Single people subject to negative stereotypes

A recent Time magazine article on why marriage is viewed so positively despite the divorce statistics, suggested that single people are the subject of negative stereotyping and discrimination.

The conclusions come from the work of psychologist Prof Bella DePaulo who recently summarised her research in a review paper for the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Unfortunately, the full text isn’t available online, but the abstract makes for interesting reading:

A widespread form of bias has slipped under our cultural and academic radar. People who are single are targets of singlism: negative stereotypes and discrimination. Compared to married or coupled people, who are often described in very positive terms, singles are assumed to be immature, maladjusted, and self-centered. Although the perceived differences between people who have and have not married are large, the actual differences are not. Moreover, there is currently scant recognition that singlism exists, and when singlism is acknowledged, it is often accepted as legitimate.

The article itself reviews research which has uncovered these negative stereotypes as well we suggesting why they occur.

DePaulo proposes that the prejudice may arise from an evolutionary tendency to identify unpaired people – making them stand out – and from the fact that happy single people implicitly challenge cultural beliefs about the necessity of marriage.

DePaulo also challenges the assumption that married people are generally happier and healthier than singles, as the effect is seemingly small and is drawn from correlational studies.

In other words, it is not clear whether this small effect exists solely because happier and healthier people are more likely to get married.

DePaulo has also written a book on the subject called Singled Out (ISBN 0312340818) which tackles these issues in more detail and argues that we should recognise and address this form of ‘hidden’ discrimination.

Link to Time article ‘Americans Love Marriage. But Why?’
Link to abstract of DePaulo’s review paper on ‘singlism’.
Link to DePaulo’s website.

SciAm on happiness and moral decision-making

April’s issue of Scientific American has a couple of concise articles that are freely available online: one on the neuroscience of moral decisions, and the second on the science of lasting happiness.

In the first article, author Michael Shermer argues that moral decision-making is implemented in the brain in a similar way to most other forms of decision-making, and is likely a long-standing evolutionary trait.

The second article focusses on the work of psychologist Prof Sonja Lyubomirsky who has spent the best part of a decade studying lasting happiness.

The previous decade has seen an increased interest in ‘positive psychology‘ although many studies have focused on short-term happiness and satisfaction.

Lyubomirsky seems to be following a slightly different tack by looking at what influences long-term contentment.

Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and another psychologist, David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, put the existing findings together into a simple pie chart showing what determines happiness. Half the pie is the genetic set point. The smallest slice is circumstances, which explain only about 10 percent of people’s differences in happiness. So what is the remaining 40 percent? “Because nobody had put it together before, that’s unexplained,” Lyubomirsky says. But she believes that when you take away genes and circumstances, what is left besides error must be “intentional activity,” mental and behavioral strategies to counteract adaptation’s downward pull.

Lyubomirsky has been studying these activities in hopes of finding out whether and how people can stay above their set point. In theory, that is possible in much the same way regular diet and exercise can keep athletes’ weight below their genetic set points.

Link to article ‘Free to Choose’.
Link to article ‘The Science of Lasting Happiness’.

Delirium Tremens – the beer

Delirium Tremens is the name of the life-threatening alcohol withdrawal syndrome that can cause seizures and hallucinations – it is also the name of a strong Beligian beer.

I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of naming an alcholic drink after a severe neurological syndrome caused by alcohol intoxication.

It’s a bit like naming a motorbike ‘traumatic brain injury’ or a boating company ‘drowned passengers’.

Apparently, it’s an excellent beer, as it won Best Beer in the World at the World Beer Championships.

Probably best drunk in moderation though, for irony’s sake.

Link to information on the alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Link to information on the beer.

Single gene gives mice new sense of colour

The journal Science reports a study showing that mice given a single gene can develop full colour vision. Mice, like most mammals except primates, are normally colourblind. The implanted gene, which is found in humans, is responsible for making a photopigment, a light-sensitive protein in the photoreceptors of the eye. The researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute validated their findings with cell recording and with behavioural tests, demonstrating pretty conclusively that the mice really can see in colour, being able to make discriminations normal mice cannot, and this is because their photoreceptors are sensitive to long wavelength red light.

Because only a single new gene has this effect, the study is reported as demonstrating that primate colour vision could have evolved very suddenly. However, this angle is perhaps less suprising if we consider that colour vision is phylogenetically ancient – primate colour vision doesn’t represent the first time it has evolved, rather primate colour vision is more of a recovery of the function which is found in many non-mammal species such as reptiles. The structural correspondence of this is that the appropriate apparatus for colour vision is extant in mammals – it is just that non-primate mammals lack the appropriate variety in their photopigments. The study is is another demonstration of the amazing ability of the brain to adapt to and take advantage of whatever sensory input is available to it (related to this, see this article on human tetrachromacy, via Slashdot)

Liars, Lovers and Heroes

Of course what makes Paris such a wonderful city is how all the parts fit together, and the same is true of the brain. Indeed a more apt use of the Parisian brain metaphor might be to think of the prefontal cortex as the Pompidou Center, a piece of modern architecture in the heart of the old city. As we shall see. at the heart of who you are is a complex blend of old and new regions, Picasso-like prefrontal cortex grounded in the old masters of more ancient brain structurs, some of them so old that humans share them with insects

This is a quote from Quartz & Sejnowski’s (2002) ‘Liars, Lovers and Heros’. It’s an excellent book, rallying an impressive range of biological and sociological material to give a nuanced opinion on ‘what the new brain science reveals about how we become who we are are’ (the book’s subtitle). The quote isn’t particularly representative, but I enjoyed ‘the Parisian Brain metaphor’ so much I thought I’d share it!

Sonic Seniors

The Young@Heart Chorus are a choir of senior citizens from a sheltered housing project. They do awesome covers of classic rock tracks, seemingly chosen to ironically challenge stereotypes of the elderly (e.g. Coldplay’s Fix You).

YouTube has a video of them doing a cover of Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia.

The audience looks a bit taken aback but the choir is gutsy and the version inspired.

They’ve got a live gig on April 17th at Dartmouth College. Don’t miss it if you get the chance.

Link to video of Schizophrenia cover (via FS).
Link to Young@Heart Chorus website.