Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance: Why Graphic Anti-Smoking Ads Are Not Only Disturbing, But Ineffective

I don't know if it's only the New York metro area that has these PSA commercials: An older man is shown gasping for breath as an on-screen message warns about the dangers of emphysema. The NYC Quits initiative has several other unsettling PSAs about the effects of smoking, but this one is particularly disturbing to me. If I am watching the TV while doing something else, I am always snapped out of it when I hear what sounds like someone in the middle of a slow, horrible death. I am not a smoker and it makes me feel absolutely terrible inside. I sincerely wish that this well-meaning organization would consider the well-being of everyone in their vicinity and not bombard us with such graphic depictions of suffering. I do know smokers, whom I have no control of, and I do not wish to be reminded of their miserable, likely future.

But for the record, these commercials will not have the intended effect. The New York government obviously did not consult with psychologists before broadcasting these messages, because they have been shown to be counterproductive to such causes. (Perhaps they consulted with the tobacco companies instead, who are well aware of this effect when they generously fund "anti-smoking" ads.) Cognitive dissonance is a well-established concept in psychology. It's really just a fancy phrase for any discrepancy between reality and what we want to believe. Basically, it causes extreme anxiety and people will go to great lengths to get rid of that feeling.

You would expect that to be good for fear-based messages, right? Well, not exactly. If you think about it, it's much easier to change our beliefs than to change reality (i.e. our behavior). People are not inclined to make changes in their lives, so instead they just convince themselves that their behavior is acceptable. This leads to two possible less ideal effects of messages trying to scare us into new behaviors, in this case smoking:

The smoker completely physically turns off the message or mentally tunes it out. The easiest thing to do is simply not to listen. Most smokers probably change the channel every time that commercial comes on. They may also focus their attention on something else, or retire into their minds. To them, there is little benefit in viewing such images and a lot of costs. They are avoiding the anxiety of cognitive dissonance.

After viewing the message, the smoker makes up excuses why smoking is still okay and the message is not credible. Once the damage of the message has been done and cognitive dissonance established, people will go to great lengths to rationalize their behavior so they don't have to change it. They may discredit the message: That scene was exaggerated and no one suffers THAT much; they must have ulterior motives; they are not scientists. Or they may downplay the importance of the facts: There will be a cure by the time I'm old enough to get that sick; my grandfather smoked his whole life and he's 105 years old. Of course, the bottom line is that smoking often leads to disease and suffering, and it only makes sense not to do it. But people who don't want to change can come up with rationalizations against even the most obvious facts.

So is there a solution? Yes. Research has shown that if we offer messages that only induce moderate levels of fear and offer easy steps to take action, people will be a bit more willing to consider the messages and possibly make changes. At least NYC Quits is offering free resources for quitting. But they really need to tone down their message. It would be much more effective if the man was maybe lying in a hospital bed talking to us about his disease, or maybe if the commercial was at someone's funeral rather than in the middle of their bitter death.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Guide to Good: My Plan for a Better World

It's time for me to map out what I want for the world. My ultimate vision is to help all sorts of people lead meaningful lives, for my organization to be a “Guide to Good.” I believe that if we give people hope and opportunities for action, they will not only come together to solve problems, but they will also stop causing problems in the first place.

My current, relatively realistic plan begins with infiltrating the world wide web. I want a website that is both appealing and inspiring, drawing people in and spurring them to action. The current website is more of an outline than anything else, but I think I am on the right track: games, compelling media, a sorted list of ideas for making a difference, and just a little information on the overall mission. I have also finally made a Facebook page and Twitter account, which I hope I can use to start inspiring discussions and gain some interest in my ideas. I will connect people with opportunities for learning and involvement, which I hope to improve as time goes on.

Next, I would like to have booths at local festivals and public places. These should also teach people, inspire discussion, and lead to opportunities. I want to include fun activities, like a trivia game about social issues or a wall where people could share their thoughts and stories on a particular theme. I would also like to give out free samples of vegan food and eco-friendly products. Then, I would like to create places that serve as community hubs for making a difference. They would include a little library of helpful publications, and rooms for discussion. There would also be donation bins for clothing, food, toys, and other goods, which we would distribute among worthy organizations. Finally, I would like to organize our own festivals, which would include many interactive activities and booths of nonprofits, companies, and artists showcasing how they are making the world better and how we can too.

After all that, I would feel a bit more optimistic about the bigger goals. The mainstay would be an after school program, especially in impoverished communities, that teaches kids what it means to be a good person and how to engage with the world, while connecting it with academic subjects. The goal is to teach them to channel the passion, energy and hope we know they all have. The program would let them design their own hands-on projects that actually make a difference. I would also want to involve homeless individuals in some of our community projects and offer them healthy food and job counseling for their efforts. Finally, we could bring our lessons to other groups that want or need them: prisons, nursing homes, rehab centers, and even offices, classrooms and sports teams. I truly believe that every single person's life would be more rewarding if they learned how easy it is for them to help improve the world.

If you have any positive or negative opinion on anything I said, say so. If you have any knowledge or connections that can help my idea happen, please offer whatever you can. If you're on board, then get in touch with me so we can find a way for you to participate in this with me. At any rate, thank you for taking the time to read this whole entry. Hopefully this has given you some food for thought.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Progress by the People: How to Make a Better World Without Relying on Government

Understandably, many of us are disillusioned with government right now. In every country, they are plagued with some combination of economic strife or inequality, shocking human rights violations, political corruption, and general malaise. Our government in particular is much more interested in fiscal responsibility and large corporations than the majority of citizens.

Keeping these issues in mind, here are some of my best tips for someone who wants to live a fulfilling life and help recover a crumbling world. There won’t even be one casualty!

Change yourself before trying to change anyone else. If you want everyone to care about a cause, you should be giving as much time and money as you can to it. One determined visionary begins every movement, so be the person who brings into the world whatever you think it is lacking.

The internet is your friend. The internet has already sparked more than one revolution. If you're new to social networking, Facebook encompasses your every need, and you can learn its tricks from any user you know or an online tutorial. To spread your message even more, create some videos on YouTube and write shorter updates on Twitter.

Educate. There are people who think social movements should rely entirely on public policy and government agencies. But for us masses who have no such influence, educating others suffices. It could start with a drifter you meet on the street or your 5-year-old cousin. But good messages spread, influence behavior, and eventually reach the ears of anyone who may need to hear them.

Plan meetings. Once you have educated a good amount of people, or maybe only three, start meeting together to discuss the issue or issues that bother you. It may start as three people in your basement, and grow to 50 people in a seminar room. Who knows? At the very least, the three of you will figure out the best activities you can go out and do to have the biggest impact on the issue.

Be creative. Find new ways to overcome a lack of ability to influence policy or to collect tax-deductible donations. Make a list of your goals and research do-it-yourself ways to achieve them. Some helpful changes include utilizing volunteers, completing tasks online, and purchasing used or otherwise discounted materials. You can also try to make a chain of small changes instead of one big one.

Be patient: The government will change with society. Generation Y is growing up. Seeing as most of us are less greedy and bigoted than our parents, the leaders among us must also be. And remember, many corrupt rich people will stop making money if we stop buying products from corrupt companies.

I would love to see what kinds of grassroots actions people are taking, so comment if you have anything to share.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Future of Health: Innovations, and How Being a Good Person Can Keep You Healthy

Did you know that each of the top 7 causes of death in America, besides accidents (number 5), is partially caused by one or more of the same five risk factors or clusters? Did you know that by taking care of yourself, the people around you, and the earth, you can avoid these risk factors without even thinking? This is based on my own online research.

Top 6 Causes of Death: Heart Disease; Cancer; Stroke; Lower Respiratory Diseases (i.e. bronchitis); Accidents; Alzheimer's Disease; Diabetes

Risk Factors: Obesity, unhealthy diet, inactivity; High cholesterol/blood pressure; Tobacco; Stress; Radiation, pollutants


Prevention

• Maintain a reasonable, healthy weight by eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise.
• Keep your body and mind healthy by avoiding stress and taking your life more easily.
• Avoid smoking and other obviously unhealthy behaviors.
• Avoid carcinogens by living in a place with clean air and avoiding processed, unnatural foods and personal care products.

Going back to my last post, can Generation Y take this on? I think so. We have been known to care about the environment, which will certainly reduce environmental pollutants as well as the popularity of unhealthy products. Young people are smoking less, and as that web page shows, there are ways to reduce the prevalence of smoking. And while it may take some extra planning to get us moving and off the internet, college students are becoming vegetarians in record numbers. Vegetarians tend to be slimmer, eat more fiber, and eat less cholesterol (which is only found in animal products and meat). So as we help animals and the environment, we are maintaining a healthy lifestyle too.

Interestingly, volunteering and leading a meaningful life can reduce stress too, which boosts your immune system and keeps you healthier. Here's an idea: volunteer for health. Help educate children or adults about diet, exercise, or eco-friendly living. Go to a hospital or hospice center and play a fun game with someone who is terminally ill. Comfort their families. There are plenty of opportunities. Just keep yourself healthy with the knowledge that you are helping others in the same respect.


Recent Innovations in Health

Cancer: It's important to remember that the prevalence of cancer only exploded as we began to eat processed foods and meat with every meal, do sedentary work, and live around chemicals and pollution. We can greatly reduce rates of cancer if we change those circumstances. But for now, people are getting cancer, so we do need improvements in diagnoses, comfort, and cures.

As for that first problem, ever heard of cancer sniffing dogs? They might be the future of cancer detection. Other methods of detection are pretty unreliable, depending on the types of cancer. But recent studies have found that one dog can detect colorectal cancer accurately 98% of the time.*

Burn Treatment: Judging by movies like Shallow Hal, we can all see that a burn is probably one of the least desirable injuries. This is partially because it involves a long, painful recovery using skin grafts. That's when a healthy portion of skin is removed and put in an area where the unhealthy, burnt skin has been removed. It takes months to heal. I remember learning in a psychology course that the severity of the pain of burns in children can be significantly reduced through a virtual reality game called Ice World.

But now we may not have to worry so much, as there is a new experimental healing technique that only takes a few days! It's called a skin gun, and it essentially involves spraying healthy stem cells onto damaged skin. It sounds very promising to me, although I'm no expert.

Shirts That Prevent Pollution: Two awesome-sounding NYU graduate students decided to prevent pollution through fashion for their project. They created sweatshirts that change color when exposed to carbon monoxide. One pictures lungs, and the other a heart. They are also thinking of making a liver shirt that changes color when you drink too much alcohol. This is a very clever idea because if people can finally visualize the invisible harm they do to themselves or the air, maybe they will be more motivated to change.

What do you think of these innovations? Have you heard about any others?

*If you're interested in the specifics, dogs can smell cancer on someone's breath. Samples are contained in cups and dogs are trained to sit in front of samples that contain cancer.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Generation Y Has No Problem Saving the World: Take It from Someone Born in 1990

I feel that I need to post this because "research" and opinions on my generation range from highly optimistic to highly cynical. Older people, even some who barely missed the cut-off, say that people my age are not such great people. They say horrible things, like that we are lazy and self-involved, and that we are not capable of or willing to solve the many problems thrust upon us (by these supposedly altruistic generations above us). These claims are almost always based on anecdotes and personal experience, but also some (in my opinion) unfair scientific studies.

Yes, I was born after Reagan left office. I did play outside and use the public library when I was young; but I started playing computer games, using word processors, and chatting online at the age of 8. I got my first social networking account in my freshman year of high school. Therefore, I did spend many hours of my childhood isolated in front of a computer and had many adolescent social encounters on Facebook and MySpace. And yes, I was told as a child that I could be anything I wanted, and I have always taken that with me.

But now that I’m an adult, it turns out that what I want to be is a force of change. This is not rare. My personal planned path involves starting a comprehensive organization for spreading human goodness. But I have friends who want to become schoolteachers to help children develop, artists to inspire future youth to be better and more creative people, or business people with a conscience. This may mean that we demand a bit more recognition than our parents--we want to know we are making a difference in the way we intend. This may mean that we will turn down offers for mundane, pointless jobs, even if it means we cannot own a home by the age of 22. If you are worried that we will radically change social norms and the way the American economy works, then stay inside. But please do not be afraid that we are leading aimless lives, or that we do not have the motivation and inner resources to solve the problems before us. I promise we will prove those claims wrong.

As for our 17 hours a week online, well, that is mostly helping us. We are living in a global society. Neither of my parents have any friends in other countries, but I have had them since I was 14. I used social networking websites to make new friends based on causes I support, music I enjoy, and even the websites where I play games. Throughout the years, I have had close friends in Greece, Brazil, Cuba, the UK, and Australia, not to mention the American Midwest and West Coast. Note that the farthest I have ever traveled was from my home in northern New Jersey to Orlando, Florida. I believe that my tolerance for diverse backgrounds and optimism for change has been greatly influenced by collaborating online with people far away from me. Many times it has been the same way I would collaborate with people I actually know. On top of that, youth like me who start out shy and socially awkward can enhance their self-esteem and gain a sense of community with peers by interacting online.

There are also benefits to quicker, more efficient communication with people we already know. We can accomplish more now that we have the possibility of easily planning or changing a meeting at the last minute, and contacting each other anytime we want. You may criticize us for having important or emotionally charged conversations via the internet, but having the opportunity to think before we type can sometimes help us communicate more clearly and appropriately. Finally, does it really have to be a bad thing that we can research something in a fraction of the time our parents could?

If you have more questions, please ask one of us before you hit Google. It is hard to talk to a 5-year-old, but that was 15 years ago and now we're all grown up. Of course, these are all just my opinions and I have had unique experiences. But I was born a member of this generation, and I have known its members as friends, classmates, and enemies. If you have only known us as your children, and young people showing off to their friends in public, try to take my opinions into consideration.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Passing Time or Making a Difference?: TV, Facebook, and the Dollar Value of Volunteering

Today I want to discuss one reason that probably contributes to why the majority of people are doing nothing to help anybody: They are too busy passing the time.

Rates of mental illness and crime are worse than they once were, and the gap between the richest and the poorest among us has been steadily increasing. These problems have many causes, but one thing that has definitely gone down is community collaboration. Many people don’t even spend enough time with their own families, much less their neighbors. We spend a lot of our time interacting with computer screens or staring inactively at televisions. We spend very little time interacting with strangers or reaching out to others.

Have technological advances caused us to spend our precious time on things we really don’t need? The answer is probably yes. One study, as reported in The Examiner, found that people spend an average of seven hours a month on Facebook. A small proportion of that time may be important professional networking, but my guess is upwards of 95% of it is not.

Did you know that for every hour you volunteer for a particular organization, you are giving them the equivalent of around $21? It varies by state, but it can be up to nearly $33, in Washington DC. (To see your state’s value and learn how the number is calculated, visit The Value of Volunteer Time at Independent Sector.) In other words, if you only gave up Facebook, if you’re like the average American, you could donate an extra $147 a month (in time) to a local organization. Add that to the nearly 3 hours per day most people spend watching TV (according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics), and you end up with approximately $1890 a month that you could theoretically volunteer to an organization!

Now I’m not suggesting that everybody can or should volunteer 100 hours a month, particularly if you work or attend school full time. But sometimes we lose sight of how much time we spend in front of the TV or computer. Maybe you could limit your TV use to a few hours a week, only your favorite shows, and your Facebook visits to one or two checks per day. Use some of the extra time to play board games with your family, tell each other about your day, or brainstorm about how you can help the community as a family. Spend just one of those hours each week volunteering and you could still be giving that organization the equivalent of $84 a month. So if you’ve been complaining that you wish you could afford the $10 or $15 monthly membership to a favorite organization, weigh your options.

You might fear missing a juicy status update or having nothing to say about Paula Abdul’s new show at the water cooler. But the next time you do, ask yourself if contributing to your community and leading a more meaningful life might be more important. Stop saying you will do it tomorrow and contact a few interesting local organizations today to see which ones need volunteers.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Making a Difference in 2011

The other day, I wrote about putting “make a difference” on your bucket list. Today, I want to talk about making it your New Year’s resolution and actually sticking with it.

The first thing you need to do is choose one issue you want to impact and find out one way you can make a difference. Maybe it will lead to other opportunities and maybe you will do something entirely different next year, but this is the one you will commit to this year. For example, maybe you want to help animals, so you will volunteer at an animal shelter.

If you can’t think of a way to help off the top of your head, do an internet search or brainstorm. That means you spend five minutes writing down every possibility you can possibly think of, no matter how stupid. Some questions to consider are what people are currently doing for the issue, what you think sounds like a good solution, and what skills you have that might be relevant. Between those techniques, you should definitely come up with a decent idea.

Next, set a definite goal, and write it down in a calendar or planner. You might want to volunteer twice a month, or spend half an hour a day on advocacy work. To make it even easier to follow, designate those times beforehand. For example, plan on volunteering on the first and third Saturday of every month, or plan on doing your work from 9 to 9:30 pm each night. If you want to volunteer, make sure you find an organization ahead of time and discuss your preferences with them. You can find one on Volunteermatch.org, or by doing an internet search for your city and volunteer interest (e.g. “New York City animal shelters”).

Finally, stick to these goals without compromising for the first month and see how it works. When a month has passed, you will be on your way to creating a habit and you will learn if there are any issues with your ideas.

This should get you on your way to making a difference and sticking to your New Year's resolutions! Post any problems or questions here, and share your goal and mark your progress if you would like!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Two Years to December 21, 2012: Is Helping Others on Your Bucket List?

For the record, I strongly believe that the world is not going to end on a predetermined date, much less anytime soon. But I couldn’t help but notice that today (December 21, 2010) is exactly two years away from the date that many people think the world will end. It reminds me of my own mortality. Any of us could die any day.

We should all be writing our own bucket list, or a list of things we want to do before we die.* My top goal is making a difference and I feel that it should be on everyone’s list. Many people will tell you that helping someone else gives you the greatest feeling in the world. Besides, when faced with mortality, what could be more comforting than knowing you left a positive legacy?

Cynics might question whether it matters to help someone if the world is going to end, but the most likely situation is that when you die, there will be other people alive whose lives will either have been improved, worsened, or unaffected by your life. I think we would all want to improve as many lives as possible, right?

Well, I looked at the top goals on the 43 Things website, where you can make your own list, and the top ten goals involved things like adopting healthier habits, traveling, getting a tattoo, and getting married. I searched for “make a difference,” and only about 7000 people listed that as a goal, followed by 5000 who want to volunteer, 3500 who want to “change the world, and a total of less than 2500 who want to “help people” or “help others.” The sum of all of these is about 2000 people short of making the top 10 list.

It seems that people are not too concerned with helping others as an end in itself, but they should be! If you really want to live a happy, fulfilling life, with no regrets at the end of your life and a great legacy, put “make a difference” on your bucket list.

*The term comes from the 2007 movie “The Bucket List.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bucket_List#Popular_culture .

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Introduction

My name is Amanda, and I have always been upset to a certain degree by what I see in my daily life. I see superficial goals, relationships, and discussions. I see violence, hatred, intolerance, and drug abuse. There is a huge gap where altruism and community engagement should be.

Instead of taking antidepressants or paying hundreds of dollars to pour my heart out to a professional, I have decided to take my enthusiasm and knack for empiricism to get some answers!

For a few years, I have toyed with the idea of starting a comprehensive organization to raise awareness on various issues and inspire action. I have favorited hundreds of related websites and typed up more than 100 pages of original ideas for an organization called Guide to Good (adorably abbreviated as G2G).

Now I think it is time to go public with my ideas and find out who, if anyone, is behind me, while doing some research to see how viable these ideas actually are. I will do this by observing the world around me, interviewing people and trying little experiments, and reading about these subjects. I will document everything on this blog and hopefully receive feedback and ideas in the comments.

I expect to start soon!