On my thesis.

What is my PhD thesis about?

My doctoral thesis looks at the phenomenon of self-signalling. A self-signal, simply put, is the self-information we get about ourselves from an action, behaviour, or choice. The cornerstone example of this is an experiment by Quattrone and Tversky (1984). They suggested that an individual is motivated to act in a way that signals his or her underlying characteristics to him or herself, even when the behaviour has no, or very little, impact on the actual characteristic. Quattrone and Tversky’s experiment involved first having participants keep their hand in a container of super cold water, timed until they couldn’t handle the pain anymore. One group of participants were told that high tolerance for cold water was linked to a certain inborn heart condition leading to higher chance of early death, while the other half of participants were told that low tolerance for cold water was linked to the risky heart condition. After learning about the connection with heart health followed by one minute on a treadmill they repeated the cold water test. Surprise, surprise! Most participants “tolerance” for the cold water increased in the direction of the good news; those who were tolerance for cold water was indicative of good heart condition held significantly longer than those told the opposite. This kind of behaviour is evidence of what some scholars term a diagnostic motivation.

Because I research in consumer behaviour, analysis in limited in my research to consumer choice (rather than actions or behaviours outside of consumer contexts). Making a consumer choice not only involves gaining a good or service with value to the customer, but self-signalling suggests the choice also implies characteristics about you (ex., I chose the apple over the chocolate bar, this implies I care about being healthy) and there is a value attached to that information. These self-signals from choice are either positive or negative – and these feelings impact how satisfied you feel about the choice and how much you are willing to pay.

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Lay of the land: A Limited Overview of Key Literature Pertaining to Self-Signalling

That’s cool, but someone else already figured this all out (See Dhar & Wertenbroch, 2012; Prelec & Bodner, 2003a,b; Benabou & Tirole, 2004; 2006, etc.). But what’s missing (among other things) is the answer to the question why. Why do self-signals impact choice satisfaction? When does it happen? How? Does it work the same for each consumer? Does it happen in every choice context?

What did I actually do?

So, we set about to answer this by figuring out the psychological mechanism that can explain self-signalling. We figured out that psychological constructs related to one’s self-concept seemed to explain what was going on. People who knew themselves in a clear and stable way were much less likely to be influenced by either a positive or negative self-signal. It also was related to how aligned the self-information was with one’s self-concept (for all you psychology buffs – the role played by cognitive dissonance when the choice that reflects you doesn’t match how you feel you actually are).

We tested this all out using ethical consumption (including green consumption and organic products). Previous research found that people assume there is a trade-off when you buy an ethical product over a standard one – you usually take a hit on product quality but your choice is better in terms of environmental ethics. We put this perceived trade-off to work: our studies ask participants to choose between different options; the choice of either ethical/organic/green vs standard implied clear positive and negative self-signals respectively. If it sounds wacky, don’t worry –  we tested it a gazillion times in a number of ways: online surveys, field studies in a grocery store, with images, with descriptions… yep, this effect is real!

Okay cool so that’s one paper down. My thesis has three papers. The second paper is a conceptual integration of this new-fangled self-signalling perspective with signalling theory from economics. Long story made short, I created some propositions (research questions) that could fill in the colour and depth of self-signalling by looking at how signalling theory deals with some of its assumptions. I answer some of the questions I derived in my thesis (fancy!).

The third paper is really cool because it had a huge plot twist. I was looking at signal strength – so, I kind of assumed that weak self-signals would impact satisfaction a weak amount, medium self-signals would impact satisfaction a medium amount, and strong self-signals… well, you get the point. BUT NO!! We found that it works differently for positive self-signals and negative self-signals. Positive self-signals at different signal strengths all significantly impacted satisfaction. Negative self-signals were another story. Basically, if the negative self-signal was super weak, people just ignored it. If it was medium strength, people felt bad. BUT if it was really strong, people just ignored it again! What the deal? I dug into the psychology literature to explain why this might happen. Self-deception is one of my favourite themes so this was very exciting.

Why do we care?

There are loads of theoretical contributions for the field of consumer psychology in my little thesis. We proposed and found empirical evidence for a psychological mechanism – so we now understand happens with self-signalling in consumer choice. We found some cool boundary conditions related to signal strength and valence. We also proposed a ton of promising future research avenues thanks to borrowing some wisdom from signalling theory. And we took stalk of the complete existent literature of self-signalling.

We also contributed to the understanding of ethical consumption! Previous research tended to focus on consumers buying ethical or green or organic to signal to other people that they were ethical. We now know that how consumers feel about buying ethical is impacted by self-signalling – their self-reputation. Lots of ethical products are consumed in private (ex., green toiletries, organic food), in the absence of external audiences that one’s self-image motives might normally be concerned with satisfying. This is pretty cool because managers can use this information to formulate their displays. For example, if you want people who buy ethical to feel really good about their choice, put a standard product right nearby. This enhances the positive self-signal and will likely boost their choice satisfaction and willingness to pay. Maybe this will help us encourage consumers to go green and adopt sustainable innovations. Plus with the rise of online shopping, marketers need to know what’s going to drive consumer choice in these increasingly popular contexts. Cool.


A little more detail for my fellow nerds.

What is self-signalling? A definition.

Self-signalling is the process through which individuals act or make choices in a way where they can observe, infer, learn, or reconfirm their own traits and self-identity.

The context.

It all started with Homo Economicus. Homo Economicus is the rational being, what the Economist assume a hypothetical person would do in their models and hypotheses. Traditional perspectives in Economics assume that humans have the ability to make rational decisions and maximize utility. More recent perspectives have acknowledged that humans aren’t the perfect creatures Economist paint us to be (don’t feel bad…) and fields such as behavioural economics and consumer psychology have emerged to take a crack at figuring out what really drives and explains the economic actor.

More recent research has uncovered that there is more to it: there is ego-utility in choice. But why would people care what their choices have to say about them? Theorists argue that the contents of one’s self-concept are opaque (we don’t fully know who we are and we are motivated to find out). Based on the assumptions of self-perception theory, people formulate an attitude towards themselves based on observing their own actions and inferring self-meaning from their observation of self. Self-signalling espouses that there is value to this self-information. This self-information can be derived from consumer choice. But how does it work? Without looking deeper at the questions surrounding how, when, and why self-signalling impacts consumer choice, we lack a clear understanding of the reasons why ego-value can make a difference in consumer choice behaviour, as well as how and why people make choices in the absence of external audiences, and overall how this conceptually fits into consumer choice.


Thanks for your interest! If you want more detail or have any questions, feel free to contact me. Upon acceptance per the Viva Voce examination, all theses from UK universities are made open access, in case you’d prefer to read the whole thing!


On the burden of keeping secrets.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
― George Orwell, 1984

Keeping secrets can be bad for your health.

You probably have collected a vast many over the years, holding your own as well as those of close others. While keeping a secret might save you some trouble with family and friends compared to the alternative – confessing –  it can stress your brain.

Neuroscience provides an explanation. We have a part of the brain called the cingulate cortex (in the medial aspect of the cerebral cortex, for your brain geography). It’s a part of the limbic system, essential to emotion, processing, learning, and memory. According to neuroscience research, it is motivated to tell the truth. The cingulate shares information with other parts of the brain in order to move on to other functions, like emotion formation that is linked with behavior. When there is a secret to be kept, it doesn’t allow the cingulate to operate its natural functions, stressing the cortex and creating an emotional burden. This leads to the production of stress hormones. Wonderful!

As the prefrontal cortex runs simulations of the reaction you will get from telling the secret, the conflict increases in your brain leading to anxiety and more stress hormone release.

The results are really fun (not!): mood swings, sleep disruption, and disruption to memory and learning. Also, messing with your appetite and metabolism.

A recent study looked at the long-term effects of secret-keeping on well-being. Conducting a study of 600 participants, researchers from Columbia University found that 96% had a current secret, most common of which were romantic thoughts about someone outside their relationship, sexual behaviour, or emotional infidelity.

When asking participants to compare how many times in the last month they had to conceal the secret versus how often their mind wandered to the secret in times when there was no need for concealment, they found that mind-wandering was twice as common. Participants found their mind engaged with the secret even when there was no need to think about it (estimated at 2.5 times more frequently), a finding they reported took a toll on well-being. They found that this noxious mind-wandering happened regardless of the severity of the secret.

Despite the toll of keeping secrets, doing so is a part of being human. They can be an act of compassion (ex. not telling a loved one about some bad feedback about them). They can be an act of professionalism (ex. if you are a therapist). They bind us together (ex. we both know this secret and face the burden together). They can also tear us apart.

We fear the consequence of revealing a secret, but the consequences are negative either way. Tread lightly.


On social media making us sad.

Recently a friend made a comment to me that made me think the online social media presence I have been crafting for myself didn’t match the reality of my life. The comment was about how my PhD journey was fun and now it was time my life got less fun. In my mind it, it’s the opposite – I limit my time on Instagram because I’m quite sure everyone else is having a way more fun life than me eating their Insta-worthy food or attending a Pinterest-worthy wedding. And what a strange perception about my PhD, my loved ones would easily agree I have sacrificed a lot and foregone a lot of fun times, now it’s coming to the time where I should actually be able to have some fun. The PhD journey is difficult, high-pressure, and isolating. So… what happened? I guess I didn’t broadcast on my social media when I was having a bad day, when experiments weren’t going well, when I was super broke. But I did occasionally post photos of smiling friends, pretty sunsets, and interim achievements. The online portrayal of my “good times” had evidently been making this commentator feel bad about their own reality. So I decided to research the following question:

Social media – convenient way to stay in touch or the root of life dissatisfaction?

Have you ever felt empty after browsing a social media site? A study by Kaspersky Lab of 16,750 people found that social media users can feel a range of negative emotions after spending time on a platform, ultimately outweighing the positive emotions felt by frequenting a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram. I think there are a couple reasons why we sometimes feel a negative emotion associated with use of social media.

False Reality.

Social media has given us an unprecedented window to see into the lives of our friends and family. The window is immediate, unlimited in terms of numbers of times that information can be shared, and mixed medium (i.e., not just words describing an experience but pictures, videos, sounds). We can now get closer to feeling the experiences of others. But the question is – are we actually getting closer to experiencing the real lives of our closest friends?

It’s more likely that you’re seeing a highlight reel. Given how we all acknowledge that our friends and family have a limited attention span (8 seconds, shorter than a goldfish), we generally try to stick to posting the important stuff (and some of us stick to posting the stuff we know will get the most likes – I’ll talk about that later). A study of British social media users admitted that three-quarters were lying to themselves on their social media profiles. 31% said their pages were fairly accurate except the boring items had been removed. Is what we see from our friends actually representative of reality? A study from 2015 found that women between the ages of 16-25 spent an average of 16 minutes trying to perfect a selfie – totaling 5 hours per week. How is that reality? It’s no wonder some may call into question that what they see online is real.

Seeing friends exaggerate their own reality puts pressure on everyone else to keep up. The pressure of having to be liked can lead to a race to the bottom in terms of self-representation accuracy. But faking it can have serious mental health consequences and result in a hit to one’s self-esteem and lead to feelings of isolation. Rarely do we see a more balanced social media profile: today was a mediocre day, sun was shining but the salad I ate was soggy. There’s a reason for this: negative posts get some reaction, often support from friends, but generally receive less attention (especially over time) and are therefore less successful. Research has found that long-lasting moods (depression, happiness) can transfer through social networks through emotional contagion. Because no one wants to feel depressed by reading a list of sad posts, likes tend to flow towards more positive posts. This provides an explanation why people tend to favour (i.e. like) positive posts more, leading to a bias towards sickly sweet praise of one’s boyfriend or over-the-top shout-out to a best friend. So next time you see someone with a selfie that clearly took them an average of 16 minutes to get right, just think – it’s not their fault! It’s the race to the bottom of accuracy of information and we are all in the process of crafting our online presence.


According to the Kaspersky study, when people see their friends posting about the amazing vacation they just went on or the hobbies they get so much joy from, they are left feeling like their friends are, frankly, enjoying life more. They found that 59% of respondents reported feeling unhappy seeing images of a party to which they were not invited, and 45% reported feeling low after seeing holiday pictures posted by their friends. This comparative nature of social media can have a strong negative influence on the typical social media user.

But why? Why can’t we just be happy for our friends? One explanation comes down to our societal reliance on social norms to set behaviour. Social norms are the behavioural rules that are considered acceptable by society, or smaller groups in addition to cultural or societal expectations. Social norms represent an individual’s sense of what they think they should do and what others think they should do. They establish what normal is, deviation from which can lead to social punishment such as group exclusion.

We look outwards to our community to understand what these behavioural expectations are. Social norms are a powerful behavioural tool and are especially potent when looking to understand a new environment. At the heart of the grip held on our behaviour by social media is the comparison between ourselves and the norms expressed in our community. Oh Susie goes to many parties and posts about it, should I be going to many parties and posting about it too?

What does it mean to fall short of those behaviour norms in the context of social media?

Some have called this the compare and despair phenomenon in that sitting at my desk in total daily isolation seems like a personal failure in comparison to my fun-loving friends who are seemingly constantly traveling the world with some sort of amazing lighting crew and a hair and make-up team. I will never be as pretty, have so much free time, have that ability to style my own hair that way. It can also elevate a sense that we are missing out (FOMO – fear of missing out). I am only in my 20s once, am I not doing it right by spending most of my days in front of a computer? Even though I love to see my friends having a great time enjoying life, it’s hard not to internalize that observation, especially when I’m quite sure Instagram is proof that everyone is eating better food or having way more fun laughing with their friends than me.

The thing is that you aren’t even competing exclusively against your online connections, it turns out you are also competing against yourself. 37% of respondents in the Kaspersky study reported feeling down looking at memories they themselves had posted in the past, citing the main reason that their life now is not as interesting as in the past. Yikes!

Variable Rewards.

Social media has some of the same properties as gambling. In fact, social media has been shown to be more addictive than cigarettes. Why? The like button. Among other things…

There is a sense that the more likes or shares you have, the more exciting (or less exciting) your life is, the more attractive you are, the more popular you are, etc, etc, etc. The sense of validation that comes with likes is exceptional because it is a true social feedback measure that you are recognized as successful in your community. This is a true reward. Likes are associated with the release of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasurable feelings. With two billion likes a day and one million comments on Facebook, there is a lot of dopamine flying around.

But the powerful effect of likes can also be addictive thanks to variable rewards. Variable means that the outcome isn’t certain – you could post something and it gets 10 likes or you could post something and it will fetch 100 likes. You refresh your Facebook to see if you got more or more likes. You post something new to see if you’ve “won”. Variable rewards keeps you taking your phone out of your pocket, posting more, liking other people’s posts so they like yours, and continuing to play the game. Sometimes you win and feel great and sometimes you lose and feel sad.

The results are in: social media can make you sad.

A study found that for every 1 extra like, there was a 5-8% decrease in self-reported mental health. So let’s do a few things:

  • Educate yourself: acknowledging that social media can govern behaviour is the first step in making a change. Figure out what impacts your use of social media.
  • Accuracy: is representing your true authentic self important to you? Adjust your social media presence accordingly (note: in an appropriate way. Maybe don’t post about your cat obsession on LinkedIn).
  • Balance: have a good, solid mix of both online and in-person interactions.
  • Limit: if you notice yourself feeling negative, understand social media plays a part and limit your interaction with certain platforms.

Social media offers lots of great advantages for modern life. But it can also be dangerous. Social media isn’t going anywhere soon, so be careful out there and equip yourself with the tools to navigate this tricky new world.

On the stress-reducing properties of concerts.

Almost everyone I know is stressed.

Almost everyone I know loves music. Especially live music.

Good news! A study has found that attending live music reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol for those who attend concerts!

The connection between the arts and the therapeutic properties continues to intensify with publications such as this study by Fancourt, Daisy, and Aaron Williamson. The researchers took saliva samples of 117 participants before the participants attended a classical music concert looking for the steroid hormones cortisol, cortisone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), progesterone and testosterone. At the interval an hour later samples were taken again. Researchers found that cortisol levels were reduced across all concert attendees in the sample.

The results indicate lower biological stress for those who attend concerts.

One of the first non-laboratory studies on music and stress hormones, future studies will have to tease out the impact of attending concerts in other music genres and other contextual factors. For example, being in a mosh pit might lead to different outcomes related to stress (i.e., I would find that to be very stressful indeed!). There might be some priming properties of relaxation associated with classical music, or specific factors related to the experience of the concert (rather than the music itself – like your company for the event, concessions, quality of seats, value for money, etc.).

Either way, more research needs to be done, which means attending more concerts. Exciting times to be a researcher!

Check out: Fancourt, D., & Williamon, A. (2016). Attending a concert reduces glucocorticoids, progesterone and the cortisol/DHEA ratio. public health, 132, 101-104.




On the Impact of Music on Shopping.

I spent about 20 minutes in my favourite grocery store today hunting around for cloves of garlic to stuff in my ears so I didn’t have to continue to listen to the cheesiest and dullest soft-rock tunes of the 90s as I filled up my shopping cart. I was probably the only person in the store in my 20s and all the other shoppers (30s upwards) seemed to enjoy the music and were all in a calm and happy disposition. My dish called for garlic anyway, so I removed the cloves from my ears and started to wonder about my observations on music and shopping. What’s the impact of music on our consumer behaviour?

Now this is the cool subliminal stuff that so many consumers come to resent or fear, but after a bit of research it’s clear that music does indeed have an impact on our shopping habits.

One of the first reasons why it might have more of a subconscious impact is that we are very accustomed to hearing ambient music when shopping. It’s not something new or that we often actively take notice. On the other hand, retailers definitely take an interest in music and it’s impact on the bottom line.

An interesting study by North, Hargreaves and McKendrick (1999) found that music played a role in consumer’s selection of wine. They found that when they played French-sounding music, shoppers were more likely to choose a French wine. Conversely, on days when they played Germanic-sounding music, customers more prominently chose the German wine.

There are actually a number of factors related to music that have an impact on our shopping habits.

Top 40 vs. Unknown. A study by Yalch and Spangenberg (2000) found that participant-shoppers who heard chart-toppers spent 8% less time shopping (in an experimental condition where they had no shopping time-limit). Interestingly, people who heard unfamiliar music felt time pass quicker, as the unfamiliar shoppers were spending more cognitive energy listening to new songs takes up.

Tempo. An experiment by Milliman (1982) found that the tempo of music played in a supermarket impacted how long a customer took to do his or her shopping and ultimately end-of-day profits. Faster-paced music lead to customers walking more quickly through the store and ultimately purchasing fewer impulse purchases as they didn’t have time to consider all the options. Slowing the music down also slowed the customers down, leading to more purchases by each consumer and ultimately a fatter bottom line (and perhaps a fatter bottom overall?).

Genre. Music genre can impact behaviour. The impact goes beyond the consumer context. Currently the TTC is playing classical music in a number of its subway stations. The thinking here is to play music youth will not enjoy and that will keep them moving along. Listening to music that one does not enjoy decreases dopamine production, putting a damper on mood and encouraging onward movement. In the consumer context, it isn’t about moving people along but getting them to spend more money. Classical music is associated with luxury and affluence, which in turn would make customers feel more affluent and willing to spend more money.

A study by Areni and Kim (1993) tested the impact of music genre on wine purchases. They found that playing classical music made their customers more willing to purchase higher quality wine and ultimately spend more in-store. They established that ambiance in a store can indeed change the way a customer feels and how much money they will be willing to spend. Jacob et al (2009) confirms these findings with a similar experiment of playing sappy romantic music in a flower shop and seeing spending increase.

Although there are many dimensions to the impact of music on shopping that have not been explored, these studies suggest it is an interesting avenue for future research in consumer psychology. And, of course, shoppers beware! If you are prone to being influenced by ambient music then go to the store with a list of items selected ahead of time. Or cloves of garlic – they make great ear plugs.

If you are interested in the impact of music on other behaviours, North and Hargreaves’s book covers many interesting topics, a summary of which can be found here.

On caring more for the few than the many.

Do we care more about the many or the one?

It has long been a complaint of mine that the horrific deaths of individuals in Western countries due to terrorism attacks or other disasters receive much more attention and coverage in the media compared to terror or natural disaster-related deaths in non-Western countries – even if the total number of deaths is much lower in the Western countries.

For example, media extensively covered the 2015 Paris terror attacks targeting Charlie Hebdo that killed 17 and injured many other civilians. In the aftermath, 3.7 million people marched to show unity in the face of terrorism. At almost the same moment, approximately 2,000 people were murdered in Nigeria in an attack by Boko Haram militants in the town of Baga. Yet the media coverage of the latter was remarkably less than the reports on Paris.

All of these victims are humans. They all have families, and a future that was erased by factors beyond their control. Why the disparity?

A key difference between the incidents is the access to information. Access in Boko Haram territory is limited for journalists as they are often targeted by the militants. Attacks have further limited connections that are already a struggle for most in the region, leaving fewer avenues to access internet or other communications in the almost-totally Boko Haram-controlled region. Surely this autocratic control is an even more important reason for the world to take notice of this crisis, right? Apparently no. This stands in stark contrast to hyper-connected Paris. As such the quality and personalization of information from both events is very different. The world was able to watch and imagine being in Paris as the events unfolded.

Some commentators have labelled this as an empathy gap. A hot-cold empathy gap refers to how people consistently underestimate the impact of visceral drivers on their own reactions, behaviours, and preferences. Our feelings and attitudes are highly impacted by our emotional states. How this can be interpreted is that our association with Paris as a safe city in contrast to scary terrorist attacks creates a sense of shock and fear. This is as opposed to mass killing in Boko-Haram controlled areas, a place that is already scary for many of us to think about, might appear less shocking and create a less intense emotional reaction. Strong emotional response to Paris and a less strong response to other terrorist events around the world could drive our attention differently.

Scientists blame our brains. We perceive victims differently based on if they are the same or different to us – or “ingroup vs. outgroup”. Similarity can be determined by geography, culture, religion, gender, etc. Media favouring of the 2017 London terror attacks could be because the victims are so relatable to much of the Western world. Cognitive neuroscientist Emile Bruneau from MIT found that when showing a group of Arabs and Israelis news reports about attacks and suffering in their own countries, the areas of the brain associated with empathy were activated. When showing them similar news reports about suffering in South American countries, these same areas of the brain were not engaged. Bruneau argues that just because we have a stronger cognitive reaction to seeing harm come to members of our ingroup doesn’t mean we don’t care about victims in our outgroup altogether. Furthermore, our classification of different peoples as ingroup or outgroup is fluid and context dependent.

There maybe some similarity between the ingroup vs. outgroup phenomenon with the Identifiable Victim Effect. This cognitive bias prompts us to be more helpful to “actual people” with a face and name (and more familiar to you) than to anonymous victims. This often aggregates to providing more aid to a specific, identifiable person rather than a vaguely defined group.  Research has found that images and representations are more effective at eliciting response compared to abstract statistics. The identifiable victim brings us one step close to the suffering of the individual in question, often evoking narrative tools that conjure up emotional reactions on our end. I found a very compelling example of Identifiable Victim Effect here (5 min read in Psychology Today).

It’s not just about terrorist events, our cognitions apply this sense-making technique to natural disasters too. Research by Jacoba Urist found that American media attention correlated with geographic proximity to the U.S. and the number of American tourists who had visited the country in question. Urist uses the example of a 1976 Guatemalan earthquake with 4,000 fatalities accrued a third of the media coverage of an Italian earthquake with 1,000 deaths.

This effect even impacts our donation behavior. Logic would perhaps indicate that our willingness to donate would being proportional to the overall need – for example, I’d donate more if I knew 100 people needed help compared to just one person. In reality, we often see the opposite. Large numbers become incomprehensible to grasp, and fall into abstraction in our minds. This cognitive bias is known as scope neglect or scope insensitivity, when the valuation of the problem does not expand in a multiplicative relationship to its size. We can’t verify that all 100 people need help, or  maybe we feel now our ability to help is diminished by the sheer scale of the need, but we can certainly relate to the one in need. Christopher Hsee from Chicago’s Booth School of Business tested this bias in the following experiment:

“He asked volunteers to imagine that an elementary school principal asked them to donate money so that 20 low-income kindergarteners could get Christmas gifts. The request included a portrait of one of the needy children, a little girl. Some of the volunteers were told: “Please think about all of these 20 children. How much are you willing to donate to help these 20 children?” These volunteers served as controls. Others were also asked this but—before this request—they were told to focus on one child: “How much would you donate to help this one child?” So the only difference was that some volunteers first came up with—and wrote down—a hypothetical amount they would be willing to give to a single needy kindergartener.”

Those who were asked to focus on one child were more generous, they contributed twice as much as those who were told to focus on all 20 children. Those focusing on one child gave as much to that one child as those in the other group gave to all 20 children.

It’s like Mother Teresa’s famous quote: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

What can we do about it?

Although news is generally depressing, communicate with your news outlets that you’d like to see a balance of local and international stories. Tell them about the need to emphasize the similarities of those your read about in the news to the outlet’s readership demographics. The news industry is also a business – show them that there is a demand to stay updated on events in areas further away. As for your usual news outlets: perhaps hunt a littler deeper. Ask yourself what is really different between you and those individuals in far away places.

Understand this is a cognitive bias that impacts us all. This means that this is the frame of mind that even policy-makers and government officials can succumb to, however strong they might subscribe to utilitarian ethics. Look at proposed policies with a critical eye and try to think if it really is the best outcome, not just one that benefits the ingroup.

Perhaps with more self-awareness as individuals and a society we can continue to craft a world that feels more united.



On the truth about secrets

Secrets are risky business. Confiding can lead to serious consequences. And a main reason is that people are not very good at keeping secrets.

Let me tell you about a phenomenon I keep noticing. I see a friend confide a secret (let’s call him Ken Adams –  Joey, from Friend’s “fake name”) to my other friend, (let’s call him Chandler Bing – or Chanandler Bong). This secret can either be fact or my opinion about a third party (let’s call her Ms. Regina Phalanges – Phoebe’s “fake name”), but not something Ken Adams want the general public to know and something Ken Adams really doesn’t want to get back to Ms. Phalanges! Chandler hears the secret and promises to be discreet. When we come back together after some time, Chandler remembers the content of the secret about Regina but has no recollection that a) Ken was the one who informed him or b) that it was a secret in the first place. This secret is now considered ‘truth’ in Chandler’s mind and he risks dissemination to other sources by him as facts about Regina. Why did Ken Adams need to confide in Chandler and why did Chandler forget it was a secret?  

Well it turns out it might be a normal part of cognitive functioning that we are bad at keeping secrets.

First of all, secrets actually make you feel bad. Research has found that keeping secrets leads to increased psychological problems compared to confiding in close others. Keeping secrets is associated with depression and loneliness. Not just psychological problems but physical ones too, people who keep their own and other people’s secrets are more likely to experience head aches, aches and pains, and nausea. Keeping secrets is a psychological burden and can lead to unpleasant psychological or physical sensations. This tension motivates people to unload this tenuous information.

Trying to suppress a thought might make you think about it more, because of the ironic monitoring process. Because you are reminding yourself not to think of a particular secret, your mind actually searches for that information. Thanks a lot, brain! The ironic monitoring process brings these unwanted thoughts to the surface, making them more accessible and bubbling up to conscious awareness. The cognitive load of trying to suppress a thought might also decrease your self-control in other areas as you put in the mental work to ignore thinking about that specific secret. Given the increased presence in your mind about this information, the availability heuristic would suggest you are more likely to call on this particular piece of information when the related subject is brought up. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that conjures up more immediate examples when evaluating a particular topic, and because of the ease of recollection we are more likely to believe this information is highly representative of the topic in question. For example, if the secret is that Ms. Regina Phalanges’ homemade cookie recipe is stolen from someone else, when someone brings up Ms. Phalanges, your mind will more readily go to remembering this secret about her since it’s already on your mind, and potentially more likely to think it’s representative of her character.

A most problematic issue is memory bias. Memory bias can either enhance or impair the recall of a memory. There is a long list of memory bias, which should be a red flag about how we store and recollect secrets. For example, we can selectively recall parts of a secret as details fade over time (“levelling or sharpening”). We can misattribute the source of information, for example hearing that someone saw Regina take the recipe from another source we incorrectly remember that we witnessed that deception taking place. There are context effects, where a secret is more easily remembered when we are in the same context as the original occurrence or transmission of information. Positivity effect, where we tend to favour positive information in our memories. Consistency bias, where you incorrectly remember your own attitudes and behaviours at the time. Serial position effect – you remember first and last items of a list or occurrences more easily than what happened in the middle. There’s just a whole bunch of ways our brain can mess with how we remember a secret – or if we remember it’s a secret at all.


Who: Choose your confidant very carefully. Someone independent from the situation is less likely to have a motive or a prompt to share the information. Given that we are motivated to offload secrets, and it’s potentially important to our health (!), find confidants that you trust and that are impartial. They might give you better advice if that’s what’s needed!

When: Since our memories are subject to many different recollection biases, I would recommend emphasizing that the piece of information is a SECRET. Say at the very beginning and the very end that it’s confidential and that you expect them to keep it a secret. Have the individual agree that they will keep it a secret before you tell them. These tricks might help with making sure the individual remembers it’s a secret. If you believe that the individual might use the information maliciously; a) maybe don’t confide in that person or, b) …collateral. Often discussions involve the trading of information where you learn information from the other party as well (which is actually a part of social bonding and building trust… but that’s another issue) which can be spilled if your secret gets exposed. It creates an extra incentive not to tell.

How: Think carefully about the message you are sending. Why are you telling this secret? Remember the information that you choose to share is a reflection of you. Make sure to align your message with your intensions (i.e., Regina will get sued if she starts selling this cookie recipe publicly, what can we do to help her?).

Where: Context is important for recall of secrets. If you are having trouble getting a secret to leave your mind, remove yourself from that immediate environment to see if that helps.

What: There are certainly different kinds of secrets. For example, information that is self-generated tends to be remembered more clearly than information you’ve heard from others. I’m going to separate secrets into information about the self and information about others.

There are many motives for keeping a piece of self-information discrete. Cheating on a diet, failing at a course, really loving that cringe-worthy song that keeps playing on the radio. All of these examples conjure up emotions associated with shame and embarrassment. Sometimes we hide this information in attempts to craft our persona because of self-image motives to be seen as a good/skilled/smart/tasteful/etc person. We don’t want to risk social humiliation with our peers, as this is shown to have a negative impact on self-esteem. Even more, you might be denying or downplaying certain information to yourself in self-deception, not wanting to face negative emotions associated with negative self-attributions.

Information about other people is a different type of secret. First of all, it raises the question of if we have the right to share that information. If the source of the secret asks for discretion, we don’t have the right to share it.  Next, there is a question about the accuracy of the information, since information transmission creates the risks that the content can be shifted or misinterpreted – not only in our memory but in the memory of the secret-receiver. Finally, what about intention? We can share other people’s secrets with the intention to help (ex. “I think Regina’s behaviour is self-destruction, what can we do to help?”) or to harm (ex. “Regina said something mean about you behind your back, Chandler, so you should take me to the concert instead”). Not to mention that if the source of the secret found out you blabbed, it could seriously damage your friendship. Both the person you are disclosing the secret to and the source of the secret might find you untrustworthy, which can be a serious social consequence.

I’ve been in social situations where secrets and the sharing of secrets have caused lots of problems and ended friendships. If we all think about secrets a bit more and how they impact not only others but ourselves, maybe we can be better friends.


On getting out of a speeding ticket

Recently I wrote about the race-to-the-bottom that is bad driving and advice on what to do about it. In case you missed it: click here.

A new study from the University of Western Australia says that when it comes to bad driving, some bad habits might not be recklessness but natural cognitive limitations of the human mind.

In various driving simulations, when the speed limit changed to a lower one, participants confronted with a red light were more likely to stick to the new speed (40km/hr). Otherwise they were more likely to stick to the old speed (70km/hr).

Read the article summary here.

The article suggests that it’s not behavioural traits that are at the heart of speeding but instead cognitive limitations – forgetting. Maybe try that as your excuse the next time you are confronted by an officer of the law – it could be more honest of an answer.

City planners and road designers take heed – even drivers need a little nudge to stay on track and at pace.


On feeling like an impostor…

Are you an overachiever but feel like any day now someone is going to discover you aren’t actually all that great?

You could have Impostor Syndrome (IS).

Impostor syndrome is characterised by chronic feelings of self-doubt and a fear of being discovered as an intellectual fraud. Even though certain people have clear-as-day evidence of substantial personal achievements, they are unable to internalise these accomplishments or skills. Instead of acknowledging  achievements – the results of hard work, and celebrating our successes – we attribute our triumphs to luck, timing, personality, or the faulty judgments of others. These individuals believe they are less intelligent or competent than others think they are. A 1998 study of medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students found that 30% thought of themselves as impostors. Impostor syndrome can be extremely detrimental to psychological well-being and cause acute distress.

Additionally, a greater number of females display impostor syndrome compared to men. A 2016 study by Villwock and team found that the number of females with IS was more than double male counterparts (49.4% of females versus 23.7% of males). Impostor syndrome is surprisingly common among some of our most successful African American and minority groups. Even still, it can strike any gender, race, or age.

Recently I was at an intensive course for doctoral students (just to clarify, not just medical students… us other super cool PhD students too). It was a rare chance to interact with PhD candidates from other disciplines, mostly from the sciences. Quickly a common theme began to emerge amongst our shared reflections: a feeling of inadequacy.  Lack of emotional support or functional support with research, daunting deadlines and hazy career prospects where it’s almost certain we will have to explain our thesis research over and over again to people who don’t understand the intensity of our struggles. It’s so easy to feel worthless in our world. It’s so easy to feel like an impostor.

More complicated than a simple insecurity, which tends to hamper success, this is an issue that plagues those with the highest accomplishments. These individuals believe they need to work harder and longer to harness the same achievements.

Joyce Roché lists the symptoms:

  • When people praise you, you fear you won’t live up to their expectations.
  • You feel your success is due to luck, despite your actual track record of achievements.
  • You’re afraid others will discover how little you know.
  • When you succeed, you have doubts about being able to do it again.
  • You believe others are more intelligent than you.
  • If you’re up for a promotion, you don’t tell anyone until it’s a done deal, in case higher ups “change their mind.”
  • You feel you need to work harder than others in order to prove your worth.
  • You always have a backup plan ready in case you’re “discovered” for the fraud you believe yourself to be.
  • You seek external validation, yet don’t fully believe it when it comes.
  • You keep your real life—upbringing, degrees, etc.—secret from peers so they won’t have even more reason to doubt your qualifications among their rank.

Here are a couple of strategies suggested for tackling these demons.

  • Develop your self-awareness. Realistically analyse your strengths and weaknesses. Keep a dynamic inventory.
  • Take in external validation. Next time someone gives you a compliment, try to internalise it and say thank you.
  • See others for who they are. See both their strengths and weaknesses too.
  • Make sure you keep perspective on your life as a whole. Perfection in one project might not make a dent in how happy you feel.
  • Find a mentor. Having someone who believes in you and someone you trust to share your fears and self-doubts can be a healthy way to take stock of where you actually
  • Recognise you are not alone. The research shows Impostor Syndrome is more common than what we might thing. Comfort others displaying the same symptoms and share experiences and coping mechanisms.

Pursuing a PhD is really an exercise in Impostor Syndrome as we exist within a long process of discovering who we are as academics, researchers, or intellectuals. We haven’t had time yet to make a widespread contribution to the literature in a (peer validated) way that makes less relevant our own self-thoughts because we have been accepted by committees of peers. Perhaps the sense of self-doubt never goes away.

Either way… be kind to your PhD friends, because they probably aren’t all that kind to themselves.


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.
Henning, K., Ey, S., & Shaw, D. (1998). Perfectionism, the impostor phenomenon and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students. Medical education, 32(5), 456-464.
Peternelj-Taylor, C. (2011). Is impostor syndrome getting in the way of writing for the Journal of Forensic Nursing? Journal of Forensic Nursing, 7(2), 57-9.
Villwock, J., Sobin, L., Koester, L., & Harris, T. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: A pilot study. International Journal of Medical Education, 7, 364-369.

On Giving Women Managers More Holidays…

New research from the Journal of Happiness Studies asks: Why Managerial Women are Less Happy Than Managerial Men?

In a very large research sample of German employees and managers they found the following: “Overall, female managers reported slightly lower life satisfaction than their male counterparts, consistent with past research. They also seemed to find higher pay less rewarding than men. Based on correlations between life satisfaction and pay across male and female managers, on the researchers’ estimate it would take an extra €12,000 of pay to boost a woman’s life satisfaction by the same amount that a man would gain from an extra €5,000 of pay.”

Researchers hypothesize that increases in free time would be more associated with happiness for female managers more than male managers, and the lack of balance of free time (because many take on additional roles in the home) was at the centre of female dissatisfaction.

“Brockmann and her colleagues pointed out that the lack of gender parity at senior management levels isn’t solved by simply bringing women into the boardroom, as this may just consign them to an unhappy stay. A major problem is that in most working cultures leadership positions “require a non-stop lifelong commitment to extra-long working hours and early career path-dependencies” which may repel women who particularly value their free time.”

The solution? More free time for senior managers.

Read the article summary here.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen. Any reader of Sheryl Sandberg will acknowledge that this research might be too reductionist. First reaction to this study is that taking extra time away whilst a manager puts anyone in a vulnerable position, much less a female. Any researcher will tell you that the findings are limited to German workers and managers. Just in the language used in this article they suppose women will take on more of the housework. The extent to which women take on housework is culturally varied, as well as generationally varied.

That being said, I would not be opposed to more vacation time…