The Jeff Wise Blog

Controlling the Flow of Time

When I conduct an interview for a story, I record it on a digital recorder and transcribe it using transcription software connected to a foot pedal. The program interface has a slider that changes the rate of playback without altering the pitch, so I can whiz through the boring or irrelevant bits and slow down to hear the important stuff. Often I think: Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a similar slider in our brains, so that we travel at Mach speed through the drudgery and stretch out the champagne-in-the-hot-tub moments indefinitely?

Well, in a way, we do have just such mental machinery. And if we’re clever, we can consciously manipulate it to make time go slower or faster at will. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

The Nervous Breakdown: A Myth?

When I was a junior in high school my Spanish teacher started behaving very strangely. She became increasingly agitated and defensive, and the class, sensing her emotional frailty, responded as a pack of rabid adolescents predictably would: we relentlessly back-talked and baited her, which I’m sure did nothing to ease her predicament.

It all came to a head one day when she passed around a blank sheet of paper and asked that we sign it, to show that we had attended the class. Later, another faculty member asked me if I would share my thoughts on the petition we had signed. “What petition?” I answered. Apparently, she had attached our signatures to a piece of paper that said something to the effect of, “We, the undersigned, hereby state our unequivocal support and appreciation for our beloved teacher…”

She was promptly fired, and we never saw her again. Asked what had happened, we were told simply: “She had a nervous breakdown.”

Nervous breakdown. We all know what it means, in a vague sort of way: one day you’re more or less fine, then the pressure gets too much, and then, boom, off the rails. We all know someone who’s had one, or had one ourselves. But what does the phenomenon correlate to in modern psychological terminology? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

The Sad Science of Hipsterism

Behold the hipster, the stylishly disaffected breed of twentysomethings whose fog of twee whimsy envelopes Williamsburg and the East Village. Most who encounter the hipster in its natural habitat respond in one of two ways: derision or ridicule.

But science does not cast judgment. Its goal is to explore and explain dispassionately, whether the object of study be the noble eagle or the lowly nematode. So what does science have to tell us about this fascinatingly misunderstood breed, the indigenous North American hipster?

Surprisingly much. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

Aiming for Happiness, and Arriving at Regret

Why is it so hard to be happy? One reason is that we’re bad at predicting how our actions will make us feel. Doing “whatever we want” often winds up making us less happy than some other course of action that at first blush might seem relatively unappealing.

In my case, I think about all those lazy weekends during which I’ve looked forward to lying around, doing nothing — an state of affairs that seemed very appealing when I got up on Saturday morning, but which by twilight on Sunday left me feeling like a pathetic sad potato.

Fortunately, this puzzling and irksome phenomenon has been addressed by science, as described in a blog post by the consistently thought-provoking and entertaining BPS Research Digest. Christopher K. Hsee at the University of Chicago gave his experimental subjects a choice between taking a completed questionnaire to a location 15 minutes away, or delivering it right outside the door and then sitting and waiting for 15 minutes. At the end of each task, they were rewarded with a tasty chocolate snack bar.

Here’s the punchline: the students who walked for 15 minutes reported feeling happier than those who had stayed put. And it wasn’t just because happier people self-selected to take a walk — even when the test subjects were told to wait or walk with no input into the choice, the walkers reported feeling happier.

Hsee concludes from his experiment is that people have an instinct for idleness. Given the choice between doing something that requires effort, and doing something that simply requires us to sit on our duff, most of us are going to choose the duff. What’s fascinating is that the duff-sitters in his experiment made a conscious choice between two potential courses of action, and they chose the one that made them less happy.

How could that be? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

How to Trick People into Thinking You’re Intelligent

Smart people have it good. Sure, they might get beat up in high school, but once they reach adulthood, it’s the brainiacs who get the the hottest girls, the biggest paychecks, the Nobel prizes and the whatnot. This is a problem for the 50 percent of us who are below average intelligence, as well as all the rest who just aren’t all that bright. Not an insurmountable problem, though. All you have to do is figure out how to make other people think that you’re smart. Just follow these steps. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

Top 10 Secrets of Effective Liars

As I’ve written earlier, human beings have an innate skill at dishonesty. And with good reason: being able to manipulate the expectations of those around us is a key survival trait for social animals like ourselves. Indeed, a 1999 study by psychologist Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts showed that the most popular kids were also the most effective liars. Just because our aptitude is hardwired doesn’t mean it can’t improve with practice and skill. Here are ten techniques that top-notch liars use to maximize their effectiveness. (By the way, this information is offered as a way to help detect deceit in others, not to practice it yourself. Honestly!) Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

“Boy, Was I Wrong About Him”: Why It’s So Hard to Size People Up

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink was premised on the idea that our subconscious minds are more gifted than we imagine, and can form uncannily accurate judgments very quickly in very little time. Now, in the past, I’ve criticized certain aspects of this book, and so have other people. But lately I’ve been thinking about the part in which he extols our intuitive ability to quickly understand, with just a few seconds’ exposure, the essence of a person’s personality. He quotes producer Brian Grazer describing how he intuited right away the actor’s exceptionable likeability, and goes on:

My guess is that many of you have the same impression of Tom Hanks. If I asked you what he was like, you would say that he is decent and trustworthy and down-to-earth and funny. But you don’t know him. You’re not friends with him. You’ve only seen him in the movies, playing a wide range of different characters. Nonetheless, you’ve manged to extract something very meaningful about him from those thin slices of experience, and that impression has a powerful effect on how you experience Tom Hanks movies.

This has always struck me as a rather implausible argument. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise