debunking the idea that we need to drink lots of water:
According to this (I have to keep reminding myself to say this: not everything you read in The Guardian has to be true), the original ‘2 litres a day’ idea came from a 1974 article that did say we needed this much water each day – but then pointed out that we get pretty much this amount from food and the ocasional cup of tea, without needing to drink much actual water.
This has lots of similarities with the points I made about myths in psychology.
I suggested that we perpetrated these (more or less) lies (Kitty Genovese and the 38 witnesses, the Hawthorne studies, Little Albert, the Stanford Prison Experiment) because:

  • They’re partly true
  • People thought they were true once
  • They express things we think are true, really
  • They express things we think ought to be true
  • We like confirmatory stuff
  • They help us to make sense of psychology
  • They help us to help you to make sense of psychology
Does this fit with the water myth?
  • It’s partly true: we do need to take in water, but we don’t need a litre of Perrier night and morning
  • People thought it was true once: not quite, but it’s a story that’s been running a long time
  • It expresses things we think are true, really: people die all over the world for the lack of water. Dehydration (usually as a result of diarrhoea and the lack of clean water) is the major cause of death for young children. If you, rightly, feel ashamed about this, you can donate to water aid here: Endurance athletes can suffer badly from dehydration. Dehydration is a major problem for elderly people (more or less what my mum died of). Hangovers are partly the result of dehydration.
  • It expresses things we think ought to be true:  of course, deep down, water is the stuff of life, and water is vital for everyone (my Scottish ancestors thought slightly differently: whiskey is uisge beatha, the ‘water of life’, and I’m not arguing)
  • We like confirmatory stuff: well, not confirmatory, but a belief that says we can improve our health and wellbeing just by buying and drinking enough water is pretty encouraging. Gets rid of toxins too, they say, though I’ve never seen  a definition of what these ‘toxins’ are.
  • It helps us to make sense of psychology (or our physiology in this case): though it’s been pointed out that it’s an experiential copout. We already have a good way of regulating fluid needs and intake: it’s called thirst. The promotion of water is an encouragement to us to deny our own experience; good training for other kinds of false consciousness.
  • They help us to help you to make sense of psychology: well, there’s not a teaching motivation here, but there’s something that I should have mentioned about the psychological myths; they depend on thoughtless, lazy, repetition of factoids – once it’s printed a few dozen times that we need to drink at least two litres of water a day, every article about water/healthy eating/therapy/whatever takes that for granted without thinking about it.
Another factor about water, of course, is that there’s money to made from the myth. When I was growing up, the idea that people would pay out real money for bottles of water would have seemed ridiculous. It’s still pretty ridiculous, really.

Is bilingualism good for your brain?

An article by Erica Westly in July/Aug 2011 Scientific American Mind ) suggests recent research shows that children who speak two languages are more flexible and creative in (admittedly lab-based) tasks than monolingual children, and don’t show any intellectual or linguistic delay (Kovács & Mehler, Adi-Japha & al). A sidebar by Lauren Migliore also points out that bilingualism seems to protect against cognitive decline in old age (research by Bialystok at York U, Canada).
Not surprising really, except that I remember lots of research about the cognitively damaging effects of being bilingual – but maybe that was done  in a culture that saw poor ‘immigrants’ (the most obviously bilingual group) as being inferior. There was another multilingual group – of classicists, diplomats, royalty (I guess Prince Philip speaks English, Danish and Greek, at least), and other members of the social elite – but they were ‘gifted polyglots’.
The article points out that the idea of bilingualism being intellectually damaging wasn’t visible in the US in the 19th century, when it was very common in a nation built on immigration, but it’s a more acceptable idea in monoglot countries like 20th century USA and the UK. Maybe we’re becoming a bit more open in our thinking now – or maybe more psychological research is being done by people who aren’t from monoglot anglo/US backgrounds (note the names of the researchers mentioned above).
Note for Schools of Thought students: another politics/psychology/society interaction? Remember that it was in the first part of the 20th century that psychology was mobilised to ‘scientifically’ declare immigrants to the US intellectually inferior in other ways.
This new research fits my prejudices – I always suspected  that people (even if poor and foreign) who could speak several languages were smarter than me, who has a bit of French, less Latin, and hardly any Finnish*. Maybe it also helps to explain all those brilliant musicians from West Africa, where it seems pretty usual to speak several languages.
Could also be bad news for lazy Anglophone academics like me, who rely on  the fact that Academic English (not the same as UK English, but close) has become the new Latin of the academic world (but maybe not for long).
Another thought: how much does the difference in languages matter? Compared with other world languages, Northern European languages are more-or-less dialects of the same basic form – apart from Finnish, which comes from a different root entirely. Does being bilingual in Finnish and French give more intellectual advantages than being bilingual in English & French? And Sorhai, Tamasheck, Peul, Dogon, French, English and probably a few more (as were spoken by Ali Farka Touré) could be better still.

*En puhu Suomea, anteeksi. No, olen Englantilainen