Decision making

Paradoxical Consequences of Maximizing when Choosing the Best Friends

This is an invited research digest contributed by Dr. David B Newman at the University of Southern California.

I recently received a Facebook invite to attend a friend’s party. Before indicating whether I would attend, I checked to see who else would be there. I also texted several other friends to find out what their plans for that evening were. I waited until the day of the event to RSVP just in case any other better options came up. In essence, I wanted to know everything there was to know about my different options for socializing for the evening before making a decision (e.g., who will actually show up, which alternative options exist, etc.). Of course, in such situations, it is impossible to know everything about all options. However, certain individuals may nevertheless try to examine all possible choices more than others.

This is called maximizing, a decision-making strategy in which people try to make a choice only after they have evaluated all alternatives and have found an option that meets their high standard. Maximizing is compared to satisficing, or selecting an option that is deemed good enough given the environmental constraints. Previous research has shown that maximizing is paradoxically associated with various negative psychological outcomes. For example, in one study of college seniors who were applying for jobs, those who maximized were less satisfied with their job offers, even though they were offered roughly $7,500 more in starting salaries. Notwithstanding this example, the research on maximizing has focused almost exclusively on consumer related domains, such as the choice one faces when selecting a particular ice cream flavor. My colleagues and I wondered whether maximizing when forming friendships would also be negatively related to well-being.

We hypothesized that individuals who maximize when selecting friends would be more likely to regret their decisions (“maybe I should have gone to the other party with cooler friends”) and this would lower their well-being. If so, the negative relationship between maximizing and well-being should be stronger when there are more options available. An increased number of choices should increase the opportunities for a maximizer to regret his or her decisions. To test these hypotheses, we conducted a series of studies that have been recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To capture real-life friendship selection, we recruited undergraduate students who were participating in the fraternity and sorority recruitment process, commonly referred to as “rush.” Just after the rush process, we distributed questionnaires that contained an individual difference measure of maximizing in friendship selection and specific questions about their thoughts, feelings, and well-being during rush. We found that individuals who maximize in selecting friends were less satisfied with their chosen fraternity/sorority, regretted their decision more, and experienced greater levels of negative emotions during rush compared to those who satisficed. Moreover, among those who were already members of a fraternity or sorority, maximizers were more likely than satisficers to regret their previous decision and were less satisfied with their fraternity/sorority choice that they made several years ago. They were also less satisfied with their choices of new fraternity and sorority members, and they regretted these decisions more than satisficers.

Next, we used a diary study to examine daily fluctuations of maximizing in selecting friends. This technique allowed us to examine within-person relationships between maximizing and well-being, a level of analysis that is mathematically independent from between-person relationships. We found that on days when people maximized while selecting who to spend time with, people were less satisfied with their lives, experienced greater negative emotions, and reported lower levels of self-esteem on that day. These within-person relationships were mediated by daily states of regret and were moderated by the number of daily acquaintances/friends met that day. That is, when individuals met many new friends or acquaintances (i.e., when the number of choices for potential friendships was high), daily states of maximizing were more strongly negatively related to well-being than when the number of new acquaintances/friends was low.

These studies extend the work on maximizing to decisions about friendships. Although correlational, these findings imply that attempts to maximize when selecting potential friends is paradoxically detrimental to well-being. When faced with a choice about which party or social gathering to attend, it is ok to find out some information about each option. But do not spend an excessive amount of time trying to find the very best choice because this could cause you to regret your decision later on. Instead, try to be present and enjoy the interactions with the friends you have chosen. This could help you become a little bit happier.


Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress

This is an invited research digest contributed by Dr. Michaela C. Pascoe of Australian Catholic University.

Meditation is a popular form of stress management, and some research shows that it can be helpful in decreasing how stressed we feel when faced with challenges. Many of these studies that have looked at physiological markers of stress both before and after meditation training have not included a control group, and therefore it is difficult to know if it is the meditation training specifically resulting in improved stress management. Perhaps just being enrolled in a study makes people think about stress management and that helps, regardless of what intervention they are receiving.   

 It is important to validate if meditation is effective in meditating stress-reactivity using studies with a control group. Therefore in our meta-analysis, we collected data from randomised control trials of mediation versus an active control group on markers of stress. Randomised control trials are studies where participants can be randomly assigned to either the meditation or a control group, such as aerobic exercise or education. Randomised control trials are considered to provide reliable scientific evidence when well conducted, and examining data from a number of these, as is done with a meta-analysis, can provide reliable evidence. 

 We extracted data from randomised control trials and looked at the effect of different mediation forms on markers of stress, compared to the active control groups. The meditation forms were open monitoring, focused attention and automatic self-transcending meditation.

Open monitoring or mindfulness-based meditation involves non-reactive observation of the content of ongoing experience, to become reflectively aware of cognitive and emotional patterns.  In focused attention meditation, attention is focused and sustained on a particular object and brought back to the object when the mind has wandered. Thus, the meditator is controlling one’s own attention. Automatic self-transcending meditation involves a meaningless mantra that the meditator can attend to without effort or concentration, with the aim of the mantra becoming secondary and ultimately disappearing as self-awareness increases. In automatic self-transcending meditation the mind should be free from focus and mental effort.

We included forty-five randomized control trials in our analysis. We found that focused attention and automatic self-transcending meditation subtypes reduced systolic blood pressure, which was considered low level scientific evidence, which means that the findings should interpreted with caution and that more research needs to be conducted to confirm or refute the findings. Focused attention meditations additionally reduced cortisol, also considered low level evidence and open monitoring meditations reduced heart rate, which was considered moderate level evidence, which means that we can have more faith that the finding is accurate however there are still limitations. Therefore, the evidence for the benefit of open monitoring meditation is higher than the level of evidence for focused attention and automatic self-transcending meditation subtypes and further research should be conducted to confirm or refute these findings. Therefore, while these results are promising, further research should be conducted in terms of how different mediation subtypes influence what markers of stress.

Editor’s Comment

This is a research digest of a recent meta-analysis. Meta-analysis is a statistical method that synthesizes findings from multiple studies and generalizes results to a larger population. Meta-analysis provides the soundest scientific evidence. The highlight of this meta-analysis is the inclusion of studies that used active control groups such as aerobic exercise or education. Thus, any significant effect of meditation will reveal its benefits beyond engaging in aerobic exercise or receiving educational lectures. This meta-analysis by Dr. Michaela C. Pascoe did find this kind of significant effects, suggesting robust stress-reducing powers of meditation. Of note, open monitoring or mindfulness-based meditation had the highest level evidence. You can learn more about mindfulness by taking an online test.


Dream Your Way to More Health and Happiness

This is an invited research digest, contributed by Rubin Naiman, Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, with Sarah Moran

Where would we be without our dreams? When dreaming, or REM sleep, takes a hit, we lose so much more than we realize. The loss of dreams holds us back us on every level, compromising our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

An increasing number of people understand that sleep deprivation is a widespread public health problem. But dream deprivation? It’s a silent epidemic—and one that’s consistently overlooked.

When we sleep, our brains prioritize non-REM sleep stages over the REM/dream stage. That means if we don’t get enough quality sleep, dreams are the first thing to go. So if sleep is poor, dreaming is inevitably poor too. Many of the problems associated with sleep deprivation might actually be the result of dream deprivation. 

A growing number of studies show dream loss takes a serious toll on our health and well-being. Dream loss compromises our immunity, mood and emotional regulation, memory consolidation, creativity and spiritual experiences. And it raises the risk for illness, inflammation, depression, anxiety, memory loss, weight gain and other health problems. My paper “Dreamless: the silent epidemic of REM sleep loss,” published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, provides more detail. 

Our dreams take a hit from a range of culprits, including: 

  • Sleep loss. Artificial light at night (LAN) allows people to expand their waking hours and push back their bedtime. In addition, the exposure to light disrupts the body’s production of melatonin, a natural hormone that promotes sleep and REM/dreaming. Insomnia, insufficient sleep syndrome and sleep apnea are all linked with disordered REM. 
  • Medications. Numerous over-the-counter and prescription medications disrupt REM sleep. These include many sleeping pills, most antidepressants, tranquilizers and anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl.
  • Substances. Millions of people use alcohol and cannabis, believing it helps them with sleep. It’s true that both substances can help people fall asleep faster, but it’s also true that alcohol and cannabis suppress and disrupt REM/dreaming. 
  • Attitudes. Dreams are often viewed through an overly medicalized, depersonalized and “wake-centric” perspective. The assumption is that the experience of waking consciousness is more valuable and that the experience of dreaming is meaningless. 

Individually and collectively we must recognize the value of dreams for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being and give them the respect they deserve. We can help restore our dream loss by: 

  • Expanding our awareness of dreams. This can be done on a personal level by making sleep more of a priority and by noticing, remembering and reflecting on our dreams. Keep a dream journal at your bedside to record dreams. Share interesting dreams with loved ones or with others in a dream support group or dream circle. 
  • Improving sleep habits. More and better quality sleep naturally leads to more and better quality REM. Implement healthy sleep hygiene habits and get to bed earlier so you don’t need an alarm to wake. You can also reduce exposure to LAN by keeping indoor lights dim in the evening and by using blue blocker technology if you must look at a screen near bedtime. 
  • Consider trying oneirogens, substances that promote dreaming. You can find recipes of botanicals and nutraceuticals that support dreaming. Melatonin, when used correctly, can also improve sleep and dreams. (Usually 0.3—1.0 mg of a time-release formula is ideal). 
  • Expanding social consciousness. There are several ways to address REM/dream loss on a broader scale, including through public health education campaigns, increased research on REM/dreaming and also by establishing parameters for diagnosing dream loss. 

The research is clear that REM/dreaming is critical for our health and well-being. And as great philosophers and ancient wisdom traditions have always known, our dreams can be healing in every sense of the word. They can bring insight, creativity and spiritual connection. They can teach us more about who we really are. When we recapture our lost dreams and reconnect with their value, we can live waking life more fully.


Your Baby’s Developing Brain

Are you pregnant or thinking about starting a family?

Do you want the best start possible for your baby, providing them with natural brain development?

Do you want to make sure your own mental health won’t have a negative impact on your baby’s developing brain?

In this fascinating, well-researched and informative series, Your Baby’s Developing Brain, author Dr. Chong Chen uses the knowledge he has gleaned from years of painstaking research, to help you give your unborn baby the start in life it deserves, with a look at things like:

  • How to sow the seeds of intelligence
  • The fundamental principles of parenting
  • Diet, weight and nutrition
  • Avoiding environmental risks
  • Getting the right amount of sleep
  • How to educate your unborn baby
  • Music to listen to
  • Managing emotions
  • And much more…

Getting the right start in life is important for every child. It is a challenge for parents to know what is best and how to achieve it, but with this series to help you can eliminate many of the dangers and begin your child’s education while it’s still in the womb.

Get your copy of this illuminating series, Your Baby’s Developing Brain, now and give your child the perfect start in life!


Book One Psychology for Pregnancy: How Your Mental Health During Pregnancy Programs Your Baby’s Developing Brain


Book Two The Seed of Intelligence: Boost Your Baby’s Developing Brain Through Optimal Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyle


Book Three The Wonder of Prenatal Education: Why You Should Listen to Mozart and Sing to Your Baby While Pregnant


Believe it or not, everything starts in the womb. A pregnancy’s full potential can be reached through a careful analysis and adjustment of the mother’s external and mental world…“Your Baby’s Developing Brain” Series by Dr. Chong Chen is a great resource to add to your knowledge about the way we function as humans and how to assist future tiny humans to reach their best physical and psychological potential.

I believe Dr. Chong Chen’s work is socially valuable, not only due to its content and immediate impact, but mainly because it promotes a lifestyle based on personal responsibility and engagement. We have the scientific data to better understand and even control significant parts of our lives. We can now update our knowledge, our attitudes and we can act accordingly, gradually changing the immediate world we live in and in time, contributing to the global social development and progress.

— Lucia GrosaruPsychology Corner

Twelve tips to help you get a better sleep

Sometimes, I struggle to fall asleep at night. I would lie in bed all night, trying to stop myself from thinking about anything specific. And during these times, there was always an impulse to get my phone and browse news or SNS. I would always have to struggle for a few minutes against this idea.

There is abundant neuroscientific evidence that evening use of light-emitting devices (LEDs) suppresses melatonin and increases alertness. LEDs produce enhanced short-wavelength light emissions when displaying texts. As a result, the latency to fall asleep prolongs, and the amount of REM sleep decreases. Evening use of LEDs thus leads to poor sleep quality. In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers compared the effects of reading an eBook on a LED with reading a printed book in the hours before bedtime. It was found that, compared to those reading a printed book, subjects reading an eBook took significantly longer to fall asleep, had delayed timing of their circadian clock, and lower next-morning alertness.

Notably, early pubertal children, namely 4-6th-grade elementary students, are particularly sensitive to evening light and show sleep disturbance after using LEDs before bedtime. Frequent usage of LEDs before bedtime impairs their alertness, attention, and learning efficiency the next day. Indeed, it has been reported that high school students who text longer at night after lights are out sleep fewer hours, are sleepier during the day, and have lower academic achievement.

Avoiding the use of LEDs before bedtime is essential. These findings also suggest that healthy sleep habits are important for optimal performance during the day time. In my new book written for pregnant women, The Seed of Intelligence: Boost Your Baby’s Developing Brain through Optimal Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyle, I summarized twelve strategies that help optimize sleep. I share them with you here:

  1. Establish more regularity and consistency in the timing of daily activities, especially the timing of getting up, evening meals, and bedtime routine. For example, you may want to read, take a hot shower, and then go to bed. Higher levels of regularity in behavioral rhythms are associated with better sleep outcomes, lower depression, and improved health.
  2. Make your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark, and your bed comfortable to promote sleep.
  3. Use your bedroom only for sleep, do not work or watch TV or videos in bed. This helps to establish a conditioning between your bedroom and sleep.
  4. Nap early, keep it short and before 5 p.m. Regular napping has been associated with enhanced mood, reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and better cognitive functioning; but late napping may interfere with night sleep.
  5. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine for three to six hours before bedtime, as these chemicals interfere with sleep.
  6. Avoid heavy meals 2–3 hours before bedtime. Eating big or spicy meals may cause discomfort and interfere with sleep. If you feel hungry, try a light snack at least 45 minutes before bedtime.
  7. Consume enough drinks during the day, but balance it before sleep so that you won’t wake up thirsty nor have to go to bathroom in the middle of
  8. Do not use light-emitting electronic devices such as cell phones and tablets before bedtime, as it has negative effects on sleep.
  9. Exercise every day, as regular exercise improves sleep quality. But try to avoid vigorous exercise within 2 hours of going to bed, for vigorous late-night exercise may produce increased arousal and prolong your sleep onset latency.
  10. Try to reduce total sitting time and time spent television viewing. The more total sitting time and time spent viewing television, the greater odds of long sleep onset latency (≥ 30 min), waking up too early in the morning and poor sleep quality, and the higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea.
  11. If you can’t fall asleep after 20–30 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing, for example reading or listening to slow, soothing music until you are tired enough to sleep.
  12. Don’t stare at your clock at night. It actually increases stress and interferes with sleep.

There is a general belief that certain food may improve sleep quality. I’m now reviewing the scientific evidence and will share with you the result soon.


Coming soon: Psychology for Pregnancy


As someone with an extensive background in medicine, psychiatry, and brain science, my friends and family had been approaching me, asking what science says about pregnancy and parenting. They wanted to know how one can boost a baby’s brain development, and of course, raise a genius. To answer the question, I set out by myself to answer the unknown through research. After over 6-years of extensive research, I finally completed this comprehensive pregnancy report: Psychology for Pregnancy: How Your Mental Health During Pregnancy Programs Your Baby’s Developing Brain. The book will be officially released on August 8, 2017.

There are many books out there on how to promote the physical health of a baby. I was interested in the brain development as it relates to intellectual, emotional, and social functioning. This is a finding all parents deserve to know and understand.

Here are three endorsements for the book:

“A very impressive work. Psychology for Pregnancy is a must-read for every parent who cares about the future of their child.”

— Takeshi Inoue, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Tokyo Medical University, Japan

Pleasurable, informative, and motivating, all at the same time.”

—  Gregor Hasler, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, University of Bern, Switzerland; Secretary, Section of Affective Disorders, World Psychiatric Association

“I had never thought of how much your psychological state could affect you and your baby during pregnancy. As I read the title I didn’t know it would be so inspiring before reading the whole book. There were so many great things in this book.”

─ Sharrell Porter, Exercise Physiologist

Spread the word on this book’s official availability, and head on over here for more information and download a FREE sample.


The art and science of memory: a journey towards remembering everything

Memory is everything we have. We are our memory and humans have been constantly searching for ways to improve memory. Mnemonics, a technique that boosts memory, has been around for centuries. Sherlock’s mind palace is but one example. It is more professionally known as “the method of loci”. The method of loci was extensively used by the ancient Greek and Roman orators. Together, with “the major system”, these two techniques perhaps are the most popular mnemonics.

About four years ago, I tried them and managed to remember pi to 1,100 digits within a week, by practicing some 30-60 minutes a day. Joshua Foer, another guy, also tried these techniques. He managed to train himself to be a professional mental athlete and won the United States Memory Championship. You can find his personal experience in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything.

Mnemonics is not just an art, but also a sound science. Earlier this year, Martin Dresler at Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany published a study on mnemonic training in the journal Neuron. Using fMRI, he showed that a six-week mnemonic training changed subjects’ brain networks and made their brains activities more like those of the world’s top 50 memory athletes. The training consisted of daily 30 minutes of a web-based program using the method of loci. Dresler found that the training dramatically improved the subjects’ memory performance, so that they could remember over three times more words than control subjects who did not attend the training. Meanwhile, after training, the subjects exhibited brain patterns more like those of the world’s most successful memory athletes. This study suggests that mnemonic training can change the brain to support superior memory.

The idea that our experience changes our brain is not unfamiliar to us. British scientist Eleanor A. Maguire’s pioneering research of London taxi drivers has been a milestone in this field. Eleanor found that London taxi drivers, who navigated in the city on a regular basis, had larger posterior hippocampus than control subjects who did not drive taxis. These taxi drivers also had larger posterior hippocampus than driving experience matched bus drivers who followed a set of predetermined routes during driving.

These studies encourage us to set out on a new journey towards better memory, and a more fulfilled life. Stay tuned, we will introduce more on this topic.


Married people have lower levels of stress hormone than single people do

Recently Brian Chin at Carnegie Mellon University published an interesting paper on Psychoneuroendocrinology. Chin showed that compared to single people, married people have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. The level of salivary cortisol resembles that in the blood. Notably, in this study, the salivary cortisol was measured during waking hours on three separate days. This suggests that the level of cortisol here reflects the basal or chronic level of stress response in the body.

Stressed people, shift-time workers, sleep deprived individuals, patients receiving hormone therapies, depressed people (melancholic), and overweight people often exhibit high levels of cortisol. Chin’s study suggests that single people are more stressed than married people and that marriage buffers chronic stress.

This finding reminds me of several insightful studies published years ago. When threatened by electric shock in the laboratory, compared to women holding a male stranger’s hand or no hand at all, married women holding their husband’s hand exhibited attenuated brain activation in areas representation threat responses such as the anterior insula. This threat buffering effect varied with marital quality, so women with higher marital quality show much less activation in the threat-related brain areas.

High-quality partner support is the magic here. I will treat this topic thoroughly in my forthcoming book Psychology for Pregnancy . Again I’ll keep you updated.


Playing Tennis Enhances Cognitive Ability

Congratulations to Dr. Ishihara and Professor Mizuno for the acceptance of their new paper: “Relationship of tennis play to executive function in children and adolescents”.

Executive function is a core set of cognitive abilities. Executive function determines our fluid intelligence, that is our reasoning and problem-solving abilities. An example of executive function is working memory or the capacity to hold multiple bits of information. For instance, try to do this mental arithmetic within 5 seconds:

67 x 78.

Challenging? Sure, because our working memory is limited. It is difficult to hold five or six pieces of information in the mind while doing the calculation. Yet, there does exist individual differences so that some people have higher working memory. They are better at reasoning and processing information.

In this study, Dr. Ishihara and Professor Mizuno reported that in 6-15-year-old students, older students had executive function higher than younger students. That is, as a young child grows older, he/she will have greater executive function. This reflects the development maturity of cognitive ability. Meanwhile, students with higher BMIs tended to show executive function lower than those with lower BMIs. This is consistent with the detrimental influence of abdominal fat and obesity on the brain.

More importantly, playing tennis also boosted executive function. Students who played tennis more frequently and for more years showed higher executive function. Say, a student who plays tennis three times per week will have executive function way higher than another student who plays merely once a week. Nevertheless, even among those who play merely once a week, the more total years of tennis experience, the higher the executive function.

Tennis, just like soccer and basketball, is a cognitively stimulating sport. The more you play it, the more enhanced brain capacity you get. I will treat this topic, the benefit of sports and exercise on our brain and mind, in two of my forthcoming books: Fitness Powered Brains: Optimize Your Productivity, Leadership and Performance and Plato’s Insight: How Physical Exercise Boosts Mental Excellence