Do You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

Rightly or wrongly, a young slim female is seen as more pleasing than an older bigger woman. As women we chase this while arguably men and society perpetuate our need to. Beauty promises the fulfilment of many of our deep-seated psychological drivers: a need to be judged as attractive, to have sex, to remain in a relationship and to feel validated by our social groups. This desire to be attractive is startling when measured in economic terms.

– Globally, our investment in appearance totals over £122 billion a year with spending on everything from make-up, clothes, shampoo to facials, manicures, hair styling and dental work.

– Research published by the AS Watson group in 2013 showed that women, over a lifetime, spend an average of £18,000 on products for their face. In the same year, the average income for women in the UK was £23,100.

– In 2012, when the UK was in recession, cosmetic surgery procedures totalled 43,162 with women accounting for 90.5% of the figure (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons).

This all stems from a primitive driver which our rational brain may view as superficial or insignificant. So why can’t we just rise above these more primitive instincts? In large part because it’s biological, but also because it’s become ingrained in our culture.

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, is someone we’d expect to be celebrated for her intellectual capability. In 2012, Beard wrote and presented the BBC 2 documentary Meet the Romans which helped make Roman history more accessible and received accolades for Beard became who became one of the few intellectuals able to entertain and educate at the same time.

However, critics focused not on her subject matter, which she so skilfully brought to life, but her appearance.

“For someone who looks this closely at the past, it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of the camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.”

This scathing review shows our tangled attitudes towards beauty and appearance.  Tweets included: ‘she looks like a human scarecrow’, ‘Can’t she brush her hair?’, ‘Did she try to look so haggard?’ and ‘Shouldn’t she be sexing herself up a bit?’ And it wasn’t just men, TV producer Samantha Brick said: ‘Ms Beard is too ugly for TV … The greatest tragedy isn’t Ms Beard’s wild hair, ungainly posture or make-up free face: it’s the fact that the BBC didn’t offer her guidance on her appearance in the first place.’

Unfortunately, attractiveness often supersedes what a woman can offer to the world beyond her sexual worth. Despite this advanced civilisation we live in, with our apparent respect for sophisticated meaning-driven values, the male brain still harbours primitive impulses that override the best intentions and society gets caught up in this way of thinking.

Australian psychologists Ronay and von Hippel did an experiment to look at what’s happening at a biological level. They set up in a skateboard park in Brisbane to observe 96 male skateboarders, with an average age of 22. They asked the boarders to choose one easy trick (one they could do well on most attempts) and one difficult trick (one they were still learning and they could do well approximately 50% of the time). They did each trick 10 times whilst being filmed by a male researcher. Following a break, they were then asked to make ten more attempts of both tricks again. Some of the skateboarders did them for the male researcher, while the others did them in front of an attractive 18-year-old female (who had been rated as attractive using widely recognized scientific criteria).

The skateboarders took far greater risks on the difficult trick when the girl was watching and testosterone levels were significantly higher among the guys who skateboarded in front of the attractive girl than the ones who skateboarded in front of the male researcher. This experiment shows that young men will risk physical injury to impress an attractive young female.

The critique of Beard – scorning her for not matching up to idealised standards of female beauty – is the flipside of the same impulse. It’s where the idea of the beautiful young princess and ugly old ‘witch’ which permeates fairy tales has come from; arguably a primitive and unhealthy attitude to attraction.

The reality is that Mary Beard may look pleasant to some people and unattractive to others. The serious concern is that her appearance apparently disqualified her from doing her job even though she was fronting a serious documentary about Roman culture, not presenting a game show. It shows how our survival-driven approval of youth and beauty has a nasty flipside: disrespect towards those who are seen to embody unattractiveness, disfigurement or age. However, as the backlash against the critiques faced by Beard, the public support that ensued also demonstrates that some people are able to override these impulses. After all, a lot of us pride ourselves on ‘not judging a book by its cover’.

 

What did you think when you saw the photo on this blog? Little girl or little boy? It’s a girl called Sky Brown who’s one of the youngest professional skateboarders in the world.  You may not have, but we do tend to quickly judge and often incorrectly based on societal expectations and primitive responses.

 

16Jan_Defining You_demy_hb copy

 

I like my book cover  (I didn’t design it) – but what about the contents? Find out for yourself –

Defining You is on offer in the USA and Canada for $3.99 from 19th November to 3rd December with all major eBook retailers.

In the UK it’s available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Also available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photo: http://www.thesupermaniak.com/blog/2018/4/22/sky-brown

Climate Change – What’s Psychology Got to Do With It?

Last summer we drove from Yosemite to Santa Monica through acres and acres of smouldering forest, the smell of charcoal and smoke filling the air, the landscape black and barren. This week fires have raged through Northern and Southern California, killing 44 as I write, with an expectation of the death toll rising. But sadly, California is not alone – Somalia, Kenya, and other East African countries have experienced below average rainfall since the late 1990s, contributing to a 30% reduction in crop yields and famines. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and destructive weather events across the world. Even the UK is having longer hotter summers. The UN recently issued a report warning that we only have 12 years to stop the ‘irreversible damage to the Earth.’ We should surely be harnessing any means possible to prevent this furious catastrophe from happening, yet psychology is often overlooked.

What’s psychology got to do with it?

Dr Gifford at the University of Victoria B.C. is among psychologists beginning to shout louder about the potential of the field when it comes to mitigating these issues saying:

“Climate change is a human problem. It’s the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day.” But we don’t fully realise that “makes it a psychological problem.”

It really is that straight forward. This month’s Monitor on Psychology published by the APA (American Psychological Association) talks about the part psychology should be playing and how it has to date been applied in a patchy and ad hoc manner. The cynic in me would say that our use of ‘applied psychology’ is focussed more heavily on how to get consumers to buy things and engage with tech. Ironically the job of psychologists is made harder from the intensity of the technology in our environment and the human disconnect with the natural world. Put most simply – when we have our head stuck in answering e-mails, we’re unlikely to remember to turn the light off.

Here are just a few of the ways in which psychology can be used:

  • Help organisations to help employees. Organisations are a direct route to making hugely impactful changes, in part because of the number of people in employment. Making strategic use of knowledge when it comes to human drivers e.g. competition and peer pressure, can help us to foster sustainable behaviour even beyond the office. For example, one U.S. non-profit (Cool Choices) created a contest where teams of employees competed for points by engaging in sustainable behaviours at home. Simple activities such as installing low-flow showers and swapping bulbs for low energy LEDs. The results were analysed to find that employees reduced their household electricity use even 6 months after the ‘game’ had ended. This one small example shows the impacts of understanding psychology on sustainability both during and after the study took place (due to habituation).

 

  • Work with cities. Cities are another hub through which large and effective interventions can be introduced. Work with local policy makers and city councils can help leaders to understand how to reduce carbon footprint through using psychology. This may for example take on the form of educating people and then making it clear who else in communities understand the issues. What does this do? Engages peoples’ need to adhere to social norms – they then use what they’ve learnt and it becomes part of their everyday behaviour and a societal norm.

 

  • Carry out more research into when and why people engage in sustainable behaviour. Psychologist Dr. Suzanne Holt Ballard is co-founder of Future Cities Lab which collaborates with cities worldwide on issues relating to sustainability, citizen health and well-being. They are analysing data relating to air pollution, climate and human activity patterns in cities such as New York and Paris. They will then map the connections between urban design, human mobility and health research to allow future ‘smart cities’ to not only reduce the output of fossil fules but also encourage citizens to make healthy personal choices.

 

  • When and why they don’t –take for example the role of ‘fast fashion’. The BBC recently aired a documentary featuring presenter Stacey Dooley which highlighted the impact on the environment of, most surprisingly to me, cotton production. The huge volumes of water used to process cotton dry up local water sources and the pesticides damage ecosystems. Yet, when my daughter wants to get that t-shirt from H&M I will be as guilty as the next person of saying ‘OK’ rather than suggesting a more expensive and sustainable product. Why? Well that’s complicated and for another blog….

 

  • Use tech and AI –while on the one hand tech is part of the problem, leveraging psychological knowledge in the development of tech and AI could enable hugely impactful solutions. At the individual end of the scale simple there’s home tech like the ‘smart’ thermometers which can reduce energy usage. At the other end of the scale using ‘big data’ should allow psychologists to analyse far richer sets of information, collecting data at a scale and volume that without technology would just not be feasible. The outputs of this will help to generate more insightful and accurate answers on what works, for whom, where and why in order to focus on behaviour change interventions that really work.

The UN are beginning to understand the role of psychologists play enlisting their help writing the next report for 2021 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But we tend to forget how central the role of psychology and in this area which is in such dramatic need of attention it can only be a good thing.  Psychology seems to simple, so common sense but the subtleties involved really require people who are trained to understand in order to optimise their use. Psychology really can and should have a lot to do with addressing climate change. 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

BBC 3 – Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bn6034

Henderson, R. M., Reinert, S. A., Dekhtyar, P., & Migdal, A. (2015). Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business. risk1.

Ro, M., Brauer, M., Kuntz, K., Shukla, R., & Bensch, I. (2017). Making Cool Choices for sustainability: Testing the effectiveness of a game-based approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology53, 20-30.

Weir, K. (2018) Building a Sustainable Future, 49 (5) 48. 

Weir, K (2018) Climate Change is Our Call to Acton, 49 (10) 43.

Photo taken in Mariposa, California

 

 

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

Having just spoken to a journalist about mental health 5 a day and also raising it on a podcast last week I wanted to re-share this post – it’s a great reminder for us all. It’s not my idea – it was the NHS who came up with it but it’s such a simple and helpful concept. Yet it’s not ‘getting out there’ so here’s my contribution…..

As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.

We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:

– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away

– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)

– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”

we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.

So what’s the answer?

If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.

What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?

  1. Connect

Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.

What you can do:

  • Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
  • Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
  • Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
  • Speak to someone you may normally rush away from

 

  1. Be Active

In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.

What you can do:

  • Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
  • Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
  • Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
  • Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
  1. Be Mindful

Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.

What you can do:

  • Practice yoga
  • Use the headspace app
  • Breathe
  • Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
  • Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
  1. Keep Learning

We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).

What you can do:

  • Watch a Ted Talk
  • Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
  • Try a new sport
  • Take up a musical instrument
  • Learn a new language
  • Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
  1. Give to others

While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.

What you can do:

  • Compliment someone
  • Say thank you
  • Smile at someone you don’t know
  • Offer to help
  • Do something for charity or get involved in community service
  • Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
  • Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
  • Include the person who’s always left out

You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233

Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April

Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73

Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012

Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge