Tag Archives: psychology

More is more


I like to apply the rule of ‘less is more’ in many aspects of my life, but I can’t help noticing that every day takes us deeper and deeper into a world where ‘more is more’. The perpetual stimulation and, as some may call it, distraction, leaves us with so many things zipping through our minds per day, per hour, even minute that a commitment to a single task seems far from possible for most (Did you not just get a Twitter notification, email, text, phone call?). According to Virgin mobile, 1 in 5 people will interrupt sex to answer a phone call. Most sleep with their phones constantly on and those with smartphones will often check their email before getting out of bed in the morning, with 6 in 10 Blackberry users checking their email in bed on a regular basis. Furthermore, ‘four out of 10 said they kept them nearby as they slept so they could hear incoming mail. A similar proportion said they had replied to emails in the middle of the night. A further 37% responded to emails when they were driving.’

Digital and in particular social media has enabled many phenomenal communication channels as a result of which we seem, and I believe are, better connected both across borders and with our real close social networks. I don’t believe that the nature of human relationships has changed due to the Internet, I believe it has merely enriched our relationships and given us more freedom and choice in how we develop and maintain them. The only possible problem this richness may cause to human relationships is the fact that today we probably deal with more relationships at a time than ever before which leaves less room for each of them. One could claim that our relationships have thus become more shallow, but again, that is a grand generalisation and a personal choice that people can make by themselves. What digital has given us is merely more choices in how we interact with our environments. 

Oh, the choices we, and our children will have to make. How many friends will you manage to talk to this week? Will you call your parents? Will you catch up on you favorite blogs by the end of the week or spend time outdoors instead? Which information and with what restrictions will you put on you Twitter, Fb, whatnot? These are just a few of the decisions to make for most of those engaged in digital. The distraction or rather multi-tasking might not be a bad thing; it might make our minds more flexible and thus capable of processing more information at a time allowing us a greater capacity of experiences within a given unit of time. The neurological changes might make us into a different kind of a human over the next generations, which is a part of evolution, whether in the right or not direction. 

So yes, more is more, but the trick within all of this possibility is not to spread your experience, your life, too thinly. The world of the increasingly ubiquitous more requires more discipline both in our daily behaviour and attention. The small choices every day can be driven by the same logic as paying attention to how to deposit of your recycling – everything mixed together might just not be the best option. Where you start is another question, perhaps not checking your email at night and getting some sleep instead could be one of them. 

For related articles, please read:

Benefits of Distraction at NYT

Rules for balancing technology and relationships at Timesviou

Illustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF  

(Photo: John Day/Getty Images)

6 billion Others

It periodically blows my mind to realise how deeply similar everyone is and to what degree we all seek the same in our lives, our days, our occupations, friends and lovers. The one coherent mass that seems to disagree with the idea for the sake of being textured; a swarm of fish, combination of seeds spilled on the ground, the racing microbes in our bodies.

Fifty People One Question is a project that started with a simple idea. ‘ ‘Go to a place. Ask fifty people the same question. Film their responses.’ Created by Crush & Lovely, a creative studio based in New York City and San Francisco and Deltree, a New Orleans-based production company led by Benjamin Reece, a talented young director and creator of the original ‘Fifty People, One Question’ video. So far a collection of just four videos available on Vimeo take you to New York, New Orleans and London and reflect the filmed communities by asking them two simple yet meaningful questions about their lives and dreams.


Another project, though of a larger scale is 6 billion Others by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which attempts to draw a portrait of mankind by asking meaningful questions to people around the globe. With 4,500 hours of footage filmed by 6,000 interviewees in 65 different countries, 6 billion Others is largely available to online with altogether 450 hours of translated and subtitled footage.

Nowadays we’re surrounded by amazing communication tools, you can see everything, know everything, and the sheer bulk of information out there has never been so huge. What’s ironic in that in reality we know so little about our actual neighbors. The only way we can move forward is to move towards are fellow men.


Reborn dolls are remarkably human-like looking dolls collected by older and often childless women who treat them as normal infants. Reborns are often dressed, changed, taken out and even have birthday parties thrown for them. This reminds me a bit of cases of dog obsession among older ladies, though compared with Reborns, those ladies are at least interacting with live creatures. This may be creepy and sad, but perhaps it should be seen as just a form of therapy for these childless women. From a medical point of view, holding a child can trigger hormone releases, which in turn can lead to a better well-being.


People around the world create substitutive relationships with pets and mostly this is not seen as out bounds with social standards. Couples sometimes experiment with parenting through having pets and if they decide to remain childless or cannot conceive, they sometimes create substitutive bonds with their pets. Such relationships can be therapeutic in cases of dealing with death in family, keeping elderly relatives more occupied in day-to-day activities or treating disabilities. Such behavior is also seen in children, who mostly create extremely strong bonds with their pets and toys. People often talk to their pets and spend considerable amounts of time with them through leisure activities as well as spending money on their food and accessories. Are the Reborns that much different beyond representing the obvious missing connection with a real child for their owners?

Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives


PostSecret is an ongoing community art project created by Frank Warren in which people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. You can find both funny and horrifying secrets, but all are meant to be true and revealed for the first time. Since 2004 the blog has accumulated over 200.000 secrets and has recently won the MySpace Impact Award worth $10.000 that was subsequently donated to the HopeLine 1(800) – SUICIDE.

The project has created a hub of anonymous confession and a place where people can find themselves less alone with their secrets. PostSecret has supported those depressed and troubled through providing a meaningful outlet of emotional distress and allowing the audience to give support to those sending the secrets. The postcards are not only an artform, but also a way for people to let go of their secrets in a symbolic way through allowing their secrets to be seen by those who handle their cards, PostSecret staff and finally those who see them online. PostSecret has published 4 books, which so far are the only way the project supports itself financially.

God (and Gadgets) of the Lonely?

I stumbled upon this blog today – praise the word!

by Chris

I’ve been hanging out with fellow atheists for a while now, and one of the more common discussions I’ve had when the topic of religion comes up is, why are people religious? The two most common answers I’ve heard from atheist friends and acquaintances are that religion is a fantasy designed to explain the mysterious and otherwise unexplainable, and that religion is a fantasy designed to make people feel less alone in the universe. As those of you who’ve been reading Mixing Memory for a while may have noticed, these discussions have led me to be somewhat obsessed with understanding the psychological origins of religion. While the final answer to why people are religious is a long, long way off, I can say with some confidence that the first of the two answers above is almost certainly wrong. People’s religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. That’s not to say that religion can’t serve to help explain the otherwise inexplicable, or that this isn’t an important purpose of religion, but it doesn’t seem to be one of the fundamental or original purposes of it. Instead, it seems that religion’s social functions are actually more foundational. This leads to the second answer above — the one that says religion is around to make us feel less lonely — seeming plausible. Most of the research on the social aspects of religion to date, however, has been on its function in communities. A paper in this month’s issue of Psychological Science, however, takes a more direct look at the role of loneliness in religion.

The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness. Epley et al. note that, for example, that people outside of committed relationships are more likely to have personal relationships with god, that “insecure and anxious attachments to others” are associated with stronger religious beliefs, and that the death of loved ones can increase the strength of religious beliefs. That religion serves a loneliness-reducing function seems a reasonable hypothesis, then.

In their first study testing this hypothesis, Epley et al. gave participants descriptions of four “technological gadgets,” and then asked them to rate the gadgets on five anthropomorphic dimensions (whether the gadget “had ‘a mind of its own,’ had ‘intentions,’ had ‘free will,’ had ‘consciousness,’ and ‘experienced emotions,’ p. 115) and three non-anthropomorphic dimensions (“attractive, efficient, and strong”). Then participants then completed a loneliness scale with questions like, “How often do you feel isolated from others?”

The prediction of the loneliness hypothesis is, of course, that people who score higher on the loneliness scale will give higher anthropomorphic ratings to the gadgets than lower scorers on the scale, but that the non-anthropomorphic ratings will not be influenced by high or low loneliness. And that’s what they found: the correlation between anthropomorphic ratings and loneliness was quite high (r = .53), while the correlation between loneliness and non-anthropomorphic ratings was non-significant (r = .25).

This suggests that loneliness may prime agency detection, and since our hair-triggered agency-detection mechanism is thought to underlie much of religious cognition (as I’ve discussed before), it further suggests that loneliness may also prime religious thoughts. So, Epley et al. conducted a second study in which they first gave participants a long personality questionnaire, and then gave them predictions about their lives that they were told were based on their personality scores. Some of the participants were told things like, “You’re the type who will end up alone later in life,” which should induce feelings of loneliness or desire for social connections, while other participants received statements like, “You’re the type of person who has rewarding relationships throughout your life” (p. 116), which should make them feel more socially connected. After reading the predictions, participants were asked to rate how much they believed in supernatural agents like ghosts, God, the devil, etc., as well as in supernatural events like miracles and curses.

Consistent with the loneliness hypothesis, participants who’d been given the loneliness-inducing predictions gave higher belief ratings to the various supernatural agents and events (mean of 4.35) than those who’d been given the socially connected predictions (3.71). Thus, the second study provides initial evidence that loneliness and religious belief may be connected.

Finally, in order to rule out a potential alternative explanation of the results of the first two studies, that negative feelings, and not loneliness specifically, may lead to religious thoughts, Epley et al. conducted a third study contrasting fear (an obviously negative feeling) and loneliness. This time, participants watched movie clips, one of which (from the movie Cast Away, poor bastards) was loneliness-inducing, one of which (from Silence of the Lambs) was fear-inducing, and one of which (from Major League, for some reason) was supposed to be non-fear or loneliness inducing. Then the participants indicated how much they believed in supernatural agents and events, as in the previous experiment. As in the second experiment, the loneliness-inducing condition caused the participants to give higher belief ratings for supernatural agents and events (though this may have been because they wanted god to help them turn off the god-awful movie clip). The fear condition did not lead to higher belief ratings relative to the control condition.

Obviously, these studies are not conclusive. For one, most of the participants come into the lab with religious beliefs, and while some of their participants did say they were not believers, Epley et al. don’t break down the data by pre-experimental belief, so it’s impossible to tell whether loneliness makes disbelievers more likely to think religious thoughts. It’s therefore difficult to say whether loneliness is an originating impulse for religion, or if it instead simply uses existing religious thoughts. Still, this is a nice initial set of studies on the loneliness hypothesis, and I think all of those people who’ve told me over the years that religion is born of (existential) loneliness and alienation can feel somewhat vindicated.

1Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A, & Cacioppo, J.T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19(2), 114-120.


According to Dunbar, human beings are able to maintain stable social relationships with a maximum of 150 persons at a time. In Dunbar’s theory this capacity of the human mind is related to the size of his or her neocortex. The 150 of the people one maintains social relations with may include high school friends or past colleagues with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again. Groups above that number usually require some sort of organised control. You can see a reflection of this in news reporting and charity advertising, among others. Why is it that somehow supporting a single child in Africa is often more appealing than the idea of donating money to a school fund or infrastructural causes, which one could deem as more important than a life of a single individual? With news of fatalities, once the number is too high, doesn’t the tragedy of it all get lost among the numbers?

When looking at social networking, and in particular at Facebook, you can easily come across individuals who have a 150+ number of friends. This obviously does not include everyone they have social relationships with, since some people just refuse to do Facebook and some, like the the older generations, sometimes just have no incentive to maintain their presence in the online networking sphere. Assuming that Dunbar’s theory is right, would it be possible to enhance our social networking capacities? Will sites like Facebook allow us to stretch the number 150 and allow us to create and maintain more relationships? This may seem possible, as in normal circumstances we would not have the array of information percolating about our friends’ activities that FB makes available via its news feeds. Whether through status updates or news on your friends’ blogs and break-ups, you’re more often up to date with their situation than ever before. This availability of information stimulates a more regular reacquaintance with one’s friends or colleagues, even family members. Social networks have also been effective in re-connecting people who have lost touch, whether via college networks or simple name browsing. I’m convinced that a lot of people create connections on FB just for the sake of it, regardless of having created a real relationship with a person, but perhaps more and more the friends on FB won’t be just a number?

The Unexpected Pleasures of Being Human

I’m not sure what percentage of the world’s population lives in urban environments today (you can check out Google, just remember not to be evil), but I’m pretty sure that it’s not only the majority, but that’s it’s still rising. We live in an increasingly crowded and anonymous world where others become like white noise, like the background you wouldn’t really care to inspect. We’re given more and more choice of how to design our social networks and more social tolerance with the way we do so. Our connections are becoming ever more intricate through the development of urban life, the internet, and the wide-spread ease of travel.

Amongst ordinary days, when one really is just a passing grain of the overall texture, there sometimes happen wondrous moments when we discover other people. There is something deeply satisfying about finding a mutual connection with another, a new person. Despite the understood facts of how much we all share though our minds’ wiring, emotions, goals, and troubles, for some reason the discovery of another and the unexpected intimacy of minds can be a delight. The other person becomes real and from that point you can review the background noise of surrounding people as a brain-like buzzing network of internal complexities with mutually reinforcing, snapping connections. In our rather closed-in networks of friends, colleagues, and fellow-students, these unexpected pleasures can let us refresh and rediscover our connection to the rest of the world.