Buying a New Car

As a follow-up to my previous post about some of the psychological techniques used by car salespeople, here is a good and brief introduction to purchasing a new car. Much of it stems from keeping your options open and never allowing yourself to feel pressured into buying a car. This is something I try and drive home to people in therapy or in any other interactions I have with them – keep the control in you life within yourself. Do not allow other people or circumstances to control your life. You have the power and choice to act for yourself. Yes, other people and circumstances influence all of us but only we have the ability to choose how we act.

In a sales situation, the buyer always has the power because the buyer can walk away at any time (barring a forced situation such as in slavery or when violence is threatened or in other such circumstances but I’m not writing about those at this time). Here is a good intro into buying a car. Warning: there is a brief instance of bad language in the video.

Aging and Role Loss

One of the prominent theories in social aging is role theory. Role theorists have shown that feeling in control of life and having social power and prestige is associated with better health (Krause et al., 1992). One of the major components of role theory is role loss. This occurs usually as people age; they start losing roles as active parents, employees, and spouses. This often leads to feelings of loss of control over life. In addition, older people generally have less contact with others which in turn causes their social networks to shrink. This leads to poorer health (Moen, Dempster-McClain, & Williams, 1992).

Image by Daniel2005:

As people age they tend to lose social roles—whether as parents, employees, or spouses. This loss of roles can lead to social isolationism due to the decreased amount of social interaction. Research shows “that perceived social isolation [assuming that socially isolated people have few roles] is associated with a variety of altered physiological functions, such as blood pressure regulation…and immune reactions. A causal link in these relations was suggested…” (Berntson & Cacioppo, 2000, p. 9). Researchers also theorize the loss of roles as leading to loss of feelings of control and depressive symptoms, which are both components of overall well-being (Krause et al., 1992).

Van Willigen (2000) explains loss of control as composed of five different concepts: “powerlessness, isolation, self-estrangement, meaninglessness, and normlessness” (p. S309). She also explained that when people feel that they have power over their lives and are not socially isolated they generally have a greater psychosocial well-being. Consequently, when people do not feel in control of their lives and are isolated, they tend to have lower life satisfaction and well-being. These factors are in turn correlated with lower health and longevity (Hunter & Linn, 1981; Musick et al., 1999).

Rook and Sorkin (2003) posit a slightly different reason why role loss has negative consequences on older adults. They state:

For many older adults…dual ‘receiving and giving’ functions are readily available in their close relationships with other people…. For others, however, opportunities to express one or both functions may be missing. Widowhood, retirement, and other social role losses that affect the elderly may limit opportunities for maintaining and developing close relationships that involve reciprocal exchanges of support (p. 314).

They view roles as tied to reciprocal relationships and so without those roles they do not have others from which to benefit. While there is variation in explanations why role loss leads to poorer health, I did not address that with this post. I simply wanted to introduce one part of a social theory of aging.


Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2000). Psychobiology and social psychology: Past, present, and future. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 3-15.

Hunter, K., & Linn, M. (1980-1981). Psychological differences between elderly volunteers and nonvolunteers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 12, 205-213.

Krause, N., Herzog, A. R., & Baker, E. (1992). Providing support to others and well-being in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 47, P300–P311.

Moen, P., Dempster-McClain, D., & Williams, R. M. (1992). Successful aging: A life-course perspective on women’s multiple roles and health. The American Journal of Sociology, 97, 1612–1638.

Musick, M. A., Herzog, A. R., & House, J. S. (1999). Volunteering and mortality among older adults: Findings from a national sample. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 54B, S173–S180.

Rook, K. S., & Sorkin, D. H. (2003). Fostering social ties through a volunteer role: Implications for older-adults’ psychological health. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 54, 313-337.

Van Willigen, M. (2000). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 55B, S308–S318.

The Psychology of Buying a Car

Disclaimer: With this post I am not attacking people in sales or other similar work. I am not trying to say that all or even most car salespeople are dishonest. I believe that most are honest and are just trying to make a living as well as possible. However, what we cannot ignore is that there are people who are dishonest and take advantage of their sales training to try and take advantage of some people. But again, I don’t want this post to be misunderstood as an attack on all retail services and professions – it is not.

Recently I had an experience looking for a car. I arrived at a dealership to be approached by a woman who had just started working there. As she walked me over to start looking at the type of car I was interested in, we were joined by a more experienced salesman who wagged along to make sure the new saleswoman knew what she was doing. This salesman asked how much I was looking to spend. It is not usually a good idea to reveal how much you are looking to spend because of a reason I will discuss below. However, because I was just looking and was not going to buy a car that night (unless they happened to have a great one for a great price), I divulged my limit. I said I was willing to spend a specific amount of money. His reply, “You know that with taxes, tags, and fees [our exorbitantly high fee – he didn’t say that but their fee was exorbitant when compared with other dealerships in the area] it’ll be $X more. Is that okay?” I replied, “Yes, it is.” I had already factored in taxes and fees in my what-I-can-afford price.

I stated I was going to pay cash and that I wasn’t going to trade in my car (it’s usually best to only agree you are going to trade in your car once the final price on the other car is settled in writing; that way the dealer does not mark up the price of the new car by how much the trade-in is worth – not all dealerships or salespeople do that but it happens). Frank [not his real name] the salesman said, “OK, I think these cars [there were three we looked at] are probably in the ballpark of your price range but I can’t be sure until I talk with the boss and he crunches some numbers.” I looked at two of the cars – they were okay but I really just wanted to see the prices so I could know if they were fairly priced or not. There were no prices on the cars at this particular lot. Why not? Well, when I stated that I would rather talk prices first before driving any of the cars, Frank said, “Oh, well we don’t want to go through all the time and effort to talk about price before you actually drive the car. What if you find out you don’t like it?”

I like to be upfront about costs because I do not want to waste my time or the salespeople’s time on a car that I cannot afford. In this case, because I was interested in the process and the particular model of car (to see if I liked that model of car), I said, “OK, I’ll drive this car – I haven’t driven one of them before.” I decided to play his game and see where we went. If I liked the car and it was a good price, I would possibly purchase it (but not without having my wife view and drive it). The car looked nice – it had leather seats, a DVD player, but it was a bit older and had more miles than I wanted. Said Frank, “Oh, this is a nice car – we just got it on the lot yesterday and it’ll sell fast.”

Let’s stop. Where’s the psychology in all of this? One sales technique being used on me (and I played along) is what is called the foot in the door technique. Ask little favors or even give little rewards (in this case it was as simple as pointing out the nice leather seats and DVD player and other features or even taking a car for a test drive – novelty can be a great reward) and someone is more willing to listen to you and purchase your wares because they feel obligated and a bit committed. Start small and build from there. So the goal is to get the customer in the car and – assuming they like it – they will be more willing to stick with it. At some point many people feel obligated because of what they have received from the salesperson – test drives, time, and realized or unrealized perks. The other psychology sales technique he did was create a scarce commodity – make the car seem like it was going to go quickly and you feel like you have to act quickly – it just got there yesterday and was going to be gone tomorrow. I’ll get back to this later.

One thing I forgot to mention – as we started looking at this particular car Frank pushed the power sliding door button and nothing happened. “I’m not very familiar with how to work this particular car,” he said, trying to cover up the fact that the power door was in fact not working (it could be opened manually). This ironic experience was in the context of Frank talking about how they do such a thorough inspection of all their cars and fix what needs to be fixed. Then Frank said that he has to drive the car off the lot and then we’ll switch and I can drive it. I’m thought, “That’s new, I haven’t had a dealer require that before but I haven’t shopped for cars before in this part of the country and maybe that’s the way it is done here.” It’s also possible that this particular dealership had past experiences with non-employees hitting other cars on the lot when leaving on a test drive. After this, Frank started up the car and said, “I like to let the car warm up for a little bit before driving it, my father was a mechanic and I like to take care of my cars.” That’s generally good policy with cars, particularly when the engines are cold. However, the whole time the dashboard lights are dimming and then getting brighter, then dimming and back and forth for about 10 seconds. Once the car was “warmed up” we were off.

Frank turned the first corner in the lot and I telt a slight clunk from the transmission – that’s a great sign (that was sarcasm). I’ll fast forward to when I drove the car. It was okay but I was not impressed. I was impressed more with the overall look and fit and finish than its drivability. It drove okay and was comfortable but I didn’t think the transmission would last long. We get back to the dealership; I was interested in what kind of ‘deal’ he would offer me on the vehicle so we went in to finally talk prices, 40 minutes into the process. I’m an eternal optimist so I thought, “Well, if he can sell it to me for $X, I might purchase it. I’m sure I’ll have to get some work done on the car, potentially a new transmission soon, but if the price is low enough, it will still be worth it.” In this case $X was considerably lower than my limit was. We went into his cubical (the other saleswoman was with us the whole time. She was very nice but mostly just observing at this point.) to start the paperwork “for the quote.” Again, this is a continuation of the foot in the door technique. He was trying to get me to the point where I had put enough effort in that I would say, “OK, why not?” Frank scurried off to go talk prices with his boss.

Next was one of my favorite parts of this experience. Frank came back with an offer that is “almost at [my] target.” It was 11% higher than my target price. Again, my target price was not for this particular car, it was the price I was willing to spend a car in general. If I were less polite I would have laughed at the price he offered. That price was a good 25-30% higher than similar cars were selling for in the area. I thought, “Is he serious?! That’s ‘almost’ my target price? This guy is very generous (to himself) with my money.” I looked at the various other fees that get added on. Their dealership fee was about 8% of the car’s price (that fee is much higher than at other dealerships in the area, some of which had no dealer fee). Here was another psychological technique he used (I don’t have a specific name for it, although I’m sure one exists) – on the paper the car had a “listed” price that was at least 25% higher than his ‘reduced’ deal for me. Stores do this a lot – put things on ‘sale’ and people will buy them, even if the sale price is higher than the normal price. People see “reduced prices” or “sale” and think they are getting a good deal. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. Had I purchased the car (I certainly wasn’t considering it at that point unless he reduced his price by a significant amount), I would have received a bad ‘deal’.

What happened is that this salesman had a problem he did not know he had. He thought he was in control of the situation. He forgot that the customer is always in control unless the customer relinquishes that control. I had a firm grip on my control, he just did not realize it. I did surrender enough to keep the car buying process moving because I wanted to see where it would go and if Frank would ever offer a fair price on the vehicle; I wanted to see his ‘best deal’ for me on this car. While we were going through initial paperwork he mentioned that he had a couple coming from “[not-so-nearbyville] or was it [slightly-closer-nearbyville] tomorrow to look at and probably purchase the vehicle.” He might have been telling the truth about the matter – I like to give him the benefit of the doubt – but the whole statement was too contrived to seem real. Once again he was trying to make the car a scarce commodity that I had to act on “tonight or it will be gone tomorrow!”

One more point about why he thought he was in control of me – I am not a rude person and I can come across as rather soft and indecisive at times due to my wanting to perform cost-benefit analyses on major decisions. I like to weigh options; in a sales setting, I might look like an easy target at times. I’m sure I am an easy target in some situations – like with my daughters – but I was fully in control in this particular situation; I also didn’t want to be rude and just stand up and leave. I said the price was still too high and I called him out on his statement that the price was “almost at my target”. Maybe it was close in government spending but not for me. When we are talking thousands of dollars, an 11% “cost-overrun” is significant. He left to talk with his boss and came back stating that in order for his boss to give me a better deal I had to sign my name to show that I was “committed” to this car – that’s just some more sales psychology. Once you start to sign things, even meaningless pieces of paper like the one I signed (it really was essentially a blank piece of paper with my name on it), you tend to feel more committed and it is harder psychologically to back down. As an aside, this is a technique therapists can use with suicidal patients. Get them to commit to not harming themselves verbally or in writing and they are much less likely to do so because of the commitment. In this case, the only thing I was committed to was not buying the car. I have to admit that with a background in psychology and as a scientist I enjoyed the psychology of the situation. I was also impressed with his sales techniques. He didn’t come across as pushy as some other salesmen I’ve met but his techniques needed some polish. He never even found out if I really liked the car. I said it was nice and he jumped on that; he assumed he could sell the car to me because he assumed I liked it when at most all I gave was a tepid response. I know that is optimistic salesmanship on his part but selling is much easier if it is a car (or other thing) that the person actually wants.

His sales shortcomings were not entirely his fault, I was quite non-committal (which he viewed as “almost convinced to buy”) about the process because I really just wanted to see how low the price would go in order to see if the price ever approached the fair market value. I was also in a social psychology experiment mode. He came back with the price ‘down’ to my target price (the dealer fee was still high though). I said I’d have to talk with my wife before I committed to anything. They were even trying to get me to make a “fully-refundable” deposit (again, more commitment) on the car to “lock in the price so we don’t sell the car tomorrow.” Another great part of this process was how the salesman was always on ‘my side’, which might be true but on a commission-based reward system at work there is great incentive to sell items at the highest prices possible. That is good business but not good for the customers. Frank kept stating that he was on my side, “This couple who wants to buy the car doesn’t even have any kids so I’d rather sell it to you since you’ll get better use out of it. You actually need it with three kids. I’d rather sell it to you even though this other couple is willing to pay a couple thousand dollars more than you are for the car.” Wait, what?! He had an opportunity to sell that car for $2000 more and he wanted to sell it to me instead? Maybe he really did want to, and if he did that was quite admirable of him, but even my optimistic self was cynical about his statement in light of the rest of the night.

Also, suddenly he mentioned that the “wife of this couple [had] already looked at the car” even though they live two to three hours away and the car had “just arrived 24 hours ago.” It’s certainly possible but it usually takes more time than that for a dealership to process cars. Maybe he didn’t know when they got the car on the lot and was saying 24 hours because it was recent but making that statement in the context of trying to get me to close on a price and sign the papers, was a bit too much of “scarce commodity” for me. He was so eager to sell me the car that his stories stopped matching up. Frank stretched the truth too often to be credible. I saw that he wasn’t going to go down in price any more so I ended my informal experiment. I made my exit and walked away saying that I’d talk to my wife. I did, but mainly to say that we didn’t want that particular car. As I was walking away, Frank knew he had lost me. He asked a couple times, “Was I too pushy?” He realized that he hadn’t been in control of the situation; he hadn’t read me correctly. And yes, at least to me, he was too pushy in the end (but that is just my personal preference. I know he was not particularly pushy as far as car salesmen go).

I went home and searched for the car online. It came up (same dealership) with an online price $200 less than the lowest deal he “cut me”. Most dealerships have separate online salespeople so the general on-lot salespeople are not usually aware of the online price (it’s usually lower than what is offered in person) but I still think it is interesting how his best deal for me was higher than the online price. The car’s online price was still higher than fair market value for that car. Part of the price difference in the online price and the “best price” in person stems from me telling him my limit in the first place (again, I did that on purpose). I further discovered that the car had been on the lot for about 5 weeks instead of only 24 hours.

During this process I was not trying to be manipulative. I honestly was interested in the car if it was a good enough price (okay, so maybe a toss-a-coin-in-a-well-and-have-a-bag-of-gold-fall-at-your-feet kind of price but given the year, miles, and condition of the car, that was not an unreasonable desire). It never even came close to what I would be willing to pay for it. Besides, had it come down to it, I would have asked for reductions because of the non-power power door as well as other issues (spotty interior lights, clunky transmission). So much for their “thorough inspection” that, according to Frank, was worth paying upwards of a couple thousand dollars more for a car from them than I could pay elsewhere.

I thought the whole process with that salesperson and that car was ridiculous. I know most salespeople are good people but at work it is their job to sell you their product. For some people this means sometimes burnishing the truth a little or a lot (as was the case with Frank).

I share this experience to help people be more aware of common sales techniques. Buying a car is a big decision and is daunting for most people. Remember that you are in control. Watch out for the foot in the door (that doesn’t mean you don’t let them do it, just recognize what they are doing and be willing to walk away). Also, be more alert when the salesperson is doing something as a favor to you. Maybe he or she is but remain skeptical – that’s part of what it means to have critical thinking. Actions like that (unless you personally know the salesperson) should raise red flags. Also watch out for the pressure situations of ‘scarcity’; yes, the car really might be sold tomorrow but if you aren’t completely comfortable just walk away. Find a salesperson (at another dealership if possible) who doesn’t pressure you more than you are comfortable. I’ve met some very nice and good car salespeople who sell cars without resorting to pressure. I am more than willing to work with them and reward them by not trying to haggle much over the price.

Also, if the stories of the salesperson start contradicting each other, walk away. Also, don’t give out your price target because they will almost always meet and surpass that target. If you say you can spend $16,000, many dealers will suddenly have $13,000 and $14,000 cars for sale for $16,000. You can give soft estimates of what you are willing to spend but if anything, say you are willing to spend less than you actually are. Again, as the consumer you are always in control (except in emergencies and hopefully then people are not there to take advantage of you) if you do not give up that control. Lastly, sales are not always good deals. Always do your research ahead of time for major purchases like a car.

I’m going to go back online and search more. I don’t really need a new car immediately but the time is approaching when I will need one. The whole experience was interesting though. There were other sales techniques Frank used but I didn’t go into them. I’m sure I even missed a few.

Update: I purchased an automobile shortly after this experience where I knew the price up front. It was a price near fair market value so I did not even try to haggle. The salespeople and situation were more pleasant and honest.

Psychobiology and Social Psychology

There are at least two big trends in social psychology, or at least ones that may great affect social psychology. Currently, at least according to Berntson and Cacioppo (2000), one of the fastest growing trends in psychology as a whole is psychobiology. This trend is also seen in social psychology. Another movement is that of the internet (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). As the legitimacy of the internet grew, there was more research interest in it and more interest in using it for research purposes. I will first discuss psychobiology and then the internet. I will finish with my prediction of where social psychology is going.

I think psychobiology is a growing area in part because of the many technological advances that are being applied to psychology (namely, brain imaging and computer modeling). Psychology is becoming a technology-driven science. I think that social psychology will all move this way because of the new ways to study the concepts of social psychology. In part, it provides new ways to research “old” topics, not that anything in social psychology is that old.

Researchers can now look at biological foundations of social behavior and perception. For example, maybe there is a certain area of the brain that is activated when people name racial stereotypes. Also, there could be a different area activated when people are asked what stereotypes they believe, if any. Maybe people who say they do not believe the stereotypes still have the same area of the brain activated as those who do believe them, but in addition they could have additional brain activity associated with suppressing those stereotypes. Knowing this would help us understand that stereotypes really are prevalent, but some people are just really good at suppressing them and don’t even know that they are doing it. I know this was a slightly vague hypothesis, but my point is that psychobiology has a lot to add the social psychology.

Continue reading “Psychobiology and Social Psychology”

Contributions of Social Psychology Research

The Crowd Looking at the Clock by Ms. Abitibi
The Crowd Looking at the Clock by Ms. Abitibi

Social psychology is the study of individuals within groups, or as they are affected by others. So, while groups are important and often studied, it is really the individual who ultimately receives the focus. It is different from other subdisciplines in that interpersonal relationships are taken into account. In other words, people’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are affected by their relationships to and with others. This differs from cognitive psychology, for example, because cognitive theorists typically are just looking at mental processes and trying to understand the basic nature of thought, without [much] regard to the influence that others have on cognition. I say “much” because social and cognitive psychology have had a long relationship so there is some overlap between the two.

Social psychology is different from behaviorism in that social psychologists look at underlying cognitive processes and behaviorists do not. Although, they are similar in that both look at external influences on behavior (after all, behaviorism is that all behavior is learned from others). So, really the biggest difference between social psychology and all other subdisciplines of experimental psychology is the focus on self and other influences on affect, behavior, and cognition.

These three main components of social psychology—affect, behavior, and cognition—are all areas of psychology where social psychology has provided key and keen insights. One aspect of the uniqueness of social psychological research is how often researchers get surprising results from their studies. First, I’ll address the insights we’ve gained from social psychology about affect (i.e., emotion), behavior, and cognition. Continue reading “Contributions of Social Psychology Research”

Book Review – Leadership and Self-deception: Getting Out of the Box

I’m going to preface my review by stating that the book I’m going to review is not directly about psychology; it has nothing to do with neuroscience. However, it has everything to do with interpersonal relationships and social interactions, which are two areas frequently addressed in psychology. I do not have any affiliation with The Arbinger Institute; I just enjoyed the book.

The book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box was written by The Arbinger Institute. The work was derived from the ideas of C. Terry Warner, a U.S. philosopher. The Arbinger Institute is a management training and consulting firm that works with businesses and individuals to help them improve their businesses and lives. The 168 page book is easy to read; it is written in a simple prose like a novel.

The main character in the book is Tom, a recently-hired mid to upper level manager at the fictional company Zagrum. Throughout the book Tom mainly interacts with two other characters – Bud, his boss who is the executive vice president of the company, and Kate, Zagrum’s president. Both Bud and Kate take time out of their busy schedules to train Tom about “the box”, which is self-deception.

The gist of the book is that much conflict between people is based on self-betrayal and self-deception. It comes from viewing other people as objects, as “things” that either help or hinder our own progress. The self-deception is that we are more important than other people and that they only exist to help us (or at least not stop us) self-actualize (I’m using different terms than used in the book; the author(s) of the book are not particularly fond of the humanistic concept of self-actualization, by the way). However, we deceive ourselves when we think that if we want to have improved relationships with others – especially if they are strained – then it is others who need to change and not ourselves.

Self-betrayal occurs, according to the author(s), when we are not true to that part of ourselves that is other-centered; this results in self-centeredness. In the book the author(s) give an example of how self-betrayal occurs. I’ll summarize that example.

At night a husband and wife are sleeping. The husband wakes up when the baby in the other room starts to cry. The husband’s first thought is to get up and get the child before his wife wakes up; after all, she works so hard all day and needs all the sleep she can get. The husband’s next thought though is that he too works hard all day and needs to get up early for a meeting. “Why should I get up? My responsibility in this family is to go to work and earn money so we can live. I need all the sleep I can get so I can function at my job – I have a big project to complete tomorrow. [Baby continues to cry]. Why doesn’t my wife get up and get that baby? Doesn’t she realize I need to get sleep? Okay, I know she’s awake now. Why doesn’t she get up? Now she’s just being lazy. [And so on].

These types of thoughts often become self-fulfilling prophecies, such that all our our own actions and thoughts inflate our self-worth (i.e., we do see ourselves as good, hard-working people) while simultaneously deflating the self-worth of another (i.e., we attribute certain attributes to them – “lazy” or “inconsiderate” – and then much of what we see them do after that only supports that hypothesis). While this specific example has not occurred with everyone, we have all experienced similar situations. Maybe the situation is at work where you had a thought that you should do something but then didn’t do it. When it created a problem you were able to rationalize your behavior and blame someone else (“I would have done X had Susan done her job” or “I was just too busy with other things to get X done.”). Basically, self-betrayal results from not being true to what you [hopefully] know is the right thing to do. When we don’t do what we know is right, the normal human response is to rationalize and justify our action or inaction in order to protect our egos, per se. This leads to us shifting the blame from ourselves onto others. We start to view others as hindering our progress; when this occurs they stop being people and start being objects (in other words, people are viewed as either starting blocks or stumbling blocks – they help or hinder us).

It is relatively straightforward to see how this can lead to interpersonal problems – at home or at work. The problem is that we do not know that we are betraying and deceiving ourselves, so we continue to ascribe most of our problems to others. The author(s) further points out that even if we recognize our self-betrayal and self-deception, we never will completely be free of these behaviors; however, we will be able to reduce these negative behaviors and improve our relationships with others.

Overall, this book provides an important and novel way to approach interpersonal behavior. The overarching message is that we should not worry about changing others (or even ourselves! – but I’ll let you read the book to understand that); we should instead recognize that the problem lies within ourselves and go from there. One very creative application of this philosophy is how this is being applied in businesses to increase productivity, human relations, public relations, and even the profitability of the company. I’ll let my readers read this book to understand how this philosophical approach to other-interaction can help a business make more money.

One of my criticisms of this approach to interpersonal behaviors is that it is fairly esoteric and difficult to grasp conceptually. That’s not necessarily a negative; however, it means that most people will really have to study and ponder on the concepts in order to understand them. The book also only serves as a brief – but important – introduction to the topic, leaving one a bit unsure exactly how to implement this new attitude and these new behaviors in one’s own life (although, there is enough information in the book that an astute reader can understand enough to follow this method of interpersonal interaction). This is where the Arbinger Institute’s training workshops and seminars come in. Additionally, C. Terry Warner wrote a book called Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves, which is a more complete description of the concepts found in Leadership and Self-deception.

I recommend the book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box to anyone seeking to develop insight about themselves and their interpersonal interactions.

Self-handicapping, ability judgments, and self-esteem

The following post is a summary of some social psychology research from 2001 about the interplay between self-handicapping, ability, and self-esteem. While I focus mainly on neuroscience in general, I have many broad interests within psychology; hence, this post about social psychology.

McCrea & Hirt (2001) studied the effects of self-handicapping on ability judgments and self-esteem. In reviewing past literature the authors explained that while a lot of research was done on self-handicapping it was not clear whether global self-esteem affected ability judgments or vice versa, which was the basis of this study. Most self-handicappers apparently handicap themselves as a protective but not as an aggrandizing measure–it would be dangerous for a self-handicapper to have more expected of her or him. According to past research there are two reaction chains of relationships between self-handicapping, self-esteem, and personal beliefs of ability. As stated earlier attributions of ability either lead directly to self-esteem or to ability beliefs; in other words, people will attribute their success/failure on a test to either their personal abilities or external things (“I had to walk the dog and I didn’t have time to study enough”). The researchers’ hypothesis was that self-handicapping would have consequences on specific and global ability judgments which judgments were related to overall self-esteem.

The participants of the study were over 150 introductory psychology students (the majority were women) at Indiana University-Bloomington. There were three sessions of the study. In the first session the participants completed a self-handicapping scale and a self-esteem inventory. This session was done at the beginning of a the semester. The second session took place after at least one exam and just before another. In this session items were included that measured claimed handicapping behaviors such as textbook reading, studying, and other test preparations. The subjects also rated themselves on stress with a stress inventory. During the third session, which took place about a week after the next exam, the participants were asked about their performance on that exam. Then they rated how much the test was based on their own ability or if their score was a result of external forces (i.e. lack of study). There were also scales of other personal traits and the students’ current affect.

In this study the main items measured (the dependent variables) were: claims of poor preparation, claims of stress, test outcome, ability attribution, posttest self-esteem, posttest affect, academic ability, social competence, athletic ability, creativity, and psychology ability. The researchers did a regression for the analyses of these variables using the traits of self-handicapping, sex, and self-esteem as the independent variables. They classified four types of individuals: high self-handicapping (HSH), low self-handicapping (LSH), high self-esteem (HSE), and low self-esteem (LSE).

There were various self-handicapping measures (SHM) the authors looked at (the dependent variables). The first was claimed poor preparation. They found that men and HSH individuals claimed to have prepared less for the exams than did women or LSH individuals. They also found that HSE-HSH men prepared the least for the exam. The second SHM was claimed stress. HSH people reported more stress than LSH individuals but women and LSE individuals reported higher stress than men and HSE people. Overall, in test performance, HSH individuals did worse than LSH people. For ability attributions students blamed poor test performance on poor preparation and good test performance on personal ability, in general. For the posttest self-esteem measure the researchers found that HSH individuals had higher self-esteem whether they did well or poorly on the test.

In this study the authors found that self-esteem was higher the more individuals attributed their success to ability, which these researchers interpreted as ability attributions mediating claimed handicaps and self-esteem—so claimed handicaps affected ability attributions which in turn affected self-esteem. Generally, as far as ability ratings go, men and HSE individuals rate themselves as holding higher abilities than women and LSE individuals do. One interesting finding was that HSE-HSH men rated their abilities in psychology significantly higher than non HSE-HSH individuals even though they scored much lower on the test. This shows that the HSE-HSH persons had a scapegoat to blame for their poor performance­—poor preparation. Lastly, although global self-esteem slightly increased prediction of psychology ability ratings (those who had higher self-esteems could be shown to have slightly higher specific ability ratings), the psychology ability rating was a significant and large predictor of global self-esteem (those who rated their specific ability highly would have significantly higher overall self-esteem).

The authors’ interpretations of their statistics is that claimed handicaps affect ability beliefs and those beliefs then affect global self-esteem and not vice versa. So self-handicapping not only affects individuals overall self-esteem but more specifically, their “beliefs of ability in a threatened domain [in this case, students’ beliefs about how good they are at psychology]” (1388).


McCrea, S. M. & Hirt, E. R. (2001). The role of ability judgments in self-handicapping. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1378-1389.

Volunteering as Therapy for Individuals with Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type

The following post is a lengthy exposition on a possible link between volunteering and Alzheimer’s disease. This post is more social psychology then neuroscience (actually, it has very little to do with neuroscience). I am not asserting that volunteering can be a useful therapy for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, rather I am making the case that there is enough evidence for research to be conducted along those lines. In other words, I see a need for someone to research whether or not volunteering is beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a serious condition that affects an estimated four million people in the United States. Most of these people are over the age 65, since the risk of developing AD increases with age. It is also estimated that there are currently over 400 thousand new cases of AD each year in the United States alone (Rodgers, 2002). The prevalence rate of Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type (DAT), according to the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders–fourth edition (DSM-IV) is “between 2% and 4% of the population over the age 65 years…[and] the prevalence increases with increasing age, particularly after age 75 years” (American Psychological Association [APA], 1994). (In this post, the terms AD and DAT are used as interchange terms, even though DAT is the Axis I code and AD is the Axis III code in the DSM–IV. This is done because most articles about Alzheimer’s use the term “AD” in lieu of “DAT”). For this post, I will first give the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for DAT. Then, I will discuss the effects of that volunteering has on older people. I will also provide some background theories about why volunteering has the effects that it does. Next, I will make the connection between AD and voluntarism.

DSM-IV Criteria for DAT

There are six main criteria associated with DAT as found in the DSM-IV. The first is:

“The development of multiple cognitive deficits manifested by both (1) memory impairment (impaired ability to learn new information or to recall previously learned information) [and] (2) one (or more) of the following cognitive disturbances: (a) aphasia (language disturbance), (b) apraxia (impaired ability to carry out motor activities despite intact motor function), (c) agnosia (failure to recognize or identify objects despite intact sensory function), (d) disturbance in executive functioning (i.e., planning, organizing, sequencing, abstracting)” (APA, 1994, p. 142).

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