The Psychology of Video Games

My friend Josué Cardona joined me on THE PSYCH SHOW to talk about the psychology of video games (while playing Star Wars: Battlefront). We discussed what makes them fun, why we lose interest in games, whether or not video games make us violent, if you can become addicted to them, and how they can help us grow. 

For more video game psychology, check out Josué's panel at PAX East.

Science Fiction and the Search for Gratitude on Thanksgiving


I only have one rule for this blog - reference one finding from psychology and one work of science fiction in every post. 

When I sat down to write a Thanksgiving article, it was easy to quote research on gratitude. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls gratitude a "metastrategy for achieving happiness". Experimental research has revealed that participants who were asked to count their blessing once a week for ten weeks felt more optimistic, more satisfied with their lives, had better health, exercised more, and reported fewer headaches, acne, coughing, and nausea than control groups. Collectively, research indicates that gratitude helps you:

  1. appreciate life's joys 
  2. increase self-esteem 
  3. cope under extreme stress 
  4. nurture resilience in the face of loss and trauma 
  5. foster altruism 
  6. build social relationships 
  7. undo negative emotions 
  8. combat hedonic adaptation

It doesn't take much either - practicing gratitude just once a week leads to improved physical and mental health. You can write in a journal, share your thoughts with a loved one, write letters (even if they aren't sent), make gratitude calls, or a bunch of other things. Giving thanks is really, really, really good for you! 

So that's the psychology part of the post - easy as pie.

It was a lot harder to write about Thanksgiving in science fiction. I couldn't think of any science fiction story that directly relates to gratitude (Back to the Future was a contender), turkeys, Native Americans (I considered Chakotay episodes from Star Trek: Voyager), or pilgrims (Scott Pilgrim unfortunately doesn't count).  

A Google search for "science fiction Thanksgiving" led me to a fun scifi Thanksgiving grace by John Scalzi. Here's a sample: 

We also thank you for once again not allowing our technology to gain sentience, to launch our own missiles at us, to send a robot back in time to kill the mother of the human resistance, to enslave us all, and finally to use our bodies as batteries. That doesn't even make sense from an energy-management point of view, Lord, and you'd think the robots would know that. But in your wisdom, you haven't made it an issue yet, so thank you.

I loved the humor, but it didn’t help me crack this story. 

Then I thought about the Buzz Lightyear balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade…that did nothing but kill time.  

Buzz Lightyear in the 2010 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

Buzz Lightyear in the 2010 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

I had the idea of writing about all the science fiction films I'm grateful for this year (Hunger Games, Avengers, Looper), but then I couldn't stop thinking about how disappointed I was with Prometheus

Ultimately, I was inspired by this clip from last week’s Saturday Night Live:

SNL reminded me that Thanksgiving isn't just about gratitude and food, it's also about being stuck at home with your family. Then I knew immediately what episode to write about - Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Family".

The episode takes place right after the U.S.S. Enterprise stops a Borg invasion. The crew is stuck in Earth orbit while the ship is being repaired. Captain Picard decides to visit his estranged brother, Worf gets an unexpected (and unwanted) visit from his adopted parents, and Wesley watches a message his deceased father made for him shortly before he died.

Everything about Thanksgiving is captured here. The dread of being stuck in uncomfortable situations (Worf: "I am not looking forward to this…I wish they would come so it would begin and end sooner."), realizing that you have changed while your home has not (Picard: "Everything is exactly as I remember it. The house, hills, every tree, every bush seems untouched by the passage of time."), and reminders of those who are no longer with you (Dr. Crusher: "Jack recorded a holographic message for Wesley just after he was born. It was a gift for him when he grew up. Jack was going to make many more of them - he never had the chance."). 

The episode isn't just about the mess of families (though there is plenty of that), it's about the dialectics of them. Dialectical thinking refers to understanding ideas through relationships (e.g. we know light because of dark, up because of down). It’s about searching for what is being left out and honoring the wisdom in two opposing perspectives. So often strong feelings associated with the holidays get us stuck on one side of a dialectic ("it's going to be awkward, boring, and sad"). Yes, being with your family is awkward and it's also comforting. You might be bored as well as excited about your family's holiday traditions. Reflecting on relatives you have lost is sad while it also reminds you of the joy they brought to your life.

Ultimately, the characters in this episode are able to experience gratitude once they embrace their family's dialectics. For Picard, it's a matter of understanding the disagreement and similarity between him and his brother (see the clip below). Worf must integrate the distance and closeness he feels for his parents. Wesley balances the sadness and admiration he has for his father. 

You can probably find similar dialectics in your own family (I feel a lot like Worf this time of year). Embracing the mess of our families, both the good and bad, will not only help us enjoy our Thanksgiving, but it will also increase the chance of experiencing gratitude for the time we have with our loved ones today.

Star Wars Episode VII, Star Trek into Darkness, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, and the Adaptability of Fans

There have been some major surprise announcements in the world of science fiction these past few weeks regarding the future of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. Together, these stories highlight the adaptability of all fans. 

The granddaddy of them all was the October 30th revelation that Disney purchased Lucasfilm and was already developing Star Wars Episode VII for a 2015 release (watch George Lucas explain why he sold Lucasfilm in the video below). No one saw this coming. In the 70s and 80s, George Lucas teased fans with the idea of a 12 part Star Wars movie series – one prequel trilogy and two sequel trilogies. However, for the past 15 years Lucas has maintained that the prequel trilogy completed the story he envisioned and there will be no more Star Wars films. With and without the prospect of new films, the Star Wars fan community has thrived. Just look at the number of fan films and gatherings that have occurred in the last decade.    

Similarly, Trekkies have flourished in the face of a declining franchise. In 2005, after years of disappointing television ratings for Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Nemesis’s dismal box office performance, production on new Star Trek was suspended (the first time in 18 years). While fans were disappointed, many continued to flock to conventions and websites were full of activity. Now, with Star Trek into Darkness (a sequel to J.J. Abrams’s highly successful 2009 rebooted film) on the horizon, Trekkies are devouring any information they can get from the notoriously secretive director (e.g. scrutinizing a three-frame clip of the movie shown on Conan, see below). When it was announced last week that a 9 minute preview of the new movie will be shown before The Hobbit IMAX 3D, presale tickets for Hobbit skyrocketed (this was the only reason I purchased my tickets). Regardless of the franchise’s strength, Trekkies are an intensely active community.

Fans of the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica franchise also have reason to celebrate - after years in limbo, the 2nd prequel to Battlestar Galactica, Blood and Chrome, suddenly premiered on November 9th (see the trailer below). Many fans worried they would never see the webseries after the universally panned spinoff movie, The Plan, and the cancellation of Caprica (Battlestar's first prequel series). Like Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica fans have remained active on and offline despite uncertainty in their franchise.

Just what is happening? How are science fiction fans able to accept the "end" of their beloved franchises and why do they later embrace their return?

The answer starts with a core psychological process – sensory adaptation. This is the process by which we adjust to our environments. Our nervous system is wired to lookout for changes around us (e.g. a new noise outside the window). New information is literally exciting for our neurons. But once changes remain constant (e.g. the noise does not go away), our senses get used to the stimuli and neurons stop firing. Adaptation also occurs with emotions. With time, we get used to our feelings and habituate back to how we feel most of the time (our baseline). Given enough time, the excitement of being on vacation wears off, the sadness of moving from a warm to cold climate fades away, and your new smartphone fails to bring you joy. Not only does adaptation shape the way we see the world, it might be the reason we evolved the way we did

Adaptation has also influenced the psychology of happiness (positive psychology). Researchers have discovered that life circumstances (i.e. the things that happen to you) have little influence on our overall happiness. Why? Because we get used to the circumstances we find ourselves in. How we respond to circumstances is far more important than what happens to us (for a great overview of this, check out Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness). While changes in our circumstances do impact our short-term happiness, over the long-term we adjust and return to a stable level of happiness. This is called the hedonic treadmill. Think of your happiness like a thermostat – while the temperature (your feelings) might fluctuate here and there, overall it tends to stay around 70 degrees (your average level of happiness). Everyone's average is different, and we can change our behavior to live in the upper range of our average, but we will always bounce back to our baseline. Some people won't bounce back and develop depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems, but I'll save that story for another day. 

My favorite example of hedonic adaptation comes from the classic 1978 study on lottery winners and paralyzed individuals. You would expect that lottery winners would be much happier after winning up to $1,000,000. You might also predict declines in happiness for recently paralyzed individuals. In this study, while there was an initial bump in happiness for lottery winners and a decline in the paralyzed groups, overall in the long-term everyone returned to how they felt before winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed. Like a thermostat, these participants bounced back to how they felt prior to their life-changing circumstances. 

Adaptation also helps us understand the relationship between income and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-Sent-Me-Hi) described in If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy that after overcoming poverty, increased income only minimally affects our happiness. Once you can comfortably pay your bills, being able to purchase more stuff doesn't make you feel that much better (it does result in better healthcare, education, and opportunities to spend time with friends and family though). Our cultural belief that the road to happiness is financial wealth, combined with the empirical finding that we are very bad at predicting how we will feel in the future, results in many Americans pursuing a goal they have no chance attaining (just like the protagonist in 1999's Fight Club, see below). 

This line of research has major implications for fans. We were sad when the original Star Wars trilogy ended and Star Trek The Original Series was canceled, but we bounced back (hedonic treadmill). When both franchises returned, we celebrated (our nervous system is wired to see change) and we eventually got used to Jar Jar Binks and Wesley Crusher. Fans will accept Disney control of Star Wars, much as they came to terms with J. J. Abrams’s lens flares. Battlestar Galactica’s Blood and Chrome may not be perfect, but we will get used to it’s video game like effects because we love the universe so much. Even with “dead” franchises (e.g. Firefly, Harry Potter), fans find a way to stay engaged.

We see the same type of adaptation outside science fiction with sports fans following their teams despite their performance and political zealots supporting their candidates despite success or failure at the polls. The decline of a franchise might prevent a new generation from becoming fans (which is why Lucas decided to bring back Star Wars via Disney and J. J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek), but it doesn’t prevent current fans from continuing to find a way to enjoy the characters and stories they love so much.

How Bane & Hurricane Sandy Increased Teamwork and Altruism in Gotham City

Hurricane Sandy came and went. While I escaped the storm safe and sound, some of my friends and family were not so lucky. Many are still without power, some experienced flooding, and two had extensive damage to their property.  

Walking around New York City post-Sandy was surreal. Above 40th street, New York felt like Metropolis under the watchful eye of Superman with folks brunching and kids trick-or-treating. Below 40th, it was Gotham City under the occupation of Bane with limited resources and a crumbling infrastructure.

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/Eduardo Munoz, Lower Manhattan before and after Hurricane Sandy, via  Washington Post .

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/Eduardo Munoz, Lower Manhattan before and after Hurricane Sandy, via Washington Post.

Yet, despite these horrible conditions, New Yorkers across the city rallied around each other, shared what they had, and reached out to those who couldn't help themselves. 

We've seen this before, both in science fiction and reality. In this summer's The Dark Knight Rises, Gothamites came together to fight the brutal forces of Bane. A similar phenomenon was observed in the real Gotham City post 9/11/2001 - New Yorkers put their differences aside to ensure their neighbors were safe. 

A major theme in the Dark Knight trilogy is the rise of Gothamites from an apathetic population to one that takes responsibility for its city. 

A major theme in the Dark Knight trilogy is the rise of Gothamites from an apathetic population to one that takes responsibility for its city. 

Psychologists Christopher Peterson (who sadly passed away last month) and Martin Seligman, pioneers in the field of positive psychology, investigated this exact observation in a 2003 study. Peterson and Seligman used the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths (you can take it yourself here), a scientific assessment of positive traits that exist across cultures, to determine if New Yorkers were experiencing a change in character strengths before and after the events of 9/11. What they found was post 9/11, the character strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork had significantly increased. Furthermore, these strengths remained elevated 10 months after the attacks. 

What is going on here? The authors provide the following explanation: 

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, people behaved differently by turning to others, which in turn changed their social worlds so that the relevant behaviors were rewarded and thus maintained.

In other words, following 9/11 people were more likely to help each other, which in turn reinforced altruistic character strengths in the short and long term. 

While there are some problems with Peterson and Seligman's 2003 study (it was cross sectional, not longitudinal, and could suffer from a sampling bias), it did empirically demonstrate a trend that is often observed in the aftermath of traumatic events - people help each other.

The murder of Kitty Genovese, and the  ironic myth  of bystandard apathy in her case, ignited research in the field of altruism. 

The murder of Kitty Genovese, and the ironic myth of bystandard apathy in her case, ignited research in the field of altruism. 

But why does this happen? We know from social psychology that individuals are more likely to engage in altruism if they: 

  1. See a situation as an emergency.
  2. Feel personal responsibility to the other person (i.e. don't see themselves as a bystander).
  3. Have the ability to plan and implement a course of action. 

Given the above, it's likely that in these large scale disasters, most individuals feel an increased personal responsibility to their neighbors, friends, and relatives. Additionally, seeing news, blogs, photos, and tweets about the disaster increases a sense of urgency while reports of locals helping each other shows us how we can provide assistance. 

Living in a part of NYC that had power this week, I did feel a personal responsibility to provide refuge to friends who were not as fortunate. However, that responsibility only developed after reading about their suffering through Facebook updates. When displaced friends did come over, it felt good to help them (altruism is highly reinforcing). 

Peter Foley returned to Gotham's aid because of a sense of responsibility to his friend. 

Peter Foley returned to Gotham's aid because of a sense of responsibility to his friend. 

Getting back to The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane created a sense of emergency it was through teamwork and collective responsibility that Gotham rose against him. Bruce Wayne returned as Batman only after John Blake and Commission Gordon reminded him of his responsibility to protect the city. Later, Commissioner Gordon used a sense of personal responsibility, based upon their past partnership, to convince Peter Foley to stop hiding and assist in the resistance against Bane. The ultimate hero of the Dark Knight trilogy is not Batman, but the citizens of Gotham who finally accepted responsibility for fighting injustice.  

While I would never wish a disaster upon anyone, psychology has demonstrated that good things can come out of traumatic events. We can all capitalize upon these findings (e.g. create a sense of urgency, personal responsibility, and describe a course of action) to promote altruism before impending disasters, in their aftermath, and during times of personal crisis.

To learn more about how you can help those affected by Hurricane Sandy, click here for more information.