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Reassuring people can make them worry

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

I have a relative who described how he worried for several months leading up to his wedding. The actual wedding was no concern nor was the commitment. It was the wedding speech he dreaded.

He delivered the speech perfectly and breathed a sigh of relief.

I also have a colleague who complained about a sore foot. Although he had been doing a lot of extra walking, he naturally assumed he had a blood clot.

There was no blood clot or anything serious.

After experiencing trouble swallowing I started to worry that I had oesophageal cancer. Never mind the fact that this cancer affects only a tiny percentage of the population and they are usually older folk who smoke. Nevertheless, my brain told me that death was looming.

The tests came back negative.

Does reassuring people help?

In the face of these worries and concerns our natural tendency is to reassure others that everything is going to be ok.

Interestingly, at least in the health literature, individuals can end up worrying even more when they are reassured. Studies show, for example, that children who are reassured by their parents or nurses prior to having an injection end up becoming more distressed and worried.

It seems that individuals can feel as though something particularly awful is about to happen if you’re going to all that effort to prepare them for the worst.

No doubt many of us have felt that way prior to an event that makes us anxious. On our first day at a new job we might feel more anxious if our family members approach us with big smiles to wish us luck. You only wish someone luck if there is the prospect that things could go really badly.

How often do you wish someone luck before they go to the movies?

At work during organisational restructures and change we may appreciate and expect regular communication about what’s about to happen. This communication and management involvement is a textbook approach to managing change.

But what if this continuous reassurance leads people to think, ‘Why are they reassuring me so much? Should I be worried?’

Should you reassure yourself?

Humans are good at reassuring themselves in the absence of support. As children we learn to transfer the support and assurance of others into our minds so that we always have a virtual parent or friend to calm us down.

Therapy used to focus a lot on this positive self-talk as a means of helping individuals cope with the anxieties and stressors of life. If you had negative thoughts and worries you would be instructed to challenge the legitimacy of the concern.

‘Excuse me grey matter. Do you have any references to back up the claim that I will, indeed, die of a heart attack?’

But let’s look at how this can play out. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. The brain is flexible. Whatever logic you throw at yourself, it can create all kinds of concerns that you missed.

‘Hello, Nicholas, I know you are in the low risk group for heart failure and I know there’s no family history. But what if? What if?’

Cognitive Fusion

Experts in mindfulness give this tangle of thoughts a pretty futuristic sounding name, cognitive fusion.  All it really means is that you are engaging with your thoughts as if they were real.

Mindfulness teaches individuals to practice disengaging with their thoughts instead of challenging them.

It’s a bit like dealing with an argumentative peer or neighbour. You could invest a lot of energy and time debating with them to try to make them see reason only to find that they counter every one of your points and throw up several red herrings.

Instead, the best approach might be to simply disengage from the debate entirely.

From automated coffee to automated everything with the internet of things

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

Back in the 1980s, Mr Coffee automatically brewed your coffee for you in the morning. No, this wasn’t a friendly fellow with a convenient surname. It was a machine designed to appease your caffeine addiction.

Years later, the fad of automated coffee is still present but we all seem happy enough to walk to our favourite café and wait in line for one made by a chirpy barista.

But while we wait, our smartphones automate and connect with the entire planet appeasing an even larger suite of needs: social, entertainment, communication, education and so on. I call it ‘Mr Phone’.

These devices have already changed us. They have connected us to the lives of friends and family as well as our work colleagues. It’s often the first thing we check in the morning, right before that semi-automated coffee.

The smartphone is essentially a part of us whether we like it or not. But what if this was just the beginning?

An interesting global megatrend called ‘the internet of things’ aka ‘Mr Everything’ looks to radically transform us. Essentially, it involves the interconnectivity of everything around us through technology.

Here’re a few changes to your life once the internet of things really takes off.

You won’t need to take care

When cars can talk to each other and the infrastructure around them, they will be unable to collide. This means the almost elimination of road trauma and eventual redundancy of law enforcement on the road.

You won’t need to plan

Your pantry and refrigerator will automatically scan to see if you are getting low on groceries and will automatically scan supermarkets for the lowest prices online. The supermarket will deliver the items to your door or log your shopping list for when you arrive.

You won’t have to worry about your health

Personal sensors will allow monitoring of health remotely, freeing up hospital beds. Significant changes in health will automatically trigger the medical response who will be available before you even realise you are in danger.

You will be mentally healthy…finally

Your smartwatch will be able to measure your heartrate and infer your mood. It will be able to talk to other devices to examine your habits, alerting you to modify those habits that contribute to a decline in mood.

You will be allowed to be absent-minded

Your keys will be connected and so will never be lost. Your smart locks will close behind you and refuse to lock if your keys are inside. Your car will prevent you from running red lights or even speeding up at the yellow light. It will be talking to the intersection before you even get there.

Oh, and you will still have coffee ready for you when you wake up.

Everything causes cancer

in Media Psychology by


This morning I polished off a few rashers of bacon. My risk of stomach cancer increased. However, I followed it with a cup of coffee which probably lowered my risk of liver cancer. But those alcoholic beverages over the years have probably sealed my fate there.

At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.

If it seems like every day you being told something you enjoy gives you cancer or, possibly, helps lower your risks of the disease, you might be right.

An interesting study has shown that cancer research can be biased towards showing us the links to the disease even though some of those links are tenuous at best.

The researchers took 50 common household ingredients from a cookbook and searched for studies where those ingredients were examined as to their affect on cancer.

Specifically, they examined the cancer risk of the following ingredients: veal, salt, pepper, spice, flour, egg, bread, pork, butter, tomato, lemon, duck, onion, celery, carrot, parsley, mace, sherry, olive, mushroom, tripe, milk, cheese, coffee, bacon, sugar, lobster, potato, beef, lamb, mustard, nuts, wine, peas, corn, cinnamon, cayenne, orange, tea, rum, raisin, bay leaf, cloves, thyme, vanilla, hickory, molasses, almonds, baking soda, ginger, and terrapin.

A whopping 80 per cent of these ingredients were, in one way or another, linked to cancer! That is the researchers found one or more studies which concluded that the ingredients lowered or raised the risk of certain cancers.

So goodbye scrambled eggs, cakes, roast dinners, ice-cream, sandwiches, and anything else you care to imagine. Well, not yet.

Luckily for everyone, the researchers also found that the authors of these studies were often over-stating the importance of their findings. Significant results regularly presented in the research abstracts but the non-significant results were buried in the detail.

Furthermore, many of the findings were small in size and were no longer salient when examined as part of a larger collection of studies.

In short, the evidence showing these links was pretty flimsy.

The biggest problem with this kind of research is that it can distract from less interesting, yet important, links to cancer, such as cigarettes, alcohol and sun exposure.

Because consumers are led to think that ‘everything causes cancer’ they either lose confidence in research and media reports or they can become apathetic about their chances of controlling their risk exposure. See the frustrated response to this issue from a cancer prevention organisation in Australia.

So why do the researchers oversell their findings? It’s the fault of most consumers.

We don’t like the truth to get in the way of a good story, which is why stories about the cancer fighting properties of green tea, apples, and pineapples catches our attention.

We are even drawn in by the sneaky headings like, ‘Everything causes cancer.’

It’s imperative that you read this blog for your health, damn it!

in Media Psychology by

Eat less meat! Stay out of the sun! Get more outdoor exercise! Quit smoking! Drink red wine! Don’t drink too much! Quit sugar! Cut your carbs! Get more sleep! Lose weight! Build muscle! Get lean! Everything in moderation…

Anxious? Depressed? Overwhelmed?

The sheer volume of competing messages in various formats from newspapers, social media, billboards, television and radio make it a daily challenge for advertisers to get their message to the consumer. Therefore it’s a daily challenge for consumers to make sense of sound advice and good ideas as opposed to tricks and deceptions.

To try to attract our attention, advertisers continually bombard us with more extreme images and content to encourage us to engage with their messages.

Health warnings are no different. How many of us have been drawn to and repulsed by graphic cigarette packages which depict cancerous lungs and mouths regardless of whether we smoke or not?

Graphic Australian cigarette packages

In recent years there have been efforts to highlight the dangers of tanning by showing graphic images of surgeons cutting cancers from patients.

They’re all important messages, of course, but do they work?

Research suggests we need to be cautious about trying to shock and scare people into action. For example, in one curious study, researchers had participants rate their intention to buy sunscreen. Prior to rating the sunscreen, each participant was reminded about their mortality. That is, they were reminded that they were going to die one day.


As expected, participants said they were likely to purchase sunscreen presumably because the fear of dying shocked them into being cautious.

However, for a second group of participants the researchers changed it up. After reading about their mortality, participants completed an activity that helped switch their attention and distanced them from their thoughts about dying. After the interruption, they indicated that they were less likely to purchase the same sunscreen.

When we feel threatened our immediate conscious mind does what we expect. We remove ourselves from risks and tell our future selves to behave.

Unfortunately, once the thoughts and fears subside, and the message is no longer salient, we often revert back to how we’ve behaved in the past.

A second study showed that—unconsciously—highlighting a person’s mortality seemed to generate a paradoxical effect, driving the very behaviour that the information should have supressed. That is, participants indicated they were more likely to purchase tanning products.

Why does this happen? Tanning essentially enhances our self-confidence because it improves our appearance. So, unconsciously, our motivation to tan increases as a means to feel better about ourselves after experiencing a brief yet troubling period of musing on our mortality. The researchers have written an interesting article about it here.

What does this say about health messages that continually remind us about our mortality? Could they be unintentionally driving a motivation to take risks?

Although this is just one study and I’m sure the health professionals could call on hundreds if not thousands of studies that show otherwise, this one was intriguing enough to capture my attention.

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