The Real-Life Benefits of Reading Fiction

Research reveals how compelling stories can make us better people.

Source: The Real-Life Benefits of Reading Fiction

Holly Parker, Ph.D.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt even just a teensy bit guilty for carving precious time out of your busy, full life to dive into a book and relish a made-up story. If your hand is in the air, it’s there alongside a bevy of others. National Public Radio (NPR) has a program called “My Guilty Pleasure,” featuring books that authors savor privately. Some scholars argue that Oprah’s Book Club eases people’s guilt for enjoying works of fiction by highlighting stories that simultaneously educate and entertain. A piece in The New Yorker explicitly spells out our unease with leisure reading:

“Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives. And, for not a few readers, there’s the additional kick of feeling that they’re getting away with something. Instead of milking the cows or reading the Meno, they’re dallying somewhere with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.'”

Source: Mihtiander/Depositphotos


With work, errands, chores, and family obligations, the notion of giving ourselves permission to walk through a pretend world for a while may seem a bit frivolous or fruitless. Why read stories when there’s so much to do?

For now, I’m going to just set aside the fact that leisure time and personal enjoyment are meaningful and important for their own sake, and get to the heart of what this piece is actually about: How the world of fiction enriches who we are in the real world.

In a 2018 study, researchers reviewed experiments on the effect of reading fiction. They found that it modestly improves people’s capacity to understand and mentally react to other individuals and social situations. And by and large, that was after reading a single story.

But why does reading fiction fine-tune our social awareness? That’s not entirely clear.  One possible reason is that when we devote our mental energy to stepping into an imaginary person’s inner world, we’re essentially honing our ability to do the very same thing with actual people. Indeed, scientific evidence suggests that the same regions of the brain are at work when we’re thinking about other people and their points of view, regardless of whether those individuals happen to be real or fictional characters. Another potential reason is that even though we’re trekking into a make-believe realm, the struggles and concerns, the pleasures and hopes, the nuances and social dynamics that unfold for the characters in the story can offer valuable insights on humanity and life. And this knowledge may put us in a better position to understand the people in our social world.

But reading a good tale doesn’t seem to be enough, in and of itself, to boost our capacity to empathize with others. For reading to help us do that, we need to actively step out of our own lives and mentally and emotionally carry ourselves away into the story. You can picture the scene you’re reading like it’s a movie; you feel with the characters and for them. Sadness bubbles up with poignant moments in the story. Absurdity awakens confusion, surprise, or amusement. Cliff-hangers and tense dilemmas evoke jitters and disquiet. As you’re winding through a murder mystery, with characters who are absolutely terrified because they know that the killer is among them and one of them is next, your muscles tense and the hairs on your arm stand up.

And when you mentally travel into a story, picturing it in rich detail and getting into the minds of the characters, not only will you be more adept at relating to people, you’ll be more inclined to assist others when they’re in need.  What’s more, there are other significant fruits of fiction, such as lessening people’s racial bias and raising their interest in the well-being of animals. There’s even evidence that reading a book for 30-minutes every day forecasts a sharper, healthier mind, which predicts 20% lower odds of dying about a decade later.

To sum it all up, we can take time to delight in a compelling yarn, and in the process become better human beings who may even live a little longer. That sounds more like a worthwhile investment than a guilty pleasure. Happy reading, everyone.


Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLoS One, 8(1), e55341. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055341.

Bavishi, A., Slade, M.D., & Levy, B.R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science and Medicine, 164, 44-48.

Dodell-Feder, D., & Tamir, D.I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 10.1037/xge0000395.


Holly Parker, Ph.D. is a lecturer at Harvard University and a practicing psychologist and Associate Director of Training at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital.


The Environmental Cues that Affect our Online Decisions

People make decisions based on external cues they might not even be aware of

Photo by Brooke Cagleon Unsplash

Source: The Environmental Cues that Affect our Online Decisions

Liraz Margalit Ph.D.

Why do people tend to read a particular article on a news site while skipping another? When browsing through dozens of recipes on the web, what compels people to choose one over the other? What are the odds you’ll finish reading this article?

To understand the psychology driving human behavior, it’s important to note that incidental variables affect the way visitors evaluate a product more than one might imagine. Often, browsers are not aware of the environmental cues affecting their online decision-making. If asked, website visitors will generally explain their decisions as completely rational and based on a logic thinking process. However, when web users choose between several options, most of the time their decisions are based on automatic evaluations that occur without conscious awareness. They are often unaware of the variables that influence automatic decisions.

When dealing with a cognitivetask, we subconsciously evaluate the amount of cognitive resources required for that specific task. If we have the available resources and motivationfor the task, we will move forward with it. If, on the other hand, we don’t have the available resources or motivation for the task, we will skip it.

When Making Online Decisions, Visitors Tend to Choose the Easiest Way Possible

People are more likely to engage in a given behavior based on the amount of effort it requires. Thus, online visitors rely on the fluency of the information process to determine how they feel. People often misread the difficulty associated with processing information as indicative of their feelings about a product, and this misperception directly impacts their willingness to purchase a product or service, or to engage with a certain article.

When making online decisions, most visitors are applying a low level thought process, which is used when one is unable or unwilling to execute the cognitive assignment. For example, no matter how pleased a shopper is with a brand or product, the invisible cues delivered from online forms and questionnaires might cause the shopper to feel too mentally exhausted to fill them out. The low level process is governed by rules of thumb called heuristics, to infer the validity of the content that one is exposed to. Examples of such rules might include: “Messages with many arguments are more likely to be valid than messages with fewer arguments;” or “A message coming from a man dressed like a doctor may seem more valid than the exact same message coming from a guy in shorts.”

Online users tend to choose the easiest route possible and try hard to avoid high level processing. The surprising finding is that most users do so even when dealing with insurance websites, which demand high cognitive efforts. We’ve found that the lion’s share of online visitors base their decisions on simple intuitive calculations instead of going deeply into the details (more here). Internet users prefer to make decision as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

Thinking about thinking

Source: Techcrunch


Consider for example the identical exercise instructions shown above. When presented in an easy-to-read font, readers assumed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete. But when the instructions were presented in a difficult-to-read font, readers assumed it would take nearly twice as long, a full 15.1 minutes (Song & Schwarz, 2008b; PDF). Readers also thought that the exercise would flow quite naturally when the font was easy to read, but feared that it would drag on when it was difficult to read.

Similar results were obtained when people read a recipe for a Japanese lunch roll (Song & Schwarz, 2008b; PDF). When the identical recipe was presented in the elegant but difficult-to-read Mistral font, they assumed that it would require more time and more skill than when it was presented in the easy-to-read Arial font. Other research shows that font can influence whether people make any decision at all or delay the decision to a later time (Novemsky et al., 2007; PDF).

People equate the difficulty of reading instructions with the difficulty involved in the exercise itself. Similarly, ClickTale’s analysis of 10,000 of visitors to a major global brand’s website revealed that short articles with the ‘View More’ option attracted significantly higher percentages of visitors compared to the percentage of visitors who were presented with the same article in its full length. Since I cannot reveal our client’s identity, below I have selected sample web pages to illustrate the conclusions we drew based on our findings.

While watching recordings of anonymous web users’ online behavior for our clients, we saw the same pattern of behavior repeat itself again and again. When visitors would browse online publications, they would find an article, scroll all the way down, and then upon realizing its length, continued to browse without even considering the content of the article. In an instant, they decided it was too long. Meanwhile, when visitors were presented with just two paragraphs of the exact same article, along with a “Read More” button, the willingness to read the article significantly increased.

Source: Techcrunch


The “Read More” option makes the article seem less demanding. It doesn’t overwhelm visitors and even entices them to continue reading the hidden content. The result is that visitors remain engaged with the article. The discernible differences in visitor behavior here indicate that the evaluation of the article has nothing to do with its content; it has everything to do with the way it is presented. Similarly, we see from online user recordings that the likelihood of adding an item to one’s cart is affected by environmental factors such as the density of the text, the font and size of the wording and the amount of product information available.

Source: Rapha

For example, when comparing e-commerce product pages with detailed information (such as the representative e-commerce page above) with a new version of the page that seems exactly the same, but has the information hidden behind tabs (like the one below), the percentage of visitors who added the product to their cart was significantly higher.

Source: Liebling

Exposure to too much information and data forces customers to invest cognitive resources that they weren’t planning on investing. Although in reality they do not have to read all of the product data, once they are aware that additional information exists, most customers won’t allow themselves to overlook it. People misread the effort required by the cognitive process of reading the information as heuristic(or indicative) of how they should treat the purchasing process. The detailed information is thus used as an indication that the visitor should invest more effort in the thought process.

Source: ClickTale

We also noticed that the look and feel of the home page directly affects its bounce rate. Home pages that contain a high level of visuals, pages that are text heavy, have an asymmetric layout (symmetric layouts are easier to process) and don’t contain white spaces—like ClickTale’s old homepage, pictured above—generate higher bounce rates, as visitors are unconsciously overwhelmed by the dense amount of stimulation that they are being forced process. If they have not accessed the website for a specific reason, they’ll often leave the website altogether, which lead ClickTale’s to rethink their homepage, as you can see below.

Source: ClickTale

When designing your company’s website or evaluating its effectiveness, keep in mind that the likelihood of engaging in a certain mental activity online is heavily influenced by incidental factors. People are sensitive to their feelings of ease or difficulty, but unaware of what triggers these feelings. As a result, they misattribute the experienced ease or difficulty to whatever is in the focus of their attention. That causes them to delay decisions or avoid purchasing or reading, simply because the print font makes the information difficult to process or the way content is presented seems too time-consuming.


Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., analyzes online consumer behavior, incorporating theory and academic research into a conceptual framework.


Brand-esteem – Media Psychology

Brand-esteem When you run an online business you end up spending more time than you ever imagined you would on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Sure I was on there before Sewcialite, I still am, for personal reasons, like entertainment, online shopping, and to keep up and share with friends and family. But […]

via Brand-esteem — A Creative Journey

Why Are the Candy Crushes of the World Dominating Our Lives?

Darwin goes searching for the gas pedal in this evolutionary phenomenon of his.

Source: Why Are the Candy Crushes of the World Dominating Our Lives?

Liraz Margalit Ph.D.

What happens when an organic form of existence, after evolving for millions of years, meets the last word in planned and designed addictiveness?  Darwin goes searching for the gas pedal in this evolutionary phenomenon of his.

Smartphones have turned tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people around the world into players of videogames such as Angry Birds, Temple Run, or Candy Crush.  But as the games made their way to everyone’s pocket, reports of addiction to them also escalated.

The official position of the American Psychiatric Association is that sufficient data does not yet exist for determining whether a true addiction is involved.  But today reports are already widespread of mothers who were too engrossed in playing Candy Crush to remember to pick their children up from kindergarten, and many people testify that they feel addicted to casual games.  A survey by Ask Your Target Market found, among other things, that 28% play during work, 10% have found themselves arguing with their near ones about wasting time on playing, and 30% consider themselves addicted.

What exactly gives these games such a dramatic influence over people?

How does crushing candy differ from old-fashioned games?

In contrast to childhood games that involved human partners, or at least involved manipulating real objects in real space, smartphone games require nothing.  A central part of the expected gratification in old-fashioned games was deciding which game to play this time and making preparations (setting out the playing pieces, arranging the dollhouse, assigning characters, or determining who takes the first turn).

Even videogames for computers and for consoles are an entirely different matter from smartphone games.  In videogames, we generally assume a masterful role such as superhero, soccer player, warrior, or the like, fulfilling a fantasy and giving our senses and emotions an experience.  Such games boost adrenaline levels, and they awaken strong feelings of power as well as frustration, gratification, and enjoyment.

Playing smartphone games does not result from a desire to take part in any shared activity or to achieve any fantasy.  Their gratification derives from a change of mental state, a sort of detachment.  To select the app and start the game, no investment is required, no thought or intention, but merely the urge to play.

The urge appears just as hunger or thirst does.  Like them, it requires no handling in depth and no thought process.  Our primitive urges arrive from lower-level areas of the brain, such as the limbic system, which is involved in emotions and motivation.

How is the urge created?

The game designers seem to have arrived at a winning formula, dubbed the “ludic loop” and based on the fundamentals of behaviorism.

The principle is simple.  Significant feedback, in response to an action, encourages behavior that is repetitive if not obsessive.  A slot machine can provide a perfect representation of how the ludic loop encourages obsessive behavior.  You perform a particular action and receive reinforcement:  the machine responds with lights, changing colors, noises, and sometimes a monetary reward.  That reward causes us to repeat the same action again and again.

A smartphone game is generally simple and easy to understand, and it requires no cognitive resources, so that children and adults alike can easily understand the basic principles.  At the start there is a system of learning by stages, whereby each time the level of play advances a bit, the challenge is revivified and thus the ludic loop is renewed and the desire to continue receiving those fresh doses of gratification causes us to play again and again.

Opening the dopamine faucets

Our attraction to this kind of action is attributed to the neurotransmitter called dopamine, a chemical found in our brain.  Initially scientists associated dopamine with feelings of enjoyment (a high level of dopamine being visible during activities such as eating chocolate, sex, and hearing favorite music) but research in the past decade has indicated that dopamine has additional functions besides activating gratification and pleasure.  This molecule helps us in pattern recognition and it alerts us — by dropping to low levels — to a deviation from the familiar pattern we’ve learned (to a surprise, in other words).

The system centers around expectations.  Dopamine cells are constantly creating patterns of action based on experience.  After repeatedly crying and each time hearing Mommy’s steps approaching quickly in the corridor at the sound, the baby internalizes a pattern whereby crying receives a positive reinforcement (Mommy) and the dopamine level in the baby’s brain increases in response to Mommy’s footsteps even before she arrives.  Each time the dopamine cells predict wrongly (Mommy doesn’t arrive) the brain sends a special electrical signal called the habenular signal in response to the erroneous prediction.

The purpose of these cells is to predict events.  They always want to know which actions foretell a reward.  From the dopamine cells’ standpoint, the virtual world is no different from the real world.  Gambling machines and smartphone games are patterns to be predicted and identified.

When we are playing at a gambling machine or at Candy Crush, our brain cells strive to decode the mechanism’s pattern of action.  They want to understand the game, to decode the secret of success, to discover the criteria that predict an upcoming reward.

Expecting a rerun, excited by surprise

Although the dopamine cells respond when they recognize a familiar pattern, they are more excited at unexpected rewards (three or four times as excited, as measured by the strength of the dopaminergic firing).  In other words, the reward is more pleasurable the more surprising it is.  A burst of dopamine, intended to turn the brain’s attention to new stimuli, is important to survival.

The reaction to the unexpected has strongly roots in our evolution.  When we receive unexpected cash on a randomized basis, it forces us more strongly into obsessively repeating our action than cash on a predictable basis would.  The behavior was demonstrated by Skinner, one of the pioneers of behavioral psychology in the 1950s.  When his lab rats received an unexpected reward from pushing a pedal, they would continue pushing it even after the reward stopped arriving.  Once a causal relationship was established, it stubbornly retained its force.

Technology defeats evolution

Although the dopamine cells that deal with prediction try to understand the game’s reward system, they are fated for surprise time after time.  From the dopamine cells’ standpoint, the stakes are life and death:  in order to survive in the world, they need to identify its patterns.  They ought to give up on the gambling machines and similar games in order not to waste their dopaminergic strength on phenomena that have proven quite unpredictable, but instead of losing interest in random rewards, the dopamine cells become addicted to them.  When we receive the reward, we experience a burst of pleasurable dopamine deriving largely from the unexpectedness itself.  The dopamine cells cannot crack the pattern, they cannot accustom themselves to it, and they cannot learn or internalize it.

The illusion of control

Gambling machines and games like Candy Crush are not always governed by rules or control.  The player may have the impression of understandingthe game, and may try to construct a strategy, but the random fruits that encourage that impression issue from a generator by no set pattern or comprehensible algorithm.  They obey nothing but a dumb little chip that produces numbers by what is known as engineered randomness.

In this type of game, the randomness treads the fine line between the purely random and the illusion that control is available to whoever discovers a certain hidden logic.  Such a pattern encourages the player to think it is possible to plan upcoming moves strategically.  The false sense of controllability is a powerful motivator.  When people enter its circle of power, they can be made to repeat the same behavior again and again even with no reward and with no apparent stopping point.  There is no specific goal, but only the pleasure of the little emotional roller-coaster.  The game creates pleasure from within itself.

The little Mary Poppins in each of us

Although game theory is still in its infancy, psychological insights are already embedded in game design according to a certain formula for success.  We are aware of the basic components underlying addiction.  Those components can explain the similarity among such popular games as Tetris, Bejeweled, and Candy Crush.

Matching and arranging random shapes that appear on the screen — attempting to find a pattern based on shape, or to arrange shapes in a way that fits —is beyond question a tool for gratification and pleasure at the deepest level. Matching shapes or patterns is a basic human obsession, drawing from the same source that encourages babies to fit shapes into holes.  We have a basic need to arrange objects.  It seems that the urge to tidy up a mess and restore the status quo ante resembles a sense of mission.  Arranging objects on the screen feels like setting matters right and restoring order.

And a point of positivity to end on

The purpose of exploiting pleasure-giving mechanisms does not need to be something like encouraging addiction.  The limbic loop can help in treating or preventing psychological damage.  Playing Tetris after watching a disturbing movie has been found to reduce the likelihood of flashbacks.  Games that encourage obsessive behavior can serve as a cognitive immunization against post-traumatic stress disorder.  Furthermore, the more stressed our society becomes, the more we require stress relievers, and particularly those we can carry with us everywhere.


Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., analyzes online consumer behavior, incorporating theory and academic research into a conceptual framework.

Your best defense against advertising may be your unconscious mind

Detecting and resisting persuasion can be automatic

Photo by Federica Giusti on Unsplash

Source: Your best defense against advertising may be your unconscious mind

Julie Sedivy Ph.D.

When my son was six, we once encountered a sign in a public park that suggested “Please! Enjoy walking on the grass!” His face lit up for a few milliseconds, and then fell. “I don’t want to do it if they tell me to,” he muttered darkly, and his feet remained planted on the pavement. Which made me wonder, of course, if the sign had been put up there in an innovative attempt at reverse psychology.

Six-year-olds and adults alike seem prone to going to some lengths to resist persuasion, and with the swell of advertising we’re faced with nowadays in a world bursting at the seams with choice, we ought to have lots of practice at it by now. What if the adult version of my son’s response is to spend moremoney when exhorted by Walmart’s to “Save money! Live better!” (Incidentally, nice marketing strategy.)


A recent study by Juliano Laran and colleagues suggests that people automatically activate a defensive system whenever they detect persuasive intent. The work builds on some fascinating results involving commercial brands in a phenomenon known as implicit priming, in which a seemingly irrelevant word or image can trigger behaviors that are somehow associated with that stimulus. For example, previous work has shown that subliminally flashing the Apple logo can spur study participants to think more creatively, and that presenting a Walmart logo can encourage frugal behavior whereas presenting a Nordstrom logo leads to greater indulgence. In other words, the brands activate a set of associations that in turn trigger certain behavioral goals.

But brands, argue Laran and colleagues, are different from other commercial messages in that they’re not necessarily perceived as inherently persuasive—at one level, they’re simply identifiers of a particular product, equivalent to say, your name. But slogans are transparently persuasive. Perhaps people react to these in reverse-psychology manner by blocking and even countering the typical brand associations.

The researchers found that when they had people look at cost-conscious brand names like Walmart in an alleged memory study, and then take part in an imaginary shopping task, they were able to replicate the implicit priming effect: people were willing to spend quite a bit less than if they’d seen luxury-brand logos. But when people saw slogans instead of the brand names, there was a reverse priming effect: now, the luxury brand slogans triggered more penny-pinching behavior than the economy-brand slogans.

The reverse-psychology effect really does seem to hinge on detecting the persuasive intent on the message. In another version of the study, if people were told to focus on the creativity of the slogans (presumably making their persuasive intent less “visible”), the reverse effect evaporated, and they now treated them just as they had the brand names; that is, the economy-brand slogans led to less spending than the slogans for luxury brands. And if the persuasive nature of brands was highlighted, the brand names triggered the reverse priming effect, just as the slogans had previously.

You might think that resisting persuasion takes some measure of skeptical awareness, that you have to deliberately arm yourself against the perceived persuasion. Certainly, I had thought that the best defense against implicit forms of persuasion might be greater mindfulness and critical thinking. Not necessarily so, it seems.

In a particularly ingenious variation of the study, the researchers tested to see whether the defensive system could be unconsciously turned on by some form of subliminal messaging. They showed subjects sentences such as “Don’t waste your money” or “Always try to impress.” After each sentence, either the word “slogan” or the word “sentence” was flashed too quickly to be seen by the subjects. When the sentences had been identified neutrally as “sentence,” subjects’ spending decisions aligned with the content of the sentences. But when they were identified by the word “slogan,” they showed a reverse priming effect—the mere activation of the construct of slogan (subliminally, no less) was enough to send them scurrying in the opposite direction.

The study suggests that advertising messages could in theory have very different effects depending on whether their persuasive nature is highlighted. This, incidentally, is the logic behind the recent French decisionto ban the uttering of the brand names Facebook and Twitter on broadcast television, a move that had many Americans shaking their heads and mumbling about anti-American sentiment. But the premise is not unreasonable: that uttering a brand name outside of the clearly persuasive context of a commercial doesn’t allow consumers the opportunity to activate their defense shields. The same line of thinking applies to some countries’ decisions not to allow advertising aimed at children, because young kids don’t always get that advertising is a form of persuasion.

The study also provides a potential answer to a question that has been in my mind since I first heard about the implicit priming effects with Apple and Walmart logos: could you nudge yourself towards creativity or financial prudence by plastering the appropriate logos around your house or workspace or in your wallet? Perhaps not—you’d always be aware of your intent to persuade yourself. Maybe unconscious persuasion tactics are a bit like tickling: it doesn’t work if you try to do it on yourself.


Don’t follow me on Twitter.


Laran, J., Dalton, A.N. & Andrade, E.B. 2011. The curious case of behavioral backlash: Why brands produce priming effects and slogans produce reverse priming effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 999-1014.

Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T.L. & Fitzsimons, G.J. 2008. Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: How Apple makes you “Think different.” Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 21-35.

Chartrand, T.L., Huber, J., Shiv, B. & Tanner, R.J. 2008. Nonconscious goals and consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 189-201.


Julie Sedivy, Ph.D., teaches at the University of Calgary. She is the lead author of the book Sold on Language.

The Most Dangerous Word in the World

This word can damage both the speaker’s and listener’s brain!

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Source: The Most Dangerous Word in the World

Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman

If I were to put you into an fMRI scanner—a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain—and flash the word “NO” for less than one second, you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.

In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions.[1] You’ll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction.

If you vocalize your negativity, or even slightly frown when you say “no,” more stress chemicals will be released, not only in your brain, but in the listener’s brain as well.[2] The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others![3]

Any form of negative rumination—for example, worrying about your financial future or health—will stimulate the release of destructive neurochemicals. And the same holds true for children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more likely they are to experience emotional turmoil.[4] But if you teach them to think positively, you can turn their lives around.[5]

Negative thinking is also self perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue—at home or at work—the more difficult it becomes to stop.[6] But negative words, spoken with anger, do even more damage. They send alarm messages through the brain, interfering with the decision making centers in the frontal lobe, and this increases a person’s propensity to act irrationally.

Fear-provoking words—like poverty, illness, and death—also stimulate the brain in negative ways.  And even if these fearful thoughts are not real, other parts of your brain (like the thalamus and amygdala) react to negative fantasies as though they were actual threats occurring in the outside world. Curiously, we seem to be hardwired to worry—perhaps an artifact of old memories carried over from ancestral times when there were countless threats to our survival.[7]

In order to interrupt this natural propensity to worry, several steps can be taken. First, ask yourself this question:  “Is the situation really a threat to my personal survival?” Usually it isn’t, and the faster you can interrupt the amygdala’s reaction to an imagined threat, the quicker you can take action to solve the problem. You’ll also reduce the possibility of burning a permanent negative memory into our brain.[8]

After you have identified the negative thought (which often operates just below the level of everyday consciousness), your can reframe it by choosing to focus on positive words and images. The result: anxiety and depression decreases and the number of unconscious negative thoughts decline.[9]

 The Power of Yes

When doctors and therapists teach patients to turn negative thoughts and worries into positive affirmations, the communication process improves and the patient regains self-control and confidence.[10] But there’s a problem: the brain barely responds to our positive words and thoughts.[11] They’re not a threat to our survival, so the brain doesn’t need to respond as rapidly as it does to negative thoughts and words. [12]

To overcome this neural bias for negativity, we must repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, discovered that if we need to generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity. If you express fewer than three, personal and business relationships are likely to fail. This finding correlates with Marcial Losada’s research with corporate teams,[13] and John Gottman’s research with marital couples.[14]

Fredrickson, Losada, and Gottman realized that if you want your business and your personal relationships to really flourish, you’ll need to generate at least five positive messages for each negative utterance you make (for example, “I’m disappointed” or “That’s not what I had hoped for” count as expressions of negativity, as does a facial frown or nod of the head).

It doesn’t even matter if your positive thoughts are irrational; they’ll still enhance your sense of happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction.[15] In fact, positive thinking can help anyone to build a better and more optimistic attitude toward life.[16]

Positive words and thoughts propel the motivational centers of the brain into action[17] and they help us build resilience when we are faced with life’s problems.[18] According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s leading researchers on happiness, if you want to develop lifelong satisfaction, you should regularly engage in positive thinking about yourself, share your happiest events with others, and savor every positive experience in your life.[19]

Our advice: choose your words wisely and speak them slowly. This will allow you to interrupt the brain’s propensity to be negative, and as recent research has shown, the mere repetition of positive words like love, peace, and compassion will turn on specific genes that lower your physical and emotional stress [20]. You’ll feel better, you’ll live longer, and you’ll build deeper and more trusting relationships with others—at home and at work.

As Fredrickson and Losada point out, when you generate a minimum of five positive thoughts to each negative one, you’ll experience “an optimal range of human functioning.”[21]  That is the power of YES.


Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman are the authors of Words Can Change Your Brain.

For more information on the effects of positive and negative speech, see Words Can Change Your Brain (Newberg & Waldman, 2012, Hudson Street Press), and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit

[1] Some assessments of the amygdala role in suprahypothalamic neuroendocrine regulation: a minireview. Talarovicova A, Krskova L, Kiss A. Endocr Regul. 2007 Nov;41(4):155-62.

[2]HaririAR, Tessitore A, Mattay VS, Fera F,Weinberger DR.. The amygdala response to emotional stimuli: a comparison of faces and scenes. Neuroimage. 2002 Sep;17(1):317-23.

[3] Duhachek A, Zhang S, Krishnan S. Anticipated Group Interaction: Coping withValence Asymmetries in Attitude Shift. Journal Of Consumer Research. Vol. 34. October 2007.

[4] The Role of Repetitive Negative Thoughts in the Vulnerability for Emotional Problems in Non-Clinical Children. Broeren S, Muris P, Bouwmeester S, van der Heijden KB, Abee A. J Child Fam Stud. 2011 Apr;20(2):135-148.

[5] Protocol for a randomised controlled trial of a school based cognitivebehaviour therapy (CBT) intervention to prevent depression in high risk adolescents (PROMISE). Stallard P, Montgomery AA, Araya R, Anderson R, Lewis G, Sayal K, Buck R, Millings A,Taylor JA. Trials. 2010 Nov 29;11:114.

[6] What is in a word? No versus Yes differentially engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. Alia-Klein N, Goldstein RZ, Tomasi D, Zhang L, Fagin-Jones S, Telang F, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Volkow ND. Emotion. 2007 Aug;7(3):649-59.

[7] Wright, R. The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Vintage, 1995.

[8] Erasing fear memories with extinction training. Quirk GJ, Paré D, Richardson R, Herry C, Monfils MH, Schiller D, Vicentic A. J Neurosci. 2010 Nov 10;30(45):14993-7.

[9] Generalized hypervigilance in fibromyalgia patients: an experimental analysis with the emotional Stroop paradigm. González JL, Mercado F, Barjola P, Carretero I, López-López A, Bullones MA, Fernández-Sánchez M, Alonso M. J Psychosom Res. 2010 Sep;69(3):279-87.

[10] [Negative and positive suggestions in anaesthesia : Improved communication with anxious surgical patients]. Hansen E, Bejenke C. Anaesthesist. 2010 Mar;59(3):199-202, 204-6, 208-9.

[11] Kisley MA, Wood S, Burrows CL. Looking at the sunny side of life: age-related change in an event-related potential measure of the negativity bias. Psychol Sci. 2007 Sep;18(9):838-43.

[12] May I have your attention, please: electrocortical responses to positive and negative stimuli. Smith NK, Cacioppo JT, Larsen JT, Chartrand TL. Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(2):171-83.

[13] Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. Losada M, Heaphy E. Am Behav Scientist. 2004 47 (6):740–765.

[14] Gottman J. What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Psychology Press, 1993.

[15] On the incremental validity of irrational beliefs to predict subjective well-being while controlling for personality factors. Spörrle M, Strobel M, Tumasjan A. Psicothema. 2010 Nov;22(4):543-8.

[16] The value of positive psychology for health psychology: progress and pitfalls in examining the relation of positive phenomena to health. Aspinwall LG, Tedeschi RG. Ann Behav Med. 2010 Feb;39(1):4-15.

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Two Different Views on Social Media

Is Social Media Hurting Your Mental Health? –  Bailey Parnell

Scrolling through our social media feeds feels like a harmless part of our daily lives. But is it actually as harmless at seems? According to social media expert Bailey Parnell, our growing and unchecked obsession with social media has unintended long term consequences on our mental health. As social media continues to become part of the fabric of modern life – the “digital layer” – abstinence is becoming less of an option. Bailey think it’s high time we learned to practice safe social before it’s too late. What are the common triggers? How are they affecting you over time? How can you create a more positive experience online? Bailey covers this and more in “Is Social Media Hurting Your Mental Health?” Bailey Parnell was recently named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. She is an award-winning digital marketer, public speaker and businesswoman with a talent for helping people tell better stories. Her work and expertise have been featured on CBC, CTV & in other local Toronto media. Bailey recently founded SkillsCamp, a soft skills training company where they help people develop the essential skills needed for professional success. She also currently works in digital marketing at Ryerson University.

How social media creates a better world: Jan Rezab

As a child of the formerly communist Czech Republic, Jan Rezab has a unique appreciation for social media, which he works with everyday as the CEO of one of the world’s leading social media analysis firms. In this insightful talk, Jan discusses what he believes social media is and isn’t, and shares his vision for the future of this powerful tool.

Evolutionary Psychology and the Digital World

Our natural tendencies have not yet adapted to the digital environment.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Source: Evolutionary Psychology and the Digital World

Liraz Margalit Ph.D.

Millions of years of evolution have shaped us to best deal with the challenges we face in nature.

Over the course of those years, the human brain has tripled in size, we have transitioned to standing and moving on two legs, and we have become the dominant species in the animal world. Yet none of this has prepared us to cope with a digital environment that constantly challenges our natural tendencies. In recent years, that environment has been changing at such a rapid pace that it is impossible for the forces of evolution to make the necessary adjustments to our natural tendencies, which have not yet adapted to the digital environment.

What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary psychology aims to explain human behavior in evolutionary terms. Some human characteristics evolved because they increased the likelihood of survival in the environment. Studies in the field draw inspiration from observation of animals — for example, how a giraffe’s neck allows it to reach the tall tree leaves that shorter animals cannot reach, or how the chameleon’s ability to change colors enables it to hide from predators by blending into the surrounding environment.

Charles Darwin came up with the concept of natural selection, which holds that if a particular variant of traits leads to greater adaptation to the environment, these traits will be preserved and passed on to future generations.

For example, about 10,000 years ago, no one past infancy could digest milk sugar, called lactose. Human production of the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the milk stopped after weaning. Sometime in the past 10,000 years, certain populations began to raise livestock in Northern Europe and the Middle East. These populations also developed certain gene variants that enabled digestion of milk beyond infancy. This ability provided a significant calorific advantage, and therefore the trait spread.

We Are Still Cave Dwellers When it Comes to Loss of Control

Another dominant feature that has developed is an obsessive need to be in control. One of the most crucial things for our survival in the world is our ability to predict what is happening around us. Therefore, our systems respond strongly to a sense of loss of control. This feeling is accompanied by automatic physiological responses, such as rapid pulse rate and accelerated blood flow, designed to prepare our systems for coping. Whether the situation that precipitates the feeling of loss of control is an unexpected breakup, a job interview or a flooded kitchen, the physiological response remains the same.

Common to all these examples is our inability to anticipate the situation. In terms of our systems, this is the worst-case scenario, because our survival in the world depends on our ability to predict what is happening in our environment.

It turns out the digital environment also puts us in many situations that trigger this feeling of loss of control.

I recently helped a client, a global news organization, analyze the behavior of visitors to its website. The organization had tried to promote a video by having it play automatically when visitors landed on the page. After analyzing the behavior of the visitors, we found that in 90 percent of the cases, visitors clicked to stop the video immediately. It wasn’t that there was something wrong with the video — the content was designed to be interesting and relevant — there was something the organization had not taken into account: One of the primary goals of a human being’s system is to control what is happening in the environment. We are highly sensitive to the smallest deviation from our expectations. So if we expect to log on and quietly read an article, and suddenly a video begins to play, we have an uncontrollable urge to restore control in the situation — and clicking the stop button will accomplish that. Although the video poses no threat to our survival, our brains have not yet learned to make this mental transition, and the immediate response is to restore control. We recommended the organization cancel the automatic playback — and when it did, the video-viewing rate increased by 60 percent!

An automatically playing video isn’t the only situation that generates a stress response in the digital world. We have found visitors to sites where the pages are particularly long or have endless scrolling (sites where you scroll and scroll but never reach the bottom of the page) feel a loss of control as well. I have observed situations where people scroll for a while and suddenly lose track of where they are. That type of situation evokes the same fear reactions we feel when we lose our way in unfamiliar physical environments.

In the physical world, we erect road signs and milestones to help people retrace their steps. Similarly, in the digital world, sites that understand user psychology provide navigation bars that allow people to click out of a page at any time. The interesting thing is the very presence of a navigation bar leads to higher scrolling percentages, even if it is not used. What matters isn’t whether users actually have to take steps to control the situation. What matters is the presence of the navigation bar gives them the feeling of having control. In the physical world, close-door buttons in elevators and buttons on pedestrian walk signals at street corners serve a similar purpose: They make us feel in control, even though some of them don’t actually work.

What About Traits We No Longer Need?

Just as evolution works to preserve traits that give us an advantage, it also works to erase characteristics that no longer constitute an advantage in the environment.

For example, in the past (about 63 million years ago), our bodies produced an enzyme that generated vitamin C on its own. At one point, we began to consume vitamin C from citrus fruit, so we no longer needed to produce it ourselves, and now the ability to produce vitamin C is extinct.

Similarly, studies show that today, as a result of relying on GPS navigation applications, regions of our brain responsible for navigation and spatial orientation are ceasing to respond. In addition, since we have begun to store phone numbers on our mobile devices, we are using less long-term memory.

An even more disturbing phenomenon is that digitization has made interpersonal interactions less and less available to us, since our primary communication is through screens. In this way, the region in our brains responsible for interpreting signals from other people becomes less efficient. This is especially true among those who have grown up in a technological environment.

The pace of technological development, and the fact that it occupies a growing place in our lives, both lead to the fact that in a few short years our neural circuits will be rewired with completely different brain functions. It is difficult to assess how the technological changes will shape our minds, but what we can know with certainty is that, in terms of future generations, we will be the object of extensive research, much like the ancient man.


Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., analyzes online consumer behavior, incorporating theory and academic research into a conceptual framework.

What Is A Digital Fast And Should I Go On One?

The answer depends on how you see your relationship with technology.

Source: What Is A Digital Fast And Should I Go On One?

Utpal Dholakia Ph.D.

What is a digital fast?

Also known by various other terms like “digital detox,” “digital Sabbath,” and “unplugging”, the idea behind a digital fast is to voluntarily and deliberately stop using all connected devices – smartphones, computers, tablets, and so on – that plug you to the internet for a pre-specified amount of time. The abstention could be for as little as a few hours (say, from 7 pm until the next morning). However most digital fasts are at least a day long, and many span an entire weekend or even longer. Just like food fasts, longer digital fasts are thought to be more effective (up to a point) in weaning oneself away from digital connectivity, and in regaining self-control.

distraction by underminingme Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: distraction by underminingme Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Some versions of the digital fast recommend off-line activities you should perform instead (with all the spare time freed up from not texting and Facebooking): going on a walk or a hike, or organizing a pot-luck meal with friends who are also digitally fasting.

In theory, the idea of a digital fast has generated a lot of interest, with organizations such as Adbusters and the Huffington Posteach promoting their respective versions of digital fasts. It is especially popular among Silicon Valley employees of tech companies like Facebook and Google.

But in practice, digital fasting really hasn’t moved beyond the fringes of our culture. One reason is that there is a raging debate about whether a digital fast is desirable. Advocates take the digital stance that digital technology has addictive properties that cause harm in various ways, and we need to regain control over its use. Its opponents counter with the argument that digital technology satisfies our fundamental needs today and is irreplaceable. So, they say, there is no need for anyone to fast or unplug.

In this blog post, I want to provide brief synopses of both positions, so that you can make a better decision for yourself about whether a digital fast is something worth doing.

The Addiction Perspective: I am Addicted to Digital Technology and this is a Growing & Serious Problem

The Hummingbird Doll by Paree Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: The Hummingbird Doll by Paree Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Over the past decade, a growing number of psychologists have started to see addictionto digital technologies as a form of behavioral addiction, similar to pathological gambling, and even to substance dependence addictions. They point to the fact that when using smartphones, or playing online games, or using social media, many people exhibit features that are very similar to those displayed by drug addicts. These featuresinclude the following: excessive use of the digital technology without discretion, experiencing symptoms of withdrawal including feelings of anger, tension or depression without use, and negative repercussions from use such as lowered ability to focus and insomnia. One study from 2014 led by psychologist Julia Hormes concluded:

“The use of online social networking sites is potentially addictive…Disordered online social networking use seems to arise as part of a cluster of symptoms of poor emotion regulation skills and heightened susceptibility to both substance and non-substance addiction.

Under this perspective, unchecked use of digital technology is a potential problem that could have serious consequences. One avenue to gain control over the problem is to disconnect from the source of the addiction in a deliberate and systematic way by means of a digital fast.

The Unalloyed Empowerment Perspective: Digital Technologies Satisfy My Fundamental Needs and Allow Me to do Important Things That I Cannot Otherwise Do

Love at a Distance by Cubmundo Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Love at a Distance by Cubmundo Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Technology enthusiasts take an entirely different view. They see nothing problematic or dangerous with our incessant digital connectivity. They believe that there is no need for anyone to unplug at all, even momentarily. Rather, they argue that digital technologies now satisfy many of our most basic needs and we no longer have other, old-fashioned ways of meeting these needs. For instance, (at least in the United States) people no longer stroll to the town square every evening, or call each other to talk for hours on a landline phone. Our online and offline lives have now blended together so completely that one is not possible without the other. Thus, fasting digitally will lead to nothing more than depriving ourselves of basic need fulfillment and constitutes a case of unnecessary technological asceticism. This view is expressed nicely by business consultant Alexandra Samuel:

“When we’re online — not just online, but participating in social media — we’re meeting some of our most basic human needs.  Needs like creative expression. The need to connect with other people. The need to be part of a community. Most of all, the need to be seen: not in a surface, aren’t-you-cute way, but in a deep, so-that’s-what’s-going-on-inside-your-head way.”

Under this perspective of technology and digital connectivity, it is clear that a digital fast is anathema. Instead, it would see each of us as electric appliances. Unless it is plugged in to a power source, it is useless. In the same way, we are only functioning when we are digitally  connected.

Which perspective makes sense – Addiction or Unalloyed Empowerment?

It is worth thinking deeply about which perspective of technology relationship – addiction or empowerment – resonates with you. When I thought about this question, it was clear even though using digital technology and being connected is empowering, I am also addicted to its use. Some experts suggest that people like me should approach digital connectivity like a diet instead of a fast. In other words, use technology in a restrained way rather than not at all. Nevertheless, I choose to unplug from all digital devices from time to time, usually for a few hours, or sometimes for a weekend. (I have never gone on a longer digital fast than this). If nothing else, digital fasting is a way to prove to myself that I have the strength to act willfully in my relationship with technology.


Utpal M. Dholakia, Ph.D., is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Rice University.

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.


How Brands Addict Us – Media Psychology

It’s done through through broken promises and spikes of dopamine Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash Source: How Brands Addict Us Douglas Van Praet There’s a reason why marketers spend billions of dollars on advertising every year. It works! That’s because humans, and by extension, all consumers, are wired for the joys of anticipation more […]

via How Brands Addict Us — consumer psychology research