Fitter, Happier

Have you ever heard that Radiohead song with the creepy computer voice telling you how to live a “fitter, happier, more productive” life? Regular exercise, not drinking too much, eating well, getting on better with your associates. Sardonic or not, it seems like we’re constantly inundated with recommendations for healthy living: eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day, get 150 minutes of exercise every week, don’t drink more than two glasses of wine a night.

The big question though, is, does anyone actually follow these guidelines?

Finding Mr. Right just got a lot harder

It’s hard being a young woman these days. Chivalry is dying, but many glass ceilings are still firmly in place. We’re supposed to have it all but sacrifice nothing, balancing choosing a career path and a life partner. We can delay having kids by putting our eggs in the freezer next to our vodka, but our similarly aging male partners’ sperm might handicap our chances of having healthy offspring, with higher risks for autism and schizophrenia linked to paternal age.

And now it turns out that hormonal contraception, or The Pill, our revolutionary defense against the inherent misogyny of biology, could be tricking us into choosing the wrong men.

Gender bias on both sides of scientific research

A disturbing new study from researchers at Yale University was released this week in PNAS, reporting that gender bias is still pervasive in science and the workplace. An identical application for a laboratory manager position was given to 127 senior faculty members at a number of research universities, the only difference being that half of the applications contained a male name, while in the other half the applicant's name was female. Across the board supervisors (male and female alike) ranked the 'male' application as more competent, more hireable, and stated that they would be more willing to supervise this candidate. Even more striking was the pay gap that existed between the recommended wages for the male and female applicants, a difference of roughly $3,700 starting salary. This is representative of the reported 23% average earnings difference between men and women in the workplace.

Analytical thinking and religious disbelief: A Dawkinsian tale

Last week Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, out-spoken atheist, and author of The God Geneannounced his support for British education secretary Michael Gove's proposal to put a King James Bible in every state school in the UK. Dawkins stated that, "I have heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself."

Dawkins' tongue-in-cheek support for the measure highlights his proselytism of critical thinking over blind acceptance of the scriptures. This more rational and methodical type of thought is affectionately known as "System 2" in the neuroeconomics and decision-making literature, and a new study published last month in the journal Science suggests that Dawkins, as an atheist, is not alone in his analytical thinking habits. The other mode of thought, System 1, relies more on instincts and heuristics (quick decision-making tools based on past experiences), and is thought to underlie much of an individual's conviction in religious beliefs. The stories that make up the dogma of organized religion often require acceptance of supernatural processes that are difficult to rationalize, such as immaculate conception or resurrection. These leaps of faith require a reliance on intuition over analytical rationalization, and as such individuals with strong religious beliefs are thought to have a greater activation of System 1, whereas disbelievers engage System 2 more frequently.

Sex at Dawn vs. sex today

There has been an undeniable shift in the conventional nuclear family over the last several decades, with increases in single parent, step-parent, grandparent and single-sex parent homes. A recent survey by the New York Times stated that as of 2009, women who gave birth under the age of 30 were for the first time less likely to be married than not. These trends, along with the rise in divorce rates seen over the last 40 years, support the relationship narrative put forward by Dr. Christopher Ryan and Dr. Cacilda Jetha in their book Sex at Dawn of long-term, semi-monogamous mates, rather than story-book life-long, monogamous marriages.

Ryan and Jetha question the naturalness of our society's emphasis on exclusive and eternal pair-bonds. They cite the polyamorous relationship tendencies of our early ancestors and the sexual habits of our closest living relatives, free-loving bonobos and chimpanzees, as evidence that we were not always this way. They also list current hunter-gatherer societies who maintain looser definitions of sexual relations and expectations, and who have adjusted their property owning and child-rearing practices accordingly. Examples include the Curripaco tribe of Brazil, where a couple who hang their hammocks together are considered married (until one hangs her hammock elsewhere), or the Dagara of Burkina Faso, one of many societies in which every woman is called "mother" and every man "father" as questions of paternity are highly uncertain. Allocations of resources and affection are spread equally throughout these tribes, treating all as family and ensuring the well-being of every member of the community.

Salivating for stocking stuffers

In the spirit of this season of holy consumption, I thought it appropriate to write about an article released earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research on salivating over material goods. Author David Gal, an economist at Northwestern University, proposes that when we covet an item, be it ice cream or an iPhone, we literally drool over it. He hypothesizes that this response mechanism is induced by our reward system, with desired material items stimulating the same pathways and neural regions as the hunger for food or other natural reinforcers do. This includes the striatum, amygdala and hypothalamus, areas involved in reward responses and homeostatic mechanisms such as hunger and satiety. Activation of these areas in response to salient stimuli signals that these items are rewarding and could be important for survival. Supporting this claim, in previous research the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway is seen to light up in a similar manner for luxury items and sports cars, which are secondary learned reinforcers, as for natural incentives such as food and drugs. Taking this a step further, the physical outputs of this heightened reward arousal state can include the secretion of saliva, triggered by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Salivation occurs in response to cues for food or water as part of the natural metabolic system, preparing us for mastication and digestion. However, Gal claims that it is also a byproduct of the autonomal arousal system controlled via the hypothalamus, and that salivation can indicate any desired or salient stimulus, whether it be naturally rewarding, such as a member of the opposite sex, or a secondary conditioned reinforcer, like money or material goods.

Gal investigated this theory by presenting 169 undergraduate students with images of either money or mundane items, such as office supplies. While viewing the stimuli, participants were asked to keep cotton dental rolls in their cheeks and under their tongue to measure their saliva output. The weights of these cotton swabs were then compared to baseline measurements taken before the experiment to assess the increase in salivation due to the images presented. A second condition involved priming participants with feelings of either efficacy or helplessness by asking them to recall a time when they had felt either powerful or powerless. Gal hypothesized that money, symbolizing economic control, would be more coveted by those who felt they had little power, making it more desirable and rewarding than to those who deemed that they had greater power at the time of the experiment. Supporting this notion, only participants induced with feelings of powerlessness had significantly increased saliva output in response to the monetary cues. Individuals who felt powerful had no difference in salivatory rates when viewing the money images, nor was there a difference in saliva outputs in either power condition among participants in the control office supply group.

In a second follow-up study, Gal repeated the experiment using coveted luxury items in the place of raw currency. Gal exposed young men to images of sports cars, while also inducing in them the goal of winning a potential mate. He achieved this by presenting some participants with images of attractive women with whom they were to imagine going on a date with, while those in the control condition were to imagine having their hair cut. Men who viewed the sports cars as opposed to the mundane images had greater salivation rates compared to baseline ratings, but only when they had been primed with the goal of mating. The mating prime had no effect on saliva output in the control condition, and viewing the sports cars without the salient goal did not increase salivation rates on its own.

Importantly, increases in saliva production seem to be contingent upon the immediate rewarding value of the goods, only enhancing salivation rates when the presented stimuli were seen to help achieve a recently primed goal. This suggests that the triggering of salivation by reward cues is dependent upon the present desire or need for the item, much like the more visceral feeling of hunger in the presence of food.

So as you are finishing your Christmas wish-list this year, dreaming of drool-worthy duds and mouth-watering machines, perhaps rank your heart's desire on how quickly they'll come in handy and how moist your mouth feels afterwards. You'll be sure to find them more rewarding.

Happy holidays everyone!

(Thanks to Emily Barnet for this article.)