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Understanding Ourselves: Psychology Research Offers Advice for Life

Have you ever wondered what academic research has to do with actual, day-to-day living? If at any point in your life you’ve struggled to gain a sense of social belonging, dealt with crippling amounts of stress, or wondered how to make more meaningful connections in your online interactions, the question may be easier to answer than you’d imagined. You need look no further than the Department of Psychology, where faculty researchers recently published a number of studies that explore real-life situations and offer practical insights into the personal and interpersonal dynamics at play in our everyday lives.


One of the most cited articles in psychology, “The Need to Belong” by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, argues that belongingness is a core human need that is met when individuals enjoy frequent, positive interactions with one another in the context of a stable and mutually caring relationship. Despite the work’s acceptance, no one had attempted to apply its conclusions in a direct evaluation of the effectiveness of individual relationships. So David Pillow and graduate student Glenn Malone took up the challenge.

In a series of related studies, the research team asked subjects to evaluate each of their close relationships based on seven criteria, including length of time in the relationship, frequency of interactions, and expectation of the relationship’s future success. “If the relationship met all the criteria, we designated it as a whole relationship – a relationship that helps to fully satisfy one’s belongingness needs,” says Pillow. “If it met some, but not all criteria, we designated it as a partial relationship.”

While it comes as no surprise that whole relationships were found to positively affect one’s sense of belonging, a number of interesting possibilities were revealed by the studies. Partial relationships, Pillow’s work suggests, not only appear not to contribute to belongingness but could actually damage wellbeing. This means that having a few close, long-term relationships may be healthier than maintaining a greater variety of casual ones.

For Pillow, “the big take-away is that frequency of interactions is important. I think finding someone, or a small group, that you can spend quality time with once a week is a good goal.”


In her recently published book, Mind the Gap: Managing Stress in the Modern World, Mary McNaughton-Cassill examines stresses brought about by modern lifestyles. Over her 20-year teaching career, she says, “I gradually found myself writing more and more lectures that differed from the chapters in the standard stress management textbooks.” She incorporated her lectures into a book designed both for university courses and to serve as a useful guide for those who wish to understand the sources of stress in daily life.

The title for the book, McNaughton-Cassill explains, came to her while traveling in England. “I was already thinking about the book when I had the chance to go to a stress management conference in London. While there, I took the Tube [London’s subway system] and heard the repeated warnings to ‘Mind the gap’ while getting on the train. During one of those rides I realized that the phrase was the perfect title for the book, since I routinely describe stress as the ‘gap’ between what we have and what we want, and argue that the only real way to manage that gap is to manage or ‘mind’ your own thoughts.”

Mental assessment is crucial to stress management, says McNaughton-Cassill, because avoiding stress entirely is not an option. “A moderate amount of stress motivates people, but high stress levels interfere with performance, while chronic stress is correlated with poor physical and mental health.”

McNaughton-Cassill believes that many of society’s stressors are the result of modern demands. Sources of stress often include time pressure, information overload, and social expectations. We also deal with debilitating amounts of mental stimulation, spending hours every day surfing the Internet and watching TV. Combined with insufficient rest, lack of exercise, and limited contact with nature, we’re asking our bodies to put up with demands they simply weren’t designed to handle. A situation, McNaughton-Cassill says, our grandparents didn’t have to deal with.

“We have very little quiet time,” she concludes. “We have to rethink our priorities and how we live our lives, even if that means turning off the phone for an hour.”


In a study conducted with husband Ray Lopez, Stella G. Lopez examined online interactions between strangers in a two-way messaging environment. “We asked subjects to evaluate perceptions of themselves, their online partners, and the interactions themselves,” she says.

“We found that the more the participants accurately inferred the content of each other’s thoughts or feelings during the online interaction, the more they reported a qualitatively positive, less awkward, and less guarded interaction.” Crucial to the subjects’ ability to connect in this way was the degree to which they were attuned to their partner’s experience over their own. “The more partner-focused participants were, the more they experienced a sense of ‘we-ness’ during the interaction,” says Lopez.

Another interesting finding of the study suggests that certain dynamics involved in traditional conversations also apply to electronic interactions, despite the more limited nature of the exchange. “Even without the nonverbal behavioral and vocal cues typically available in face-to-face interactions, the quality of the online interaction was influenced by participants’ personality traits,” she says, noting that healthy self-esteem and sociability are as important to establishing a positive, mutually fulfilling interaction online as they are in the physical world.