Make new friends – share a toilet today!

love-your-loo-2Here’s some advice for all new undergraduates who’ve started their programmes over the past few weeks…  One of the most daunting aspects of starting university, aside from the debt and the challenges of studying, is the prospect of making new friends.

This is really important. Students who develop quality networks also perform better and maintain their well-being.  But, where to start?  Well, many new friendships begin with chance encounters in communal spaces and environmental psychologists have been studying the characteristics of effective social areas for decades.

A recent study by Easterbrook and Vignoles examined this issue in the specific context of a university and found confirmatory evidence of what we have long known – many new undergraduate friendships begin with regular chance meetings in fairly obvious social spaces such as the communal kitchen, the common room and the college gym.  So far, so good.

What’s interesting about this study, which focused on over 400 new undergrads, was that a more unusual site for the development of new friendships emerged; the shared toilet!  In fact, this unexpected arena for new relationships proved as reliable a venue as all of the other spaces in terms of predicting friendship formation, durability and quality.  But why?

Easterbrook and Vignoles believe that the shared bathroom is a natural place for barriers to break down.  Nothing like regularly encountering a dorm mate with a loo roll in his or her hands to remove interpersonal walls and thereby allow bonds to be formed!  No sure what I think about this explanation, but it seems as plausible as any.  Motto: the en suite doesn’t just cost you more money, it makes you a lonelier student too!

Of course, the one problem with a shared toilet is that it also carries with it a whole series of shared smells!!!  So, for those sensitive to such matters, here is a real product you may wish to check out…

Wearable learning?

eegHere’s an interesting post from the team at TrainingZone.  With the advent of wearable technologies such as the smart watch and Google glasses, the possibilities for learning and teaching become quite interesting!  It’s no longer science fiction to see a world in which students are able to access information via a glance at their timepiece, rather than just a tablet or cellphone, and the GPS aspects in particular hold interesting possibilities for decision-making activities in the field.  

I guess the real challenge will be a content design one, more than anything – making content accessible via ever-smaller devices is no mean task…

Online options… not optional!

online_studentIt’s interesting to see Florida emerging as the latest state looking to make online study a requirement for all students graduating from high school.  It’s a bold move, partly driven by the need to assess computer literacy and partly a means to offer students more choice.  It’s an initiative I whole-heartedly support.

An interesting side-effect, of course, is that it also places greater demands on universities to “up their game” by offering more online provision in their on-campus programmes. We are already seeing here in the UK the consequences of a school system in which teachers are often far more innovative than their university counterparts, student dissatisfaction being on the increase as they discover that the undergraduate experience in some institutions is suspiciously devoid of any real application of learning technologies.

The more the school system promotes the online option, the greater the pressure on the university sector to keep up.  The “blended campus” is increasingly no longer an option, but a necessity – of course, for many universities, that leaves a massive piece of work still to do in terms of faculty up-skilling!

From MOOC to Market

keepcalmHere’s a nice example of the power of blended learning harnessed in quite literally a very entrepreneurial way… Back in March, MIT launched a very successful MOOC, attracting over 55k online students at its peak; Entrepreneurship 101.

The MOOC was structured around the broad theme of “Who is your customer?” and, among its learning outcomes, was a crowd-sourcing project which gave students the opportunity to showcase their marketing flair.

The really interesting component of the MOOC, however, was what followed next and its competitive taught element. Students were invited to apply for a five-day on-ground “bootcamp” at MIT itself. Applicants were evaluated on a range of criteria, from analytical ability to long-term vision, with just 47 students being admitted to the camp over the summer. The fee for attendance – around $6000.

What happened next was the clever bit. During the course of the camp, supported by tuition and seminars and a range of new venture creation activities, students developed a range of business start-up ideas, both individually and in groups. The talent and energy on display was amazing, with the elite MOOC “graduates” from 22 countries working together to create over 50 new business start-ups in a mere five days. A brilliant result! And a wonderful example of how blended approaches really can deliver tangible results with just a little imagination.

Doctor Who and the Aerobics

TIMEA female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit.  For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations!  Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?”  Good call!  That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.

The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”.   The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born.  So far, so good…  Well my functional age is ##   (nope, not telling you!).  Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent.  Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least.  Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!).  But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?

Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice.  Ok, what about the idea of biological age?  Now that’s a very tricky concept!  Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments.  Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is.  Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure.  So, what can we do instead?

Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code.  This is based on the idea of fitness age.  Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves.  If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.

So, what do we know so far?  Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die.  That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect!  In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc.  And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…

Alas, it is not quite that simple.  There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!).  Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health.  Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!

So, where does all this leave us?  Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is.  Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all!  Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…

BOGOF takes a holiday

santaSanta is soon due to end his 364-day holiday and pay an annual visit to his workplace.  I could tell that today by all the Christmas posters and stuff littering the shop windows in Durham.  Halloween is upon us, so “trick-or-treat” will soon give way to “penny for the guy”, closely followed by carol singers.  Then, sure enough, it is mid-December and the Easter eggs are back in the shops!

Remember, though, Christmas is a time of giving…especially to retailers!  We will all spend a disproportionate amount of money relative to our monthly income as the “festive” season approaches and the retail industry knows that.  As a consequence, the behavioural economists will be out to get our hard-earned cash with their psychological tricks.  Buyer beware – indeed!

This piece published by Chicago Booth is quite timely in this respect.  It highlights the ways in which retailers exploit our heuristics and biases to increase sales, especially in the run up to the big day.  We typically discount the future, for instance, so this time of year sees a growth of enticing offers on larger items to “buy now, pay later”, the logic being that it seems less expensive if we don’t part with our cash until April 2015.  Similarly, we can also expect to see all of the cosmetics counters in department stores offering free gift sets when we buy a standard purchase, even though this desirable free item is simply a cheap bag full of samples (still, we can wrap it for someone we don’t like that much, can’t we?).

The “special offer” that almost completely vanishes soon until the new year is the “buy one, get one free” (BOGOF) deal.  I find these fascinating as they are a relatively recent invention in the scheme of things.  When I was younger, the same offer was simply called “half price”!  BOGOF off is a much clever development though because, although economically the same, it means we have to buy double the quantity in order to get the item at half-price.  Smart!

BOGOFs are hard to find from early November, however, except in the supermarkets.  They typically go on holiday until January.  Why?  Because retailers want us to work just that little bit harder to find the best deals, thereby increasing their profits during a crucial sales period.  This is the reason we see items in Boots with the little green Christmas trees on them – we buy three items with the trees, the cheapest item is free.  More a case of “buy two, get one free” (BTGOF).  Oh now that is clever…..!

New perfume darling… or is it just my wine?

man-sniffing-wineThe human sense of smell is quite amazing.  We can distinguish the distinctive odour of our blood relations in a room full of strangers, for instance, and we can out-perform the very best mechanical nose in distinguishing between a huge range of scents.  But are we using this amazing ability as well as we could?

New research by Endevelt-Shapira and her colleagues, however, suggests we may not be even coming close to maximising our sense of smell – but a drop of the hard stuff can help!  In a series of experiments looking at olfactory performance at increasing rates of blood-alcohol content (BAC), the researchers found that our skill at identifying a variety of odours improves after a glass or two of wine. The reasons for this remain unclear, but it seems the effects of alcohol on the brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a significant role.  The prefrontal cortex “dampens” our sense of smell under normal circumstances to avoid us becoming over-whelmed with inputs, but this suppression is impaired by rising levels of BAC so our sense of smell improves.  

So, next time you feel your partner is wearing a new brand or perfume or cologne, pause a moment – it may be just that glass of Shiraz you’ve consumed and it’s the regular brand after all – useful advice if, like me, you have a tendency to get into those “you never notice what i’m wearing” conversations!