Author Archives: missfitz

“Live or Die, Make Your Choice”


“Live or die; make your choice” is an infamous phrase from the Saw movies. If you have never heard of the Saw movies, I’ll give you some quick background information. A man whom the media calls “Jigsaw” carefully abducts citizens and eventually wake up in intricate and personalized…situations. Each of these “situations” involve some level of sacrifice, most of them physical. Jigsaw tells each person exactly how to get out of the situation, and if he/she does not follow directions, they will ultimately die.

I am going to focus on one particular Saw trap for this blog post. This trap involved three people, one female and two males, all separately bound in a triangle formation, separated by a giant circular saw. Here is a picture I handcrafted just for you guys (this way no one gets squeamish). The X is the saw, the frownies are the people, and the woman is the top frownie.



🙁                        🙁

The basic idea is that the two men at the bottom have to push the saw towards the other man, or if they do nothing, the saw will rise upwards and kill the woman, who cannot push the saw in any direction. If no decision has been made in 60 seconds, the woman will automatically die. They have to decide to either let themselves die, or kill another human being. How would you make this decision? Would you rationalize through it and see which among you would have the least to sacrifice? Or would you simply be the noble one and accept death? Go ahead, think, I’ll wait here…

You make a decision? Well, I didn’t give you all the details of the situation…

Here’s the catch: these are not three strangers. The woman has been lying to both of these men, and has been cheating on one man with the other, and this is how they find out. Has your hypothetical decision changed?

At first the two enraged men try to battle it out between the two of them and kill the other man, but as soon as the woman roots for one man to kill the other, the situation changes. The men no longer see each other as being enemies, but as being victims of a common enemy.

If you chose to rationalize through the situation, and see who had the least to lose, you would be applying utility theory. You would outweigh the costs and benefits of each person’s death, and make a decision that would minimize costs. However, we are not sitting down and trying to decide what car to buy. This kind of decision making technique seems foreign and cold when you apply it to such a dramatic situation.

The fact is that there is an emotional component to it. If you chose to sacrifice yourself, maybe you chose so because of the threat of the feeling of regret you would feel for letting someone else die. This is a huge factor in decision making. Most of us want to avoid regret at all costs; just the anticipation of regret can make us feel guilty and sways our decision.

However, regret isn’t the only emotion at play. This article by Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel, and Davenport focuses a lot on fear and anger in ethical decision making. They report that when people feel threatened and are angry, they will likely result in non-ethical behavior and act in retaliation. This is because emotions affect the way we process information and can result in limited options and self-focused interpretations of situations. The article continues to say that feeling angry may end in a person not being able to see all the details of the surrounding situation and can even increase risk-seeking behavior. Furthermore, the article states that an angry individual may not fully anticipate all of the consequences of the decision they make while they are angry.

Of course, anger is not the only emotion here. Let’s not forget about fear. Although Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel, and Davenport say that fear is not associated with as many negative influences as anger, they do highlight the fact that fear creates more physiological responses; especially flight. However, since the men did not even attempt to flee, I would say that their anger outweighed their fear and was the ultimate factor in their decision.

In this movie, the men ultimately stopped pushing the saw and allowed it to rise and kill the woman. Although they were not happy about making the decision, they still agreed that she was the one who deserved it. Can we distinguish between utility theory applications and emotional based decision making here? Perhaps this was the most logical and reasonable conclusion. Or maybe they really acted out of anger and retaliated unjustly. One thing that does point in favor of the men acting emotionally is that the men never tried any other option to escape with all three lives. They were in a glass box, in broad daylight, and people were calling the police. Help was on the way. Yet they never tried to prolong the decision or tried to act in a way that was a little bit different.

I would also like to add that this situation is so extreme that it is hard to judge the validity of the actions of the characters. Personally, I would think that fear would play a much larger role and stunt a lot of the rationalizing the men did. If all three of the characters would experience fear like I think it would, I believe they would be trying to find a way out. I think that the flight response would play a much larger role. Granted, it is Hollywood’s version, but for the most part I think the scenario played out fairly realistically.

PS If you haven’t seen any Saw movies and want to PLEASE start with the first one, it’s awesome. If you have any problems with blood and gore, do not see these movies.


Sleep on it, you’ll feel better

Being a college student, I rarely ever feel tired, or overworked, or like I am struggling to remember things that “just won’t stick”. Did I say rarely ever? I meant always. Fortunately, Traci Pederson just put out this new article about the benefits of napping. Pederson states that taking a short nap can actually help retain new information.

Pederson conducted a study where participants were asked to memorize 90 single words, and 120 meaningless word pairs. The word pairs, like “milk” and “taxi”, were chose to eliminate familiarity effects. After the participants were exposed to the words, half of the participants watched DVDs, while the other half took a nap. The participants that were able to sleep performed significantly better than those who watched the DVDs.

The researchers looked specifically at sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are a specific type of brain activity that play a huge part in memory consolidation while you are asleep. Essentially, the more sleep spindles that occur while you sleep, the more information you will be able to recall.

Pederson concludes, “A short nap at the office or in school is enough to significantly improve learning success. Wherever people are in a learning environment, we should think seriously about the positive effects of sleep.”The company The Huffington Post seems to have accepted Pederson’s conclusions because they have “napquest” rooms, where you will find this:


This bed costs $8,000, but it is a small price to pay for better memory recall! (Maybe I’m biased because I want these at UMW).

Let’s get back into the cognitive aspect of memory and sleep. John Hamilton talks about a study where the brain activity of rats were observed. Researchers noted that certain areas of the brain were activated when the rats were in a certain location. Now here comes the awesome part; when the rats went to sleep, those areas of the brain were lit up in the same order. This hints at the idea that during sleep, memories are perhaps re-experienced when they are consolidated. When the memories are consolidated, it’s almost like they are being reviewed; the brain activates the same pattern of neural firing, thus enhancing learning

So the next time you are studying away and are getting tired, take a nap! You will feel better and your memory will remember to thank you.

The Dreaded Dress of Doom

If you have not heard about the debate that has had social media in a panic, consider yourself semi-lucky. I say semi-lucky because although it is a great example of a psychological phenomenon, it was absurdly annoying to see all the debating happening. The debate was over what color a dress was: some people saw the dress as blue and black, some people saw it as white and gold, and some people could see both patterns sometimes. Here is a picture of the dress:

If you cannot see how anyone else could see anything other than what you see, then you understand why the internet was in such a heated debate. Because people were so heated and confused, it led to a lot of explanations of the differences in perception.

One theory, which enrages me the most, is based on emotions. One Twitter user said that if a person was dealing with a negative event in his or her life, then the dress would be seen as blue and black. If the person was not experiencing any negative event, the dress would appear as white and gold. Personally, I went into some weird rage-fueled laughter when I saw this  I laughed because this explanation did not make any sense, but was enraged because people were really believing this. Of course, cones are photoreceptors which are responsible for perceiving colors. The different patterns of firing from cones are responsible for different hues and colors. The cones, which are in our eyes, are unaffected by our emotions. Furthermore, if the hypothesis of color perception changing because of our emotional state, we would have encountered an issue with our perception much earlier in life, and probably more often. No one drives home after failing a test, looks up at the sky, and says “oh I’m so mad the sky is white because of the negative event in my life”.

Another theory that tried to explain the dress of doom held a lot more weight. This  article suggests that the differences are because of the context. There is some kind of overcast of hue on the dress, whether it’s because of the lighting from the room or the phone, but some people attribute that “haze” of color on the dress to the lighting, while some people attribute it to being the actual color of the dress. If you were to print out the photo, and cut off a piece of the “blue” part of it, you’ll actually see that it is neither dark blue, nor gold, but some gross in between color. However since your brain has no context for the cut out square, and just sees the color as it is.

The last article also refers to the optical illusion of Alasdair Willkins, which is copied below:

optical illusion

This is an optical illusion because squares A and B are actually the same color (and I am two seconds away from printing this out and cutting it because I am going insane). Even though I have read the explanations behind the optical illusion, and am completely sure that Willkins and the professors in this article are way more intelligent than I am, I cannot help but think “there is no way they are the same”. Our brains are not really great at detecting fine differences in light intensity, but in the real world we don’t have to be great at it. So this optical illusion works because of the shadow cast over the square by the green cylinder. Our brains try to figure out where shadows are and tries to “correct” itself. However, as we all know, sometimes our brains do not perceive things 100% correctly.

One more aspect I want to add into this dress debate before I happily bury it forever, is that of top-down and bottom-up processing. I was one of the people who saw the dress both ways. When I first saw the dress, I had no idea why anyone was asking me what color it was, my initial reaction was black and blue. Then, as I procrastinated on the internet, I saw another picture of the same dress but it was white and gold. So I laughed, thinking there was a second picture, and when I went to send that photo to the person who originally sucked me into this debate, I almost had a heart attack as I saw the picture I had originally seen was white and gold. When I was first shown the dress, I had no previous experience with it, I had no expectations, I had no reason to doubt myself. I simply used the information I was given to build a perception; I was using bottom-up processing. Then, when I saw the dress again in different context, I was not only using raw visual input anymore: I was expecting something different. I was using my previous experiences to give me expectations and shape my perception. I think that people do not take their previous experiences into account as much as they should.

Hopefully this post does not make you doubt everything you see, but I do think we should remember that our brains can make mistakes. And more importantly, if you see blue anywhere in life, it is not a result of an emotional struggle you are going through.

PS. They found the dress on the original retailer’s website, and it is in fact black and blue.

dress real

“What about these rhymes I’ve been jottin’? They are kind of giving me confidence” Hip Hop therapy and the role of language

What first attracted me to this article was the fact that two of my favorite things were coming together: psychology and hip hop. This new program, called Hip Hop Psych, uses rap as a tool in a clinical way. The theory is based off of the idea that artists like Eminem, Tupac, and Kendrick Lamar often focus on mental health issues and other hardships. The content of their raps go beyond the explicit lyrics and into real issues like depression, anxieties, and substance abuse, as well as methods to overcome them.

This program not only explores the deeper meaning of existing rap songs, but encourages people to freestyle and write raps as a cathartic release. Even though this program is specific to the world of clinical psychology, the program (nor rap) could not work without understanding the production of speech; this is where the cognitive psychology comes in. The production of speech is a cognitive process that is vital to rapping; it is a complex process that aids the artist in rapping not only clearly and effectively, but also quickly.

Starting with the basics, there are three categories for speech sounds; these are called features. The first feature is called manner of production. Manner of production is a term that refers to how the airflow is restricted when speaking. Have you ever heard a really fast song and wondered “How is (s)he rapping that quickly? Doesn’t (s)he need to breathe?!” Well, the manner of production allows air to move in and out of your nose when producing some sounds, like the sounds the letters f, z, and r make. Compiling a lot of these letters in a sentence can help an artist rap without turning blue quite as quickly. However, the manner of production also notes that some letter sounds completely stop the flow of air, like letters p, b, and t.

The second type of feature is distinguishing between which sounds are voiced and which are not. This is sounds a bit weird, but you can tell which letters are voiced and which letters are not voiced by placing your hand on your throat and feeling which letter sounds produce vibrations. Sounds made from letters like v, z, and n, are letters that produce voiced sounds. Letters like f, s, and t make sounds that are not voiced. Rappers can use this to produce a more fluid sounding song. Verses that use a lot of one of these features, voiced or unvoiced, sound a lot more fluid and less choppy.

The third feature is called place of articulation. The place of articulation refers to where airflow is restricted when speaking. This refers to the way you shape your mouth to form certain sounds. For example, when you make a “b” sound, you pull your lips inward, which restricts a lot more air than when you tuck your bottom lip under your top row of teeth to make an “f” sound. The place of articulation is an important feature to consider when rapping because it may make a verse increasingly more (or less) difficult depending on the place of articulation.

The most talented hip-hop artists have mastered the flow of their words; there is fluency between their lyrics and often does not sound choppy. Yet the words are not all muddled together, you can still understand what the artist is saying. At first listen, you may think this is sorcery, and even though it is very impressive, it can all be understood thanks to cognitive psychology. There is a cognitive process called speech segmentation, where the listener “slices” the sentence into little pieces.  Common sense would say that these slices would occur in pauses between words, however this is not the case. The breaks really occur between certain sounds, not necessarily words. The segments happen between different phonemes. Phonemes are different combinations of the three features mentioned before. Segmenting between each individual word in any given speech is a skill we develop; we, as a listener, supply the “breaks” in between words, not the speaker.   So instead of having to pause between each individual word in a rap song, the listener can segment the song in between shifts in the sounds of certain letters.  Assuming the listener is familiar with the language, he or she should not have too much trouble understanding the words. The

Another speech phenomenon that helps rappers create their songs is coarticulation. Coarticulation means that while you are saying part of a word, your mouth is already getting ready to say the next part of it. For example, when you say the word “fly”, even when your lips are pronouncing the “f”, your tongue is already ready to pronounce the “l”. When you pronounce the “l”, your mouth is already preparing to pronounce the “y”. You can see why this function is so critical to rappers. This makes speech production so much quicker! Imagine if you had to stop and plan out each individual sound in a word?

The language that you use can affect the way you think. In THIS article by Stanford University professor Lera Boroditsky, studies have supported the idea that what language you use can affect the way you feel about a situation. The phrases “I hate you” and “you are hated by me” have the same meaning, yet can sway your feeling on a subject. If rappers can shape their words differently, they can change their outlook on a situation, and maybe even someone else’s. Without understanding how language works, a rapper may not be able to effectively get his or her point across, and subsequently might not be able to make such inspiring songs. Without this, the program Hip Hop Psych would not work nearly as well. So the next time you are listening to your favorite song, think about all of the cognitive processes involved that makes the song possible. Cognitive processes can really make you appreciate the carefully placed patterns of complex syllables that produce the songs that are important to you.