Can gratitude reduce costly impatience?

The human mind tends to devalue future rewards compared to immediate ones — a phenomenon that often leads to favoring immediate gratification over long-term wellbeing. As a consequence, patience has long been recognized to be a virtue. And indeed, the inability to resist temptation underlies a host of problems ranging from credit card debt and inadequate savings to unhealthy eating and drug addiction.The prevailing view for reducing costly impatience has emphasized the use of willpower. Emotions were to be tamped down in order to avoid irrational impulses for immediate gain. But as Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno notes, “Emotions exist to serve adaptive purposes, so the idea that emotions would always be a hindrance to long-term success makes little sense.”In a potentially landmark study forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School challenge the conventional view by demonstrating that feelings of gratitude automatically reduce financial impatience.The StudyImpatience was assessed using a set of decisions pitting desire for instant gratification against waiting for larger, future rewards. For example, participants chose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. To increase the stakes, participants had the chance to obtain one of the financial rewards they selected. But before making these decisions, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions in which they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel (a) grateful, (b) happy, or (c) neutral, depending on condition.Although participants feeling neutral and happy showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, they required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. …

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The dark side of fair play

We often think of playing fair as an altruistic behavior. We’re sacrificing our own potential gain to give others what they deserve. What could be more selfless than that? But new research from Northeastern University assistant professor of philosophy Rory Smead suggests another, darker origin behind the kindly act of fairness.Smead studies spite. It’s a conundrum that evolutionary biologists and behavioral philosophers have been mulling over for decades, and it’s still relatively unclear why the seemingly pointless behavior sticks around. Technically speaking, spite is characterized as paying a cost to harm another. It yields virtually no positive outcome for the perpetrator. So why would evolution — which is supposed to weed out such behaviors — let spite stick around?Smead’s research, conducted in collaboration with Patrick Forber of Tufts University and recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, sheds new light on this nefarious phenomenon.A common means of studying social behaviors is through simplified models and games. One of these is called the ultimatum game, in which a one player proposes a division of resources the other player can either accept or reject. Suppose each interaction concerns the distribution of 10 one-​​dollar bills. …

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400-year study finds Northeast forests resilient, changing

Sep. 5, 2013 — A joint Harvard-Smithsonian study released today in the journal PLOS ONE reveals how much — and how little — Northeastern forests have changed after centuries of intensive land use.A hike through today’s woods will reveal the same types of trees that a colonial settler would have encountered 400 years ago. But the similarities end there. Jonathan Thompson, research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and lead author of the new study, explains, “If you only looked at a tree species list, you’d have the impression that Northeast forests haven’t changed. But once you start mapping the trees, and counting them up, a different picture emerges.” Thompson adds, “In some ways the forest is completely transformed.”To draw these conclusions, Thompson and his colleagues compared colonial-era tree records to modern US Forest Service data across a 9-state area stretching from Pennsylvania to Maine.Their results show stark contrasts between pre-colonial forests and today. Maples have exploded across the Northeast, their numbers increasing by more than 20 percent in most towns. Other tree types have declined sharply. Beeches, oaks, and chestnuts show the most pronounced loss — big trouble, Thompson notes, for wildlife that depend on tree nuts for winter survival.Pine numbers have shifted more than any other tree type, increasing in some places, decreasing elsewhere. Thompson pins this variability to ecology and economy: “Pine is valuable for timber, but quick to return after cutting. It has a social and environmental dynamism to it.”The nine states in the study share a similar — and notable — forest history: during the 18th and 19th centuries, more than half the forestland was cleared for agriculture and cut for timber. …

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People have more empathy for battered dogs than human adult, but not child, victims

Aug. 10, 2013 — People have more empathy for battered puppies and full grown dogs than they do for some humans — adults, but not children, finds new research to be presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.”Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering,” said Jack Levin, the Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University. “Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component. The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids.”In their study, Levin and co-author Arnold Arluke, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, considered the opinions of 240 men and women, most of whom were white and between the ages of 18-25, at a large northeastern university. Participants randomly received one of four fictional news articles about the beating of a one-year-old child, an adult in his thirties, a puppy, or a 6-year-old dog. The stories were identical except for the victim’s identify. After reading their story, respondents were asked to rate their feelings of empathy towards the victim.”We were surprised by the interaction of age and species,” Levin said. “Age seems to trump species, when it comes to eliciting empathy. In addition, it appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while full grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies.”Interestingly, the researchers found that the difference in empathy for children versus puppies was statistically non-significant.As for considering the opinions of 240 college students, Levin said it is common practice to use homogenous samples for studies such as his that center around an experiment. “Unlike survey research, experiments usually employ a homogenous sample in order to establish a cause and effect relationship rather than to generalize a large population,” Levin said. …

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Wood not so green a biofuel? Logging may have greater impact on carbon emissions than previously thought

June 11, 2013 — Using wood for energy is considered cleaner than fossil fuels, but a Dartmouth College-led study finds that logging may release large amounts of carbon stored in deep forest soils.Global atmospheric studies often don’t consider carbon in deep (or mineral) soil because it is thought to be stable and unaffected by timber harvesting. But the Dartmouth findings show deep soil can play an important role in carbon emissions in clear-cutting and other intensive forest management practices. The findings suggest that calls for an increased reliance on forest biomass be re-evaluated and that forest carbon analyses are incomplete unless they include deep soil, which stores more than 50 percent of the carbon in forest soils.”Our paper suggests the carbon in the mineral soil may change more rapidly, and result in increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as a result of disturbances such as logging,” said Dartmouth Professor Andrew Friedland, a co-author. “Our paper suggests that increased reliance on wood may have the unintended effect of increasing the transfer of carbon from the mineral soil to the atmosphere. So the intended goal of reducing carbon in the atmosphere may not be met.”The federal government is looking to wood, wind, solar, hydropower and other renewable energy sources to address concerns about climate change and energy security. Woody biomass, which includes trees grown on plantations, managed natural forests and logging waste, makes up about 75 percent of global biofuel production. Mineral soil carbon responses can vary highly depending on harvesting intensity, surface disturbance and soil type.”Analysis of forest carbon cycles is central to understanding and mitigating climate change, and understanding forest carbon cycles requires an in-depth analysis of the storage in and fluxes among different forest carbon pools, which include aboveground live and dead biomass, as well as the belowground organic soil horizon, mineral soil horizon and roots,” Friedland said.Co-authors included Dartmouth’s Thomas Buchholz, a former post-doctoral student, and Claire Hornig, a recent undergraduate student, and researchers from the University of Vermont, Lund University in Sweden and the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation. The research was supported by awards to Friedland from the Northeastern States Research Cooperative and the Porter Fund.Friedland’s research focuses on understanding the effects of atmospheric deposition of pollutants and biomass harvesting on elemental cycling processes in high-elevation forests in the Northeastern United States. He considers many elements including carbon, trace elements such as lead and major elements such as nitrogen and calcium. He also is examining issues related to personal choices, energy use and environmental impact.The results appear in the journal Global Change Biology-Bioenergy.

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