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Behavioral Science

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Research

Bright lights breed stronger emotions, study finds

Bright lights breed stronger emotions, study finds

lightsThe glow of a tubular fluorescent bulb beneath a plastic cover can feel… unflattering. But bright lighting can also influence emotions and decision-making. That’s according to new research from the University of Toronto Scarborough that found that people feel more intensely – whether the sentiment is negative or positive – when under bright lights.

From a release:

[Study authors Alison Jing Xu, PhD, assistant professor of management at UTSC and the Rotman School of Management, and Aparna Labroo, PhD, of Northwestern University] asked participants to rate a wide range of things—the spiciness of chicken-wing sauce, the aggressiveness of a fictional character, how attractive someone was, their feelings about specific words, and the taste of two juices—under different lighting conditions.

The results: under bright lights emotions are felt more intensely. In the brighter room participants wanted spicier chicken wing sauce, thought the fictional character was more aggressive, found the women more attractive, felt better about positive words and worse about negative words, and drank more of the “favourable” juice and less of the “unfavourable” juice.

Xu says the effect bright light has on our emotional system may be the result of it being perceived as heat, and the perception of heat can trigger our emotions.

The research was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Previously: Careful, your comfy chair might be making you soft
Photo by Chris Scott

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Weekends are happier for those employed or not, Stanford study shows

Weekends are happier for those employed or not, Stanford study shows

campingA freelancing friend calls her state between projects “funemployed” –at least at the start. But unless you’re part of a community of like-scheduled beings, unemployed weekdays may not provide the same sense of joy as do weekends. A new Stanford study reports that weekends feel better for both those employed and not, with reasons including more opportunities for social interactions during shared time off.

From a Stanford News article:

Emotional well-being rises by about 15 percent on weekends, the study shows. This reflects both more positive emotions like happiness and enjoyment, and fewer negative emotions like stress, anger and sadness. The findings are based on a study of 500,000 Americans in the Gallup Daily Poll and eight years of data from the American Time Use Survey.

Understanding the source of weekend well-being is the study’s main focus. “Why are people happier on weekends? The tempting answer is not having to go to work, and not having to deal with your boss. But simply having time off work is not the answer,” [Cristobal Young, PhD, an assistant professor in sociology who co-authored the study with Chaeyoon Lim, PhD, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,] said.

“Weekends are a break from unemployment,” Young later commented. “Unemployment is psychologically devastating,”

Previously: Study shows happiness and meaning in life may be different goalsGood news: Many studies recommend downtime for increased productivity and Study finds less time worked not always linked to happiness
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Behavioral Science, Nutrition, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research

Fruit-filled Manga comics may increase kids’ consumption of healthy food

Fruit-filled Manga comics may increase kids' consumption of healthy food

kidsfruitMore than a decade into adulthood, I’m still drawn in to the worlds created by sugar-cereal commercials. Hypnotized by the swirling pattern of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and captivated by the magic of Lucky Charms, I can see how actual kids’ eating behavior could be influenced by cartoon messaging.

So I was interested to read about a pilot study in New York City public school children that examined how reading comics featuring healthy food could have an effect on snack choice.

Science 2.0 reports:

It comprised 57 youth, approximately 11 years of age, nearly 90% of whom were either Black/African American or Hispanic and 54% were female. The school districts in the study had greater percentages of students eligible for free lunch (79 and 96%, respectively) compared to the citywide average of 66%.

After reading either a Manga comic, titled “Fight for Your Right to Fruit,” or a non-health-related newsletter, children were given the choice between a healthy snack (oranges, grapes, apples, strawberries) or an energy-dense snack (cookies, potato chips, nacho chips, and cheese-filled crackers). 61% of children in the comic group chose a healthy snack after reading, opposed to just 35% of the control group.

Regarding the choice of Manga, a Japanese comic form featuring detailed artwork and storytelling, the study notes:

The Transportation-Imagery Model (TIM) explains how Manga comics may contribute to changes in health-related beliefs and behaviors. According to the TIM, persuasion of a story’s messages occurs because an individual is “transported” or immersed into the narrative world.15 The TIM also suggests that images are most impactful when they are embedded in a story, rather than provided in isolation.15 Thus, visual images relevant to the story’s messages, such as those incorporated in Manga comics, may further influence attitudes and beliefs.

The authors write, “Results suggest Manga comics may be a useful format to promote healthy snack selection in urban minority youth.” (Side note: Writing about this pilot study made me want to eat mangoes.)

The research was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Previously: Depictions of obesity in children’s moviesNo bribery necessary: Children eat more vegetables when they understand how food affects their bodies, Talking to kids about junk food ads, Health experts to Nickelodeon: Please stop promoting unhealthy food to our kids and Researchers find cartoons really do make food taste better (or so kids think)
Photo by North Charleston

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research

Study finds age at which early-childhood memories fade

Study finds age at which early-childhood memories fade

baby with balloonI have a clear memory of standing near a crêpe-paper-lined wall of my fourth-grade classroom and deciding that age 9 was the time kids got a grip on how things worked and became fully initiated into the world of adult-level thinking. (I had recently turned 9.) That hypothesis wasn’t confirmed but, let’s say, wouldn’t be struck down by the results of a recent study on childhood amnesia that suggests that 7 is the age that the earliest childhood memories – of events that happened before age 3 – fall away.

Researchers from Emory University recorded 83 3-year-olds being interviewed by their mothers about unique autobiographical events. From the study:

Different subgroups of children were tested for recall of the events at ages 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 years. At the later session they were interviewed by an experimenter about the events discussed 2 to 6 years previously with their mothers (early-life events). Children aged 5, 6, and 7 remembered 60% or more of the early-life events. In contrast, children aged 8 and 9 years remembered fewer than 40% of the early-life events.

The authors found that children whose parents allowed them to direct the conversation, even to switch topics, recalled more than children whose parents kept them on topic.

A release describes more on the findings:

“One surprising finding was that, although the five-and-six year-old children remembered a higher percentage of the events, their narratives of these events were less complete,” [Emory University psychologist Patricia Bauer, PhD, the study's lead author] says. “The older children remembered fewer events, but the ones they remembered had more detail.”

Some reasons for this difference may be that memories that stick around longer may have richer detail associated with them and increasing language skills enable an older child to better elaborate the memory, further cementing it in their minds, Bauer says.

Young children tend to forget events more rapidly than adults do because they lack the strong neural processes required to bring together all the pieces of information that go into a complex autobiographical memory, she explains.

The study was published in the journal Memory.

Previously: We’ve got your number: Exact spot in brain where numeral recognition takes place revealedIndividuals’ extraordinary talent to never forget could offer insights into memory and Childhood-cancer survivors face increased risk of PTSD
Photo by Charlotte Morrall

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News

Study shows happiness and meaning in life may be different goals

Study shows happiness and meaning in life may be different goals

muralWould you rather lead a happy life, or a meaningful one? New research suggests that while you can have it both ways, some people find their way along one path or the other. Published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the study, which surveyed 397 people on their perception of their lives over the course of a month.

Researchers from Stanford, Florida State University and the University of Minnesota found five differences between participants’ measure of happiness or meaningfulness. Stanford News reports:

“Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker,” [study author and Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker, PhD,] said.

One can find meaning in life and be unhappy at the same time.

The unhappy but meaningful life involves difficult undertakings and can be characterized by stress, struggle and challenges. However, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society.

Happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided, the report noted.

Previously: Now available: Full-length video of Stanford’s Roundtable on HappinessWhat is happiness? Stanford Roundtable experts weigh inAre you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeing and Study finds less time worked not always linked to happiness
Photo by Mike Cogh

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News

Study: Bulimics may have difficulty perceiving their own heartbeat

Study: Bulimics may have difficulty perceiving their own heartbeat

3408225331_ce15c66c6b_zNew research published in the December issue of Eating Behaviors shows a possible link between bulimia and the ability to detect one’s own heartbeat. The study found that women who suffered from the eating disorder were less likely to accurately detect their own heartbeat, and thus, may have difficulty detecting other internal cues such as hunger or fullness. From an Inside Stanford Medicine story:

A growing body of literature shows that heightened or suppressed interoception [which is the ability to sense internal body cues] is either a contributor to or a product of many psychiatric disorders. For example, anxiety patients tend to be particularly sensitive to their own heartbeat. They are more likely to accurately detect their own heartbeat than those without anxiety.

This is the first study to use the heartbeat detection task to assess interoception in recovered bulimia nervosa patients, [Megan Klabunde, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research], said. Previous studies have asked participants to rate their own ability to detect hunger and satiety.

Klabunde said it is unclear whether diminished interoception is a contributing factor to the development of the bulimia, or a consequence of repeated binging and purging.

However, she feels that bulimia and other eating disorders are not purely driven by a vain desire for thinness. “I come from a philosophy that, in terms of psychiatric disorders, symptoms are there for a reason. And if we don’t understand the symptom, it means we need to research it better,” Klabunde said.

Klabunde plans to continue to study interoception in the context of eating disorders and says this work could lead to potential new therapies for eating disorders. “The body is clearly involved in emotional processing,” Klabunde said. “We might have to be more creative in terms of how we address the body in treating psychiatric disorders.”

Previously: Possible predictors of longer-term recovery from eating disorders and Exploring the connection between food and brain function
Photo by sunshinecity

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News, Videos

Health psychologist responds to questions on coping with holiday stress

Health psychologist responds to questions on coping with holiday stress

In the latest edition of Stanford University’s Open Office Hours, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, answers reader-submitted questions on coping with stress during the holiday season. In the first of this series of videos, above, McGonigal addresses common holidays stressors and tools to close the gap between your expectations and the reality of experiencing the winter holidays as an adult. She also offers tips on evaluating research on meditation, following through on your New Year’s resolutions, and managing everyday stress in and beyond this season.

McGonigal emphasizes that some stress is healthy. She takes time to answer a high-schooler who is experiencing anxiety and self-doubt while applying to colleges, replying:

In part, what those inner experiences tell you is that you’re pursuing something that you care about. And in a way they can be a signal to you that you’re on the right track. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from one of my teachers was, if I ever felt like I wanted to run in the opposite direction from something, that was probably the best signal my body and brain could give me to head straight at it. Because that was my body and brain really noticing that this is something incredibly important to me, and that anxiety or self-doubt was a signal to pursue – not to run away or back down.

Your direct experience of going after what you want will help you realize that, not only can you handle the stress, but that you have what it takes to overcome obstacles.

Follow Stanford University’s YouTube channel or Facebook page for more of McGonigal’s answers to be posted this week, and view a list of previous Open Office Hours sessions here.

Previously: Need coping tips this holiday season?, Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals, Ask Stanford Med: David Spiegel answers your questions on holiday stress and depression and Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Stanford News, Videos

Designing behavior for better health

Designing behavior for better health

As director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, BJ Fogg, PhD, studies human behavior and designs ways to influence it, whether on the computer, on a mobile phone or in other areas of life. In this video on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website, Fogg discusses what makes a good candidate to implement healthy behavior change for the long term. In an ideal situation, a person is “triggered to do something that they want to do and they’re able to do.” With these three elements – the trigger, motivation and ability – comes the highest likelihood of success in behavior change that contributes to a culture of health.

Previously: Study shows short, daily jogs boost longevityLive tweeting Medicine 2.0 Congress keynote speechesPersuasive technology expert BJ Fogg to deliver a Medicine 2.0 keynote and Stanford conference addresses mobile applications in health care

Behavioral Science, Events, Health and Fitness, Public Health, Stanford News, Videos

Now available: Full-length video of Stanford’s Roundtable on Happiness

Now available: Full-length video of Stanford's Roundtable on Happiness

Last month, I wrote about the Stanford Roundtable on Happiness and included a short video with a sample of tips for happier and healthier living that the panel and moderator Katie Couric had shared with the audience. Several readers wrote to me expressing interest in the event and saying they’d wished they could have seen the entire presentation. Now, here’s a chance to watch the event – the full-length video was recently made available online.


Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: What is happiness? Stanford Roundtable experts weigh inAre you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeingFirdaus Dhabhar discusses the positive effects of stress and Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stress

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience

Why do we like to be scared (for the fun of it)?

Why do we like to be scared (for the fun of it)?

hauntedhouseIn case you haven’t seen it, The Atlantic posted a fun Halloween Q&A with “scare specialist” Margee Kerr, PhD, a Pittsburgh haunted house’s staff sociologist and an instructor at Robert Morris University and Chatham University. In the piece, Kerr explains the the brain chemistry behind being scared, and differences in how people experience a dopamine kick. She also notes that some may feel a boost of confidence after the post-fight-or-flight response, and others relish the social connection that comes from sharing experiences with heightened emotion.

Still, as someone who checks behind every closet door and shower curtain upon coming home each night and resists watching even a suspenseful Lifetime Original Movie, I was curious to know more about why so many people would scare themselves on purpose.

Kerr says in the Q&A:

[A] shared characteristic of monsters across the globe is their blurred relationship with death and the body. Humans are obsessed with death; we simply have a hard time wrapping our mind around what happens when we die. This contemplation has led to some of the most famous monsters, with each culture creating their own version of the living dead, whether it’s zombies, vampires, reanimated and reconstructed corpses, or ghosts. We want to imagine a life that goes on after we die. Or better yet, figure out a way to live forever. Again, though, that would violate the laws of nature and is therefore terrifying.

Previously: Are you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeingHow does your body respond to stress? and Stress hormones moonlight as immune-system traffic cops
Photo by barb_ar

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