Psychology of Discomfort

Don’t let your brain rot: Seek Discomfort

By Pawan Naidu

I think it’s safe to say our brains are not lazy. With storing memory, sending signals to every part of our body and constantly intaking knowledge they like to work. But we might be falling into the trap of letting our brains get complacent.

However, recent studies have shown that when you exclusively engage with cultural normal activities your brain doesn’t work at its maximum capacity and you engage in unhealthy physical and mental habits. Basically, your brain goes to sleep because it knows it can operate on autopilot. Research shows that a little unpredictability would go a long way toward making you and those around you better off.

James Mourey, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Michigan, ran experiments on guests at his mother’s holiday parties without her knowledge. First, at her Fourth of July party, he slipped a handful of plain white plates into the stack of patriotic ones. Then, at her Labor Day party, he inserted Halloween plates. Finally, Mourey positioned himself at the end of the buffet and gently stole the plates of all the guests and weighed them on a sensitive scale hidden beneath the tablecloth.

The guests were unaware they were lab rats. Mourey’s mother didn’t know her son had unknowingly manipulated her guests into participants in his science project. Mourey showed that people who happened to pick plates that mismatched the event also took less food and made healthier dietary decisions.

This is one in a series of experiments showing that a brain shocked from its easy complacency functions better than a brain kicking along on autopilot.

Another example is what researchers call the “goodbye and good riddance” obituary. We are all used to obituaries that laud the deceased as a semi-divine figure, as kind and noble and talented and humble. What happens when the obituary doesn’t fit the expected model?

To find out, Daphna Oyserman, professor of psychology and co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for Mind and Society, gathered 463 people and gave half of them a standard, glowing obituary and half of them a slightly nontraditional obituary expressing gratitude that a fictional departed mother was dead. Then she had the two groups take a cognitive test and decide whether or not to purchase small, innocuous trinkets.

“People who read the ‘good cry’ obituary were not as smart and were more willing to buy stuff than people who read the ‘glad she is gone’ one,” Oyserman said in a USC press release.

In another experiment, people who took a cognitive test bordered with pink did worse than people who took tests bordered with black or white…but only on Valentine’s Day, when pink is the comfortable color. And when people were shown odd wedding photos (green dress, purple tux, gears on the cake), they made fewer reasoning errors in a cognitive test, than a group that had been shown “culturally fluent” wedding photos (white dress, black tux, etc.).

So, of course, this means if you eat from stars-and-stripes plates on the Fourth of July, attend white weddings and read cookie-cutter obituaries, your brain will rot, your waistline will expand and you will walk zombie-like into the halls of mindless consumption.

Alright, that may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but this does mean if you want to think your best and make the best decisions, make sure the situations you encounter don’t lull your brain into a comfortable sleep. Look for situations that provide you to be cultural dysfluency.

“Cultural disfluency arises as a result of a mismatch between culture-based conscious or nonconscious expectation and situation, cuing a switch in processing style from associative to rule-based systematic processing,” according to the Oyserman.

So next time a tiny cowboy or princess rings your doorbell saying “trick or treat”, do your brain and there’s a favor and give them candy canes while saying Merry Christmas!

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