Psychology’s Role in Opinions Toward Police Shootings

The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile have once again cultivated public outrage towards law enforcement officers. Following the shootings, multiple police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were shot and killed, seemingly as retaliation against police violence. If you are on social media, you have no doubt seen the videos and the angry reactions to all of these tragedies. Many people have strong opinions concerning the shootings, and it can often be quite easy to tell who is outraged with law enforcement and who defends law enforcement based on the things they say and share on social media.  So how are these opinions developed and maintained? Today’s post will explain the potential for bias in forming opinions, and why such biases can be problematic.

The first concept we will delve into is confirmation bias. This is the idea that we tend to only select information that is consistent with our preconceptions. How does this relate to opinions towards police shootings? Well, the articles you read and accept as true, and the information you ignore or discount may depend on your pre-set beliefs about police. For instance, if you tend to defend police officers, you may only attend to examples where violent police action was either justifiable or not present while discounting instances of race-based police brutality. On the other hand, if you believe that white officers tend to shoot unarmed black individuals, you may be more likely to follow stories of racial injustice while ignoring instances of positive interactions between black people and white police officers.

Confirmation bias is especially problematic because it doesn’t allow for objective reasoning or entertaining other points of view. If you only seek information that is consistent with what you believe and ignore information that contradicts these beliefs, it is very hard to have a rational conversation with someone of a differing opinion. Rather, this bias only serves to strengthen pre-existing opinions and further polarizes people with differing views.

The second concept is the availability heuristic. This heuristic uses the availability of information about an event to make judgments about the likelihood the event will occur. To illustrate: which is a more likely cause of death – being killed by dog or a shark?  Most people will say that a shark attack is more likely thanks to the media coverage when an attack does happen and the graphic imagery found in movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and The Shallows. Positive experiences with dogs are much more common, and national media rarely carries stories of deadly dog attacks. However, an average of about 30 people in the US die every year from dog attacks whereas 0-3 die from shark attacks. Because we have such readily available images of shark attacks, we are likely to overestimate the likelihood of such an attack occurring. Because we don’t have very available images of dog attacks, we’re more likely to underestimate the odds of dying due to a dog attack.

In the last couple weeks, there been highly publicized cases of police violence against unarmed black men and deadly retaliation against police officers by black men. This has resulted in extreme scrutiny and hatred directed toward both police officers and the black lives matter movement. However, the deliberate targeting of police officers is very rare, and according to the Washington Post, unarmed black men made up just 4% of the people killed by police officers in 2015. It is important to recognize that it is often the few bad eggs and extremists that get the media attention. The easily available information about these atypical people unfortunately leads to the misperception that they represent their particular group and that other members of their group are likely to preform similar actions. This is not the case, rather it is an example of the availability heuristic.

As an additional note, it is also important to consider the dangers of underestimating event likelihood. National media does not typically feature stories of positive interactions between white officers and black people, nor do they show stories of racial profiling by police. Just because these events may not be as readily available in people’s minds does not mean that they do not happen.

As you can see, there are reasons that people form and maintain their opinions. But what do the statistics say? Unfortunately, there is not a rich data set examining the characteristics of police shootings. However, the Washington Post is starting to compile this information. Using a collection of different sources, they are collecting data on victim race and mental health, circumstances leading up to the shooting, and about 10 other types of information. Data is still being collected for 2016, but here is the gist of what they have found for 2015. Of the nearly 1,000 people killed by police officers, 50% were white and 26% were black. At face value, this statistic seems to indicate that police are more likely to kill white people than black. However, the 2009 US census data shows that the population is approximately 62% white and 13% black. Now this tells us that a black person is twice as likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person. But, there is still one more statistic – blacks are charged with more than 50% of the murders and robberies in major US cities, thus increasing their contact with police officers.

So how do statistics factor into what we believe? Although statistics are substantially more grounded in reality than opinion, they’re not always the straightforward, definitive truth we want them to be. First, most people struggle to understand statistics. What seems like a simple statistic at face value can often require complex thinking that factors in elements such as base rates and population distribution. The average person is more likely to accept whatever statistic is presented than they are to do the research and math required to properly interpret it. Second, there is still room for bias in the interpretation of statistics. In the previous paragraph, there were three different interpretations offered for one statistic. Due to confirmation bias, people are often motivated to select the interpretation that best fits their opinion. Third, statistics can sometimes gloss over deeper systemic issues. In essence, statistics such as the ones previously described are good at telling us that something happened, but not so good at explaining why it happened.

We may like to think that we’re rational beings, but we aren’t. The world we live in is often too complex to fully consider every single detail, and so we develop biases and heuristics as a way to simplify this complexity. Often, these biases and heuristics are quite useful. For instance, confirmation bias can prevent us from pursuing irrelevant pieces of information when making decisions, and availability heuristics can prevent us from worrying too much about seldom occurring events.  However, as previously noted, these biases and heuristics can also be quite dangerous.

Biases and heuristics are quite difficult to avoid, but as you’re reading articles and discussing your opinions, take a moment to reflect. Are you ignoring information because it contradicts your own opinion? Is your fear or anger based mainly on media coverage? It helps to keep in mind the following two pieces of advice. First, be respectful of others and listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them. You may still disagree with them afterwards, but they may also be able to introduce a perspective you hadn’t previously considered. Second, recognize that you don’t necessarily have to pick a side, nor do you have to defend everything a person/group you support does. For instance, you can support police officers while still being upset with the ones who kill unarmed black men.

Between the social unrest and the current political situation, you’re going to be seeing a lot of people sharing pictures, videos, statistics, and articles that support their particular views. So as you’re scrolling through Facebook or sharing your own opinion, just be aware of the potential for bias and availability heuristics to influence the way you think.


Is Fitbit’s New Feature Fit For Healthy Sleep?

I want to start this post by saying that I am a fan and avid user of Fitbit. For my personal use, I have had both the Fitbit Charge HR and Fitbit Blaze, and have been a member for over a year. We also have a large inventory of Fitbits in our lab that we use for research. Fitbits are great in helping motivate people to live more active lives. I’m not alone in thinking this. As of August 2015, Fitbit had 9.5 million active users, with a total of 19 million registered users. All of this being said, I fear that this new feature may encourage poor sleep habits.

In case you missed it, Fitbit recently implemented a new feature that will set a sleep schedule for you that will help optimize your sleep. Here’s how it works. It averages your total sleep time, wake up time, and bedtime over the last month and using this information makes a recommendation for you to set a rigid schedule. I played around with mine, and it told me that averaged about 8 hours of sleep, like to go to sleep around 11:00pm, and wake up at 7:30am. Once this schedule is set up, it tells me to start getting ready for bed at 10:30pm and sets an alarm for 7:30am. Essentially, Fitbit is trying to motivate me to stick to a strict sleep schedule.

At first glance this seems great, right? As we know, sleep is important for health. So, if their app is helping to optimize our sleep, this should in turn make us healthier? This is a great idea! There is one problem though. This rationale does not completely align with the current sleep literature.

Sleep timing regularity is important for our sleep and physical health because it synchronizes our physiological sleep drive and our circadian rhythms1. Having more sleep variability is associated with more sleep problems and daytime fatigue2. So yes, regularity is important. But…the current sleep medicine therapies only target regularity for wake up times3. This contradicts some popular media sleep hygiene recommendations that propose regularity for both bed and wake time (I’m guessing this is what Fitbit based their app feature off of).

So why do sleep medicine therapies (i.e. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) only target wake up times? The answer is simple. You should only try to sleep when you’re tired! Imagine yourself in this scenario. You fear that you are suffering from insomnia; you are having trouble falling and maintaining sleep and are struggling with bad daytime fatigue. Your therapist suggests setting a rigid sleep schedule for both your bedtime and wake time (let’s say 11:00pm and 8:00am). So the following night you try to implement this. You start getting ready for bed around 10:30 and get into bed at 11:00. But then you realize you aren’t tired! What then? You’re tossing and turning in bed, worrying that the longer you stay awake, the closer you get to your scheduled wake up time. Then you worry some more that you won’t fall asleep, and you worry some more. See this potentially disastrous cycle?

Each day is different, and you may not be tired at the same time every night.  Trying to sleep when you’re not tired may not only buffer treatment effects, but could also lead to worse sleep.  Due to this, targeting only wake up times may be efficacious and does not have as much potential to disrupt sleep. Trying to sleep when you’re not tired is also a poor sleep habit, because over time it associates your bed as a place where you cannot sleep (click here for more information).

In sum, I believe that this new feature by Fitbit is misleading and may potentially create unhealthy sleep habits. However, the current literature on this topic still needs A LOT more work. My lab has a few ongoing projects that will hopefully shed some light on this topic, so stay tuned in the next few years for updates on sleep schedule regularity!


  1. Dijk, D. J., & Czeisler, C. A. (1995). Contribution of the circadian pacemaker and the sleep homeostat to sleep propensity, sleep structure, electroencephalographic slow waves, and sleep spindle activity in humans. The Journal of neuroscience, 15(5), 3526-3538.
  2. Dijk, D. J., & Lockley, S. W. (2002). Invited Review: Integration of human sleep-wake regulation and circadian rhythmicity. Journal of applied physiology, 92(2), 852-862.2. Dijk, D. J., & Lockley, S. W. (2002). Invited Review: Integration of human sleep-wake regulation and circadian rhythmicity. Journal of applied physiology, 92(2), 852-862.
  3. Morin, C. M. (2011). Psychological and behavioral treatments for insomnia I: approaches and efficacy. In Principles and practice of sleep medicine (pp. 866-883). Elsevier Saunders, St. Louis, MO.

Using eReaders Near Bedtime Impairs Sleep Quality

Sleep science has produced considerable evidence showing that exposure to light before bedtime is bad for sleep. This light can come from computers, phones, night-lights, streetlights outside, and other various sources. One unexpected source has become increasingly common; electronic readers. Light emitting eReaders are exceptionally convenient, in that you can store your whole library of books in it. Moreover, you can now surf the web and do other related activities on them. As many people like to read before bed, one must wonder if eReaders affect your sleep. In a recent study, Chang and colleagues (2015) tackled this question.

Before getting to the results of that study, let’s go over some basic sleep physiology. Our body has what is called a circadian clock, which gives us our daily rhythms of arousal and sleep drive. This clock is driven by both biological and environmental factors. Biologically speaking, our propensity for sleep is driven by melatonin. When our internal clock tells us it’s time for bed, it starts to release melatonin, which makes us sleepy and facilitates sleep onset.

Our social environment serves as our external clock, and also plays a vital role. We rely on specific cues that tell our body that it is time for sleep. Light is the most influential of these factors. Light delays the sleep process by its suppressing effects on melatonin. To get the best quality sleep, our internal and external clocks need to be in synch with one another. When this does not happen, it can lead to sleep difficulty.

So how do eReaders affect sleep? Researchers brought in 12 young, healthy adults into a sleep lab, and had them complete two consecutive conditions of a single study (each participant completed both conditions). This is a within-subjects design, which allows us to compare each of the two conditions within the same participant. Doing this really allows researchers to compare the two conditions of a study. In the first condition, participants spent five consecutive nights in the lab, and read an eReader in a dim room about four hours before bedtime. The second condition consisted of five more nights, but they read a hard copy book. Half of the participants completed the eReader condition first, and the other half completed the hard copy first.

They found that when using the eReader before bed, participants had a whole lot of problems. Their melatonin levels were suppressed by more than 50%, delaying their internal clock by about 90 minutes. Using the eReader lead to participants taking 10 minutes longer to fall sleep, and they also spent less time in REM during sleep. Using the eReader also lead to greater self reported pre-sleep arousal and decreased alertness the following morning.

This study shows that eReaders not only delay your propensity for sleep, but it also decreases sleep quality, leading to decreases in daytime arousal. In a previous post I’ve detailed all the poor health effects of insufficient sleep, but this study adds to that. Melatonin is important in more ways than making sleep come easier to us. Melatonin suppression has been associated with increased risk for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and a number of sleep disorders. When approaching bedtime, we should consider that various light sources that may be influencing not only our sleep, but also our health.

Chang, A. M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J. F., & Czeisler, C. A. (2015). Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(4), 1232-1237.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Internet Use for Socially Anxious People

The internet can be a great way to meet people and develop new relationships, especially for those who struggle to make friends offline. The internet allows people to connect to others with similar interests and experiences across the world, and the relative anonymity allows for greater self-expression. For people who feel like they can’t be themselves in their offline life, the internet can provide a safe refuge where it’s possible make friends without having to worry about being judged for who they are, what they like, or their appearance.

This is particularly useful for the socially anxious, who fear social situations due to intense worry about being evaluated or criticized by others. The internet can be a great outlet for socially anxious people because it provides them with the opportunity to present themselves exactly as they want with less fear of being judged. Communicating over the internet provides people with the unique ability to carefully choose and edit their words, and to take as much time as they need to respond during conversations. They don’t need to be self-conscious about stammering, sweating, or fidgeting because no one can see or hear them, and the anonymity of the internet allows them to share their thoughts and feelings with less fear of being rejected. In fact, many socially anxious people think that the person they are on the internet is more indicative of their “real me” than the person they are in face-to-face interactions.

The internet can be a great resource to help reduce social anxiety, but it can become a problem when using the internet becomes a “safety behavior”. As an example, a common thing that socially anxious people worry about is being judged for blushing during a conversation. In order to prevent the possible judgment, socially anxious people will engage in safety behaviors such as wearing makeup or high necked shirts to conceal the blushing, talking about how hot the room is, or saying that they aren’t feeling well. This temporarily helps the person feel less anxious. However, when socially anxious people do well in conversations, they attribute their success to the safety behaviors rather than learning that no one actually saw or minded that they were blushing.

A similar thing can happen with online communication. All the successful interactions people have online won’t help improve their “real life” social anxiety if they begin to think their success was due to being able to edit their words instead of letting their online successes help increase their confidence in their social abilities. The idea that they need the internet to succeed in social settings can lead people to develop a problematic over-reliance on the internet for social interactions and mood regulation. This can then lead to problems in their real life like withdrawal from in-person interaction and internet addiction.

The internet can be a great tool for the socially anxious. It can be incredibly relieving to be able to order pizza online rather than having to call or go to a store. But while this is wonderful, online interactions don’t actually treat social anxiety unless they help the person grow in confidence and teach the person that their fear of social evaluation is unfounded. Otherwise it just serves as a means to avoid or temporarily reduce anxiety.

The typical method used for treating social anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy helps social anxiety sufferers recognize and challenge the negative thoughts and unhelpful behaviors that contribute to their anxiety. If you suffer from social anxiety, there are several online courses and apps like Anxiety Coach and iCBT that provide treatment for social anxiety using the advantages of internet-based communication.

Amichai-Hamburger, Y., Wainapel, G. & Fox, S. (2002). “On the internet no one knows I’m an introvert”: extroversion, neuroticism, & internet interaction. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 5(2), 125-128.

Lee, B.W., & Stapinski, L.A. (2012). Seeking safety on the internet: Relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26,197-205.

Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. Y. A., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2002). Can you see the “real me”? A theory of relationship formation on the Internet. Journal of Social Issues58(1), 33-48.

Smartphone Addiction

Human connection is the most vital aspect of our existence, without the sweet touch of another being we are lonely stars in an empty space waiting to shine gloriously. – Joe Straynge

With classes starting up again, students have flooded back onto campus. Since Michelle and have decided to dedicate this month to writing about technology and social media, my attention has focused on a disturbing occurrence that can be seen everywhere on campus; students glued to their smartphones. I admit that I myself am on my phone constantly. But are we addicted to them? Smartphone addiction has garnered considerable attention as of late, due to its potential to lead to addiction. Smartphones can even more addictive than TV because of its mobile nature.

Addiction to smartphones can be defined as excessive preoccupations and urges of behavior that can lead to psychological distress and impairments in daily life. For example, someone addicted to their phone may check it constantly and experience separation anxiety when not able to check notifications. Media addiction can lead to depression, decreased well-being, and substance use. Further, the more you become addicted, the more likely you are to lose social ties, thus inducing loneliness. Losing social ties can also then make social media engender more feelings of loneliness, because you then do not have anyone to connect with online either. This can turn into a deadly cycle. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, loneliness is a strong predictor of poor health outcomes.

There are several factors that could contribute to smartphone addiction. The first is self-control. As you can probably guess, low self-control is associated with smartphone addiction. Low levels of self-control may also cause compulsive checking of social media sites (i.e. repeatedly refreshing Facebook notifications to see if anyone wrote on your wall or liked your new selfie). Stress is also positively associated with smartphone use; surfing the web can be used as a form of stress relief. The inverse can also be considered, such that constantly checking your phone can be a distraction to daily tasks, and not getting this work done can cause stress.

One recent study looked at how different apps on the phone may predict smartphone use. They found that social media, games, and other forms of entertainment predicted smartphone addiction.   Of these, social media was the strongest predictor of addiction. In other words, the essential component of smartphone addiction is use of sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s one more fact about this study that is greatly concerning; this study was done on 6th graders! More specifically, participants were 6th graders from an elementary school in South Korea. Researchers found that, in South Korea, 72% of children own a smartphone by 12 years old. This is similar to children in the United States, where almost 60% of kids aged 8-12 have a smart phone for themselves. Further, 21% of children in the U.S. under 8 years old use smartphones.

Smartphone addiction is a great concern, and even more concerning is how young people are becoming addicted to their smartphones. As individuals become more involved with this addiction, they spend more time on it and eventually lose touch with the outside world. Human connection is important for both physical and mental well-being, and we lose this when we spend more time on our phone than interacting with those around us.

Jeong, S. H., Kim, H., Yum, J. Y., & Hwang, Y. (2016). What type of content are smartphone users addicted to?: SNS vs. games. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 10-17.

For stats on smartphone use in kids:

Social Media, Fame, and the Need to Belong

One aspect of social media that makes it appealing to many people is that it seems to promise an easy path to fame. Just tweet something funny, post a cool video, or write something insightful, and you’re an instant success. If what you post is really good, you gain likes, followers, views, and maybe even the attention of a celebrity. Your social media presence grows and you might even become “social media famous” with thousands of likes and followers.

So why is being social media famous appealing to so many people? Of course there is the obvious reason – the hope that your social media presence might provide some benefits in the form of money, jobs, advertisements, and recognition. But there’s also a deeper, more existential reason: the need to belong. The need to belong is the need to form and maintain meaningful, positive relationships, and to feel included in social groups. Everyone has this need to some extent, but some people feel this need to be accepted more strongly than others.

People who have this strong need to belong tend to report more time spent fantasizing about fame, particularly the idea that being famous could lead to greater visibility and status. The thing about fame is that it seems to offers the ultimate guarantee of social inclusion. Being famous means that wherever a person goes, there will always be someone who likes them. Social media is a great platform for this because it allows people to share their thoughts, skills, passions and everyday adventures with a wide audience. Through the number of likes, followers, upvotes, and views, social media offers an easy, concrete way for people to know that they and what they post have been liked and accepted. It tells people that someone out there appreciates them and thinks they have worthwhile things to share.

As such, people with a high need to belong tend to post more on social media and follow more celebrities. Posting more means that a person has more opportunities to receive positive feedback on what they post and to gain a larger audience. Interacting with famous people can provide a person with the ultimate validation if a celebrity responds or shares something the person did or said. Popular figures can be seen as having very high social value with a powerful backing of adoring fans and supporters. So, when they recognize or approve of something, they transfer some of their social value to that thing, making it more special than if a normal person approved of the same thing. Posting more and interacting with celebrities helps satisfy belongingness needs because the more positive attention a person receives, the more the person feels accepted and worthwhile.

While social media can help fulfill the need to belong, it should be warned that it might not be the ultimate cure. In fact, basing social value and acceptance on how many likes and comments a Facebook post got can actually be quite damaging in the long run. The sad fact is that not everything that is posted online is going to be a winner and a “below average” post might lead a person to believe that they are not socially valued. It can also open people up to upward social comparison which might leave them mistakenly thinking that they are not worthwhile. The average twitter user has around 126 followers, but if people compare themselves to the very popular accounts with thousands and millions of followers, they might start to feel inferior. Also, if a person becomes preoccupied with achieving fame through social media, it may prevent them from forming and establishing relationships in real life and within their social network. So, social media can definitely help meet the need to belong, but over relying on it as a gauge of liking and acceptance can ultimately be harmful.

Greenwood, D. N. (2013). Fame, Facebook, and Twitter: How attitudes about fame predict frequency and nature of social media use. Psychology of Popular Media Culture2(4), 222.

Greenwood, D., Long, C. R., & Dal Cin, S. (2013). Fame and the social self: The need to belong, narcissism, and relatedness predict the appeal of fame. Personality and Individual Differences55(5), 490-495.

Attachment Styles and Facebook Relationships

Facebook has been proven to be a highly useful tool for displaying one’s relationship status.  People can make their relationship visible by listing their partner in their relationship status, including their partner in their profile picture, and posting pictures and statuses about them. People who share their relationship on Facebook are actually perceived to have a higher quality relationship and are seen as more likeable (unless the posting is excessive or far too personal – then the person is seen as unlikeable and psychologically unhealthy; Emery, Muise, Alpert & Le, 2014). However, the amount of information that is shared differs from person to person and may be influenced by different attachment styles and motivations for sharing.

Attachment style can be determined by measuring people’s anxiety and avoidance in their relationships. Those who have low anxiety and low avoidance in a relationship are said to be securely attached while someone who scores high on either anxiety or avoidance is considered insecurely attached. People with high relationship anxiety tend to have a strong fear of rejection, view themselves as unlovable, and are strongly influenced by their partner. People with high relationship avoidance tend to dislike getting close to others, are distrusting, and desire independence.

Anxiously attached people show a greater tendency to make their relationship partner more visible on their Facebook profile than avoidantly attached people, but the underlying reasons for doing so are the same for both attachment styles. Both anxious and avoidantly attached people are similarly motivated by the thought that others may think that have a poor quality relationship. However, those with an avoidant attachment react by sharing less about their relationship while anxiously attached people make their relationship more visible. The visibility of one’s relationship on Facebook appears to serve an impression management function for insecurely attached people. Including or not including one’s partner in profile pictures, relationship statuses, and posts makes it possible to create an image that portrays an ideal identity such as being in a good, stable relationship (for the anxiously attached) or being independent (for the avoidantly attached). Creating an image of their relationship that seems most socially desirable to them provides both anxious and avoidantly attached people a boost of self-esteem and increases their perception that others think they have a good relationship.

Anxious attachment predicts greater relationship visibility and avoidant attachment predicts less, but secure attachment does not predict relationship visibility. People with secure attachment may make their partner more or less visible on Facebook, but it comes from a different motivation. Those with a secure attachment style do not have to rely on managing their relationship impressions for self-esteem and approval from others as much as insecurely attached people do. So, the information shared about a relationship may be simply a description of the relationship rather than a way to prove to others how great the relationship is. People could also be comfortable not sharing information on Facebook because they know their relationship is good regardless of what other people think.

Emery, L.F., Muise, A., Dix, E.L., & Le, B. (2014). Can you tell that I’m in a relationship? Attachment and relationship visibility on Facebook. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(11), 1466-1479.

Emery, L.F., Muise, A., Alpert, E., & Le, B. (2014) Do we look happy? Perceptions of romantic relationship quality on Facebook. Personal Relationships, 22(1), 1-7.