Is big-city living eroding our desire to be nice?

A new study by University of Miami psychology researchers of anonymous interactions suggests that humans switch off their automatic inclination to share in dealings with strangers.

Would you tip your waitress if you knew you’d never return to her restaurant? Probably, because that’s how most of us are socialized. But what if you knew the waitress would never know if you left a tip? Without the incentive of her approval, would you still be generous?

Researchers in the University of Miami’s Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory who set out to answer that question found that we humans, who learned long ago to instinctively be generous and fair to others, can quickly unlearn that cooperative behavior when encountering strangers if we know we won’t benefit from our actions.

Lead author William H.B. McAuliffe, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, and senior author Michael E. McCullough, professor of psychology, say their study published October 22 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, supports the theory that our ingrained cooperative spirit is a remnant of our evolutionary past. When we lived in small groups, we knew every person in our social circle — or someone who knew them — and we never knew who we might need to help us. Over time, we automatized the decision to be kind out of self-interest.

“We are actually walking around with Stone Age minds,” said McCullough, director of the lab in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology. “Our minds still think how we treat everyone we meet could have consequences — that everyone we run across and are either mean to or nice to will somehow pay us back. We have a natural karma built into us because our minds have evolved into thinking that what goes around really does come around.”

But their study, “Experience with anonymous interactions reduces intuitive cooperation,” shows that the “cognitive shortcut” we have built into our brains to be generous or fair can be easily switched off if we learn there won’t be any payback, either positive or negative. The researchers demonstrated this point by exposing 200 volunteers to a social environment devoid of any incentive or punishment for how they treated others, and tracking how their behavior changed over time.

The volunteers, who came to the laboratory in small groups on two separate occasions about a month apart, were asked to play three games that required them to make decisions about investing money and sharing the windfalls with others in the room, and eventually with a charity. But, sitting at consoles with headphones, the participants did not interact with each other. They made all their decisions and collected all their winnings anonymously and privately.

During the first round, the study showed, participants behaved predictably: Acting on habits shaped by their everyday experiences, they split windfalls with strangers fairly and shared about half their earnings with charity. But on their return visit about a month later, they weren’t as generous, sharing, on average, about 20 percent less.

“After acclimating to the situation, they realized this was extraordinarily different from the situations they find themselves in everyday life,” McAuliffe said. “They realized, ‘What I do doesn’t really matter. It has no social consequences. Nobody is going to pat me on the back if I am generous. No one is going to think I’m stingy if I’m not.’ So, when they come back, they don’t act on that cognitive shortcut because they’ve learned that the same rules don’t apply.”

McCullough, who has devoted his career to shedding light on human behavior by examining our evolutionary past, said the study could explain why big-city dwellers have a reputation for being more hurried and less friendly to strangers than small-town folk.

“I think what this study says isn’t that generosity towards strangers is part of what humans evolved into, but instead that we evolved in a world where there really weren’t strangers,” McCullough said. “We knew everybody. They knew us, and if we didn’t know everybody directly, we knew somebody they knew, so if we were bad to someone they could say, ‘That is a terrible person.’ Now we live in cities with millions of people and you can legitimately encounter a stranger and say ‘I’ll never see that person again — and get away with treating them poorly.’ That’s less so in small towns, where almost everybody does know everybody.”

In addition to McAuliffe and McCullough, the study co-authors include recent UM psychology graduates Daniel E. Forster, now with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and Eric J. Pedersen, now with the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Professional, not personal, familiarity works for virtual teams

Knowing that your colleague on a project once owned a business, earned a specialized degree, or is a technology genius can foster improved working partnerships.

But the fact that she likes chocolate ice cream, fast cars, and the Red Sox is not essential to a productive business collaboration, and can even be detrimental to productivity.

Those are the findings of UConn management professors Lucy Gilson and John Mathieu, and two colleagues, in a recent study titled, “Do I Really Know You — And Does It Matter? Unpacking the Relationship Between Familiarity and Information Elaboration in Global Virtual Teams.”

Understanding the dynamics of virtual teams has been a complicated and vexing problem, write the authors in the paper, which was published online in Group & Organization Management and will appear in print in early 2019.

More and more of us are actually working on virtual teams. The researchers consider teams to be “virtual,” even if they are in the same building, if most of their communication is done via technology.

“Unfortunately, even when you put the very best people on virtual teams, studies have borne out that they don’t perform as well on complex and ambiguous tasks as in-person work groups,” says Gilson, head of the UConn management department. “It seems meeting face-to-face, even once, improves the work dynamic.”

While previous research tended to lump “familiarity” into one category, the study authors were able to distinguish between professional and personal knowledge.

They concluded that professional familiarity plays a significant role in shaping subsequent levels of team success, perhaps because when colleagues know something about each other’s careers they know when to weigh in and what to expect from the others on the team.

Managers need to make sure virtual teams build strong relationships with one another, specifically knowing the skills, knowledge, and abilities of the team members. When professional familiarity was enhanced, so was the level of work. In contrast, personal familiarity didn’t have the same impact.

“For managers, I think the message is that virtual tools give you options, but be careful to pick the right media for your team to get the job done,”‘ says Mathieu, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Management at UConn and the Friar Chair of Leadership & Teamwork. “It is always best for people to get to know each other before they launch a joint project.”

Also, when strangers start working on a task virtually, they tend to “dig in,” forgoing exchanges about the challenges and the scope of the work. But in-person conversations that might lead to a new strategy for completing the project — which can be critical for project success — may not be pursued, Gilson says.

To test their theories, the researchers studied employees in an international supply chain company that addressed technology software, hardware, and retail store solutions. Employees worked at 23 locations in 10 countries, including the U.S., China, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, and Taiwan.

The researchers were able to conduct online surveys with 363 people, from 68 teams, and ask them questions about their colleagues’ professional achievements, including competencies, reputation, work performance, dependability, and attention to detail. Then they asked questions of a personal nature, about a teammate’s values, likes and dislikes, employment history, hobbies, and family status.

In the next phase, team leaders were asked to evaluate their team’s effectiveness and the likelihood that they would work together again. Teams were considered a success if they could deliver their products by the targeted delivery date. In addition, managers’ ratings suggested that high-performing teams delivered products of high quality that were valued by internal or external customers.

“Familiarity among teammates doesn’t always work the way you’d expect it,” Mathieu says. For instance, among surgical teams, familiarity can be helpful unless they become too comfortable and their attentiveness declines. Likewise, student teams in which the teammates are good friends have more personal conflict that teams of strangers, seemingly because politeness and professionalism are expected among strangers.

“We want teams that function well and are efficient,” says Mathieu. “We found that those that were professionally familiar did well.”

There may be a maximum point of success, however. Higher levels of virtuality appear to dampen the positive relationship between professional familiarity and information elaboration, indicating that if too much of the work is reliant upon technology, the familiarity impact will be diminished.

Bottom line: The type of familiarity is crucial to professional success, say Gilson, Mathieu, and co-authors M. Travis Maynard ’07 Ph.D., now a professor at Colorado State University, and Diana R. Sanchez an assistant professor at San Francisco State.

Wine’s origin might affect acceptable price more than taste study shows

Taste might have less to do with what consumers are willing to pay for wine than you think.

In fact, issues like a wine’s country and region of origin sometimes had more impact on a person’s willingness to pay more for a wine than taste.

The trend was revealed in a study by university researchers from Washington state, Minnesota, Hong Kong and Korea.

Researchers found through a series blind taste tests that ‘nontaste-related factors’ may play a larger role in how much consumers are willing to pay for wine in Hong Kong, compared with their western counterparts.

Project researchers included Byron Marlowe, a clinical assistant professor in hospitality business management at Washington State University Tri-Cities, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Gyeongsang National University in Korea, Their results are presented the fall issue of the British Food Journal.

Three stages of research

The test was administered in three stages.

Stage 1: A purely blind tasting test, in which participants received no information about the wine.

State 2: Participants were provided with the wine’s country of origin prior to the tasting.

Stage 3: Full information on the wines, including attributes such as grape variety, region and winery of origin, were provided before tasting.

During each tasting, participants were asked to taste and rate each wine according to selected attributes and assign their “willingness-to-pay” for that particular wine. Six wines — three reds and three whites, with similar price points, from five different countries and six different regions — were served in each stage. The wine originated from the following areas:

  • Western Cape, South Africa
  • Iowa, USA
  • Rheingau, Germany
  • Rioja, Spain
  • Wisconsin, USA
  • Argentina

“Most of the wines did fairly well in the first treatment, when all of the individuals were completely blind to the wine details,” Marlowe said. “But they do worse when revealed that the wines are from regions that they are not as familiar with or with varietals that they aren’t familiar with.”

Pre-taste factors that impact willingness to pay

Researchers found that revealing the country and region of origin of the wines from Iowa and Wisconsin had a negative effect on how much participants were willing to pay per bottle. Customers indicated they would be willing to pay an average of $2.70 to $4.80 less per bottle than the designated stated retail price for the wines.

For example, if the wine’s stated retail price was $24, then the customer would be willing to pay potentially $2.70 to $4.80 less than that price, or $21.30 or $19.20 per bottle.

Marlowe said this is probably because those regions are not widely known as wine grape-growing regions, and also not for wine production.

“All of a sudden, when participants know they’re drinking a wine from the Midwest, where cold and hardy varietals are grown, their immediate response is to rate it lower than wine from a more well-known region,” he said.

Similar results were shown for the wines from Germany and Argentina, although further analysis found the two countries to be less effected by perception of region.

Researchers also realized that female participants in the study seemed to have higher willingness to pay than males. Younger consumers also appeared to have higher willingness to pay than older consumers.

Additionally, “novice drinkers” or those who had wine rarely or less than once a month, relied mainly on country of origin information in their wine evaluations, as compared to “expert consumers” or those who drink wine more than once a week and who relied more on sensory quality or taste, according to results of the study.

Asian vs. western market perceptions

Although results of Hong Kong participants follow similar trends as those who participated in similar studies in western countries, results also suggest that cues unrelated to taste play a larger role in the evaluation of wine in the Asian market, especially for novice wine drinkers, as compared to western societies.

Marlowe said these points warrant attention as wine consumption and popularity continues to grow in Asia, and specifically Hong Kong.

“Teachers, wine scientists and marketers can use these details when marketing wines for Asian countries, as well as in educating individuals in those areas about wine origins and attributes,” Marlowe said. “A wine produced in the Midwest in the United States may be a premium wine, but if there is a perception that it is less than, we need to overcome those factors through marketing and business tactics to help promote those wines.”

Reading between the lines: Are we as savvy as we’d like to think when it comes to reviews?

Rude staff, slow Wi-Fi, cheap sausages for breakfast… Up to 81% of us think looking at reviews is an important way to avoid a bad experience when making a hotel booking decision, but how good are we at judging which reviews are reliable?

New research suggests we are willing to blindly trust hotel reviews when they conform to our preconceived ideas.

The study, led by the University of York, found that we are subconsciously less likely to question the credibility of a review that fits with our expectations — for example a bad review for a budget hotel or a good review for a luxury hotel.

It’s only when a review doesn’t align with our expectations — such as a bad review for a luxury hotel — that we become extra-vigilant and take a more sceptical view on whether we are being given reliable information.

With up to 30% of all online reviews estimated to be fake, the researchers are warning people not to let down their guard when it comes to the reviews they live and buy by.

Dr Snehasish Banerjee from the University of York Management School, said: “The human brain is biologically wired to feel comfortable when our expectations are confirmed. Confirmation bias sets in and we tend to make decisions without necessarily paying adequate attention to our perceptions.

“On the other hand, when we see information contradictory to our expectations we can’t easily use this cognitive shortcut and start to look at the review more closely and sceptically.”

The researchers also found that reviews with an attractive title stand a better chance of being relied upon for decision making.

Reviews with well-articulated and concise titles may be better perceived because they required participants to put in less effort in order to digest the information they provide — something the researchers say would-be social media “influencers” should bear in mind.

For the study, the researchers created mock-up review websites with fictitious names. They recruited 100 participants who were all regular users of review websites and had made a decision to stay in a hotel after reading reviews within the last year.

The participants looked at positive and negative reviews for luxury and budget hotels and then filled in a questionnaire designed to test their level of trust in the different reviews.

The results imply that budget and luxury hotels may have to make different levels of investment of time and resources in social media marketing.

Dr Banerjee added: “our study suggests budget hotels are more vulnerable to bad reviews as negative comments are more likely to be judged as reliable. Luxury hotels on the other hand enjoy a degree of immunity when it comes to social media criticism.”

When reading reviews, the researchers advise looking at the ratings a hotel has received overall, rather than placing too much importance on individual reviews. Verified review websites which send customers a unique URL after their stay also reduce the likelihood of fake reviews.

“When it comes to fake reviews, hotel owners face a ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ — they don’t know whether their competitors are engaging in these unscrupulous practices so they hedge their bets so as not to risk losing out on business,” said Dr Banerjee.

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Bad boss? You may be making things better — or worse!

Disagreeable, dishonest and careless bosses can mean bad outcomes for organizations and work groups. However, new research highlights that the employees they work with also play a major role in this. Employee anxiety, self-esteem and how leadership behavior is perceived can all affect the leader’s influence on outcomes — and both followers and leaders can buffer against the effects of certain undesirable traits. Published in Frontiers in Psychology as a special article collection on the ‘dark side’ of leadership, the research can help organizations identify potentially problematic leaders or followers to reduce their negative effects.

“Surprisingly, not only leaders’ but also followers’ dark-sides have emerged as hindering factors for organizational functioning. We are moving away from the somewhat unidimensional view that leaders are omnipotent and solely to blame for negative outcomes in organizations,” says Professor Susanne Braun of Durham University, UK, who co-edited the research collection together with Professor Ronit Kark, based at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and Professor Barbara Wisse, based at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and Durham University, UK.

Leadership and followership are crucial aspects of organizational functioning and can affect our society at all levels. Studies integrating leader personality traits and styles, follower personality traits and behaviors as well as their contexts are rare — and most studies focus on good traits rather than ‘dark’ leadership or followership.

“In the wake of various scandals involving misbehavior of leaders and rank-and-file employees, more attention has been given to the dark aspects of leadership,” explains Wisse. “There is a growing awareness that the positive side of leadership and followership should be complemented by a focus on the darker side. There are also plenty of ‘grey areas’ in-between, where further insights are needed.”

The research highlights ‘Three Nightmare Traits’ at the core of dark leadership: dishonesty, disagreeableness and carelessness. When coupled with a leader who is highly extroverted and low in emotionality, serious negative consequences for employees and organizations can occur, including absenteeism, turnover, stress and poor performance.

How the traits of leaders and followers interact to mediate these bad outcomes, an overlooked aspect in the past, is the focus of other studies. Using a range of techniques, ranging from experimental evidence to real-life observations, this research reveals that certain characteristics combine to produce different outcomes.

For example, followers with high Machiavellianism use all possible means to achieve desired ends, such as hiding knowledge or using emotional manipulation. However, this negative behavior can be effectively reduced by ethical leadership — leaders demonstrating appropriate conduct through actions and interpersonal relationships.

“Another study positioned followers as buffers to negative leadership,” says Wisse. “It found that when followers had higher self-esteem, leaders with psychopathic traits behaved less self-servingly.”

Employee self-esteem is also linked to how a leader’s behavior is perceived and the subsequent consequences. Narcissistic leaders were rated as more abusive by followers with low self-esteem and in turn, this was related to lower employee performance and the experience of burnout symptoms.

The nuanced impact of destructive leadership was also assessed. One study found, for example, that employees who feel abused by leaders have a higher urgency to leave the organization in comparison to those experiencing embezzlement and exploitative leader behavior. Another revealed that strict tyrannical leadership can lead to employee work-family conflict, which in turn is related to employees’ emotional exhaustion. Furthermore, this can be made worse if the employee suffers from anxiety.

The findings from this research collection will be useful to advise businesses and practitioners on what drives leaders and followers towards dark-side behaviors — as well as point them to potential remedies to the problem.

“A good start could be a positive organizational culture that buffers against negative leadership. Perceived accountability, organizational transparency, and values such as trust, respect and support can offset some of the negative effects a few individuals may have on the overall organization,” explains Kark.

Another approach could be to identify individuals with dark-side traits and prevent them from entering an organization. For example, the Three Nightmare Traits can be aligned with specific personality profiles. This can allow organizations to put specific actions in place to highlight problematic leaders and employees at various stages of their career.

“Diligence is required in early hiring and selection stages, when candidates with dark-side traits may seek to take control of the process,” she adds. “Structured interviews, work samples, and focus on actions and feelings can help to spot inconsistencies. Checking the facts through information from previous employers is a must.”

The dark-sides of leadership and followership will always be a natural part of an organizational reality that many employees face day in and day out. It is hoped this collection of research will encourage an integrative view of leadership and followership, leading to better outcomes for organizations and employees alike.

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Painkillers during pregnancy can bring forward puberty in girls

The more weeks a women takes pain-reliving medication during pregnancy, the earlier their daughters enter puberty. This is shown by a new study from Aarhus University.

Breasts, pimples and menstruation, hair growth in places where there was none previously, and unpredictable mood swings. Welcome to puberty, which for the majority of girls begins when they are around ten or eleven years old — or even earlier — if the mother has taken painkillers with paracetamol (which in Denmark sell under names such as e.g. Panodil, Pinex or Pamol) during pregnancy.

As the first in the world, researchers from Aarhus University have examined the correlation between the intake of the analgesic paracetamol during pregnancy and girls and boys pubertal development. The results have just been published in the international journal, American Journal of Epidemiology.

“We found a ‘dose-response’ correlation. That is to say, the more weeks with paracetamol during pregnancy, the earlier puberty in girls, but not in boys,” says PhD student Andreas Ernst from the Department of Public Health, Aarhus University, who is behind the study.

The study is based on the largest collection of puberty data in the Danish birth cohort ( A group of around 100,000 women provided detailed information about their use of paracetamol three times during their pregnancy. A total of 15,822 children, 7,697 boys and 8,125 girls born to these mothers between 2000-2003 were followed from the age of eleven and throughout puberty with questionnaires every six months about several different aspects of their development.

Puberty arrives earlier

The study showed that girls on average enter puberty between one-and-a-half and three months earlier, if the mother took painkillers for more than twelve weeks during pregnancy.

“While entering puberty one-and-a-half to three months earlier may seem unimportant, when taken together with the frequent use of paracetamol during pregnancy, our findings ought to make people take notice. Our results are certainly not the decisive factor that should change current practice, but the perception of paracetamol as ‘the safe and harmless choice’ during pregnancy ought to be challenged,” explains Andreas Ernst.

Worldwide, the average consumption of paracetamol has been increasing, and studies suggest that more than fifty per cent of pregnant women make use of painkillers containing paracetamol at least once during their pregnancy.

“As earlier pubertal development has previously been tied to an increased risk of more frequent and serious diseases in adulthood such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and testicular and breast cancer, it’s important to identify possible causes of early puberty so we can prevent this development,” says Andreas Ernst.

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Motion sickness vs. cybersickness: Two different problems or the same condition?

Contrary to previous research, severe motion sickness and cybersickness — a type of motion sickness that stems from exposure to virtual reality — may be considered the same clinical condition, according to researchers. The findings, the first to study both conditions in the same group of people, are published ahead of print in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Motion sickness is a common consequence of “sensory mismatch.” This happens when what a person sees, feels and senses don’t match up, such as when there is a conflict between sensory channels that define body orientation and position in space. The disconnect occurs between the eyes and the vestibular system, which controls the workings of the inner ear, overall balance and orientation of a person in a physical space. Because motion sickness does not involve only the eyes, research has shown that people who are blind can still experience “classic” motion sickness. Cybersickness has been thought to be a sub-type of motion sickness because it does not involve the vestibular system and is triggered only by visual stimuli. However, the two conditions share many of the same symptoms, including nausea, sweating, dizziness and fatigue.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia studied the physiological responses to motion sickness and cybersickness in 30 young adult volunteers. Two different trials were separated by at least one week. One trial consisted of exposure to a vestibular stimulus: being blindfolded and riding a motorized rotating chair while tilting their heads at regular intervals. For the visual stimulus trial, the participants “rode” a virtual reality rollercoaster. Both trials were designed to span a maximum of 15 minutes. Volunteers were instructed to continue for as long as they could tolerate uncomfortable symptoms. During both trials, the researchers measured the participants’ sweat rate through sensors placed on the skin of their foreheads. The volunteers completed questionnaires before and after the study, including a post-trial questionnaire that rated the severity of their discomfort.

Only one of the study participants was able to complete the full 15 minutes of either trial, indicating that the majority of the group experienced advanced or severe motion sickness and cybersickness throughout the trials. Nausea, dizziness and feeling hot and sweaty were the symptoms most often reported on the post-trial questionnaire. There was little difference in self-reported severity rating and in objective physiological measures between the motion and cybersickness trials, suggesting “the clinical picture of advanced motion sickness (assessed as a spectrum of symptoms and as their intensity) is very similar, independently of whether it is induced by pure visual or pure vestibular stimuli. This conclusion contradicts previously published results,” the researchers wrote.

These results may have practical significance that could affect public safety, the research team noted. “Simple and relatively inexpensive [virtual reality] technology [may be used] for occupational pre-selection tests in those professions where motion sickness is an exclusion criterion or represents a common occupational hazard (e.g., pilots, drivers of public transport, crane operators, etc.).”

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The smell of lavender is relaxing, science confirms

Lavender works its relaxing magic all around us: from garden borders to bath bombs to fabric softener. But why not in our hospitals and clinics? And what is the science behind the magic?

Research published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows for the first time that the vaporized lavender compound linalool must be smelt — not absorbed in the lungs- to exert its calming effects, which could be used to relieve preoperative stress and anxiety disorders.

Soothing scents

“In folk medicine, it has long been believed that odorous compounds derived from plant extracts can relieve anxiety,” says co-author Dr Hideki Kashiwadani of Kagoshima University, Japan.

Modern medicine has overlooked these scented settlers, despite a need for safer alternatives to current anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) drugs like benzodiazepines.

Numerous studies now confirm the potent relaxing effects of linalool, a fragrant alcohol found in lavender extracts.

“However, the sites of action of linalool were usually not addressed in these studies,” Kashiwadani points out.

Many assumed that absorption into bloodstream via the airway led to direct effects on brain cell receptors such as GABAARs — also the target of benzodiazepines. But establishing the true mechanism of linalool’s relaxing effects is a key step in moving towards clinical use in humans.

A nose for success

Kashiwadani and colleagues tested mice to see whether it is the smell of linalool — i.e. stimulation of olfactory (odor-sensitive) neurons in the nose — that triggers relaxation.

“We observed the behavior of mice exposed to linalool vapor, to determine its anxiolytic effects. As in previous studies, we found that linalool odor has an anxiolytic effect in normal mice. Notably, this did not impair their movement.” This contrasts with benzodiazepines, and linalool injections, whose effects on movement are similar to those of alcohol.

However, crucially there was no anxiolytic effect in anosmic mice — whose olfactory neurons have been destroyed — indicating that the relaxation in normal mice was triggered by olfactory signals evoked by linalool odor.

What’s more, the anxiolytic effect in normal mice disappeared when they were pretreated with flumazenil, which blocks benzodiazepine-responsive GABAA receptors.

“When combined, these results suggest that linalool does not act directly on GABAA receptors like benzodiazepines do — but must activate them via olfactory neurons in the nose in order to produce its relaxing effects,” explains Kashiwadani.

Coming to theaters near you

“Our study also opens the possibility that relaxation seen in mice fed or injected with linalool could in fact be due to the smell of the compound emitted in their exhaled breath.”

Similar studies are therefore needed to establish the targets, safety and efficacy of linalool administered via different routes, before a move to human trials.

“These findings nonetheless bring us closer to clinical use of linalool to relieve anxiety — in surgery for example, where pretreatment with anxiolytics can alleviate preoperative stress and thus help to place patients under general anesthesia more smoothly. Vaporized linalool could also provide a safe alternative for patients who have difficulties with oral or suppository administration of anxiolytics, such as infants or confused elders.”

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What Selma Blair ‘Thought Was a Pinched Nerve’ Turned Out to Be MS

Selma Blair is dealing with a surprise medical diagnosis 15 years in the making: As she revealed on Instagram recently, Blair was diagnosed with the neurological condition multiple sclerosis (MS) this past August, after years of dealing with somewhat subtle symptoms of the condition.

“I have #multiplesclerosis . I am in an exacerbation. By the grace of the lord, and will power and the understanding producers at Netflix , I have a job. A wonderful job,” she wrote alongside a photo of herself in a dressing room during a fitting for her upcoming Netflix show Another Life.

“I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken gps,” Blair continued. “But we are doing it . And I laugh and I don’t know exactly what I will do precisely but I will do my best.”

Blair also used her post to thank the people who have made up her support system over the past couple months, including costumer Alissa Swanson for helping her change clothes during fittings, as well as the rest of the series’ crew and her friends. Blair also expressed gratitude to the friend who prodded her to seek the help that led Blair to get her diagnosis in the first place.

“And the biggest thanks to @elizberkley who forced me to see her brother #drjasonberkley who gave me this diagnosis after finding lesions on that mri,” she wrote. “I have had symptoms for years but was never taken seriously until I fell down in front of him trying to sort out what I thought was a pinched nerve. I have probably had this incurable disease for 15 years at least. And I am relieved to at least know. And share.”

As SELF wrote previously, MS is a potentially disabling neurological disease that affects the central nervous system.

“MS is a disease where the immune system gets confused and attacks three places in the body: the brain, the spinal cord, and the optic nerve,” Robert Fox, M.D., a neurologist at the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. The immune systems eats away at the fatty sheathing that covers and protects the nerve fibers in these areas (myelin). When this covering is damaged, it causes communication issues between the brain and the body and can result in damage of the nerve itself, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Although it can develop at any age, people are typically diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 60, per the Mayo Clinic, and it’s about twice as common in women than men. Experts aren’t sure what causes the disease, but it is thought to be influenced by of a combination of risk factors such as family history, genetics, smoking, exposure to certain infections, and the presence of certain autoimmune conditions.

The symptoms of MS vary from person to person, which makes a diagnosis tricky.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms include fatigue, numbness or tingling in the face or extremities, dizziness, vertigo, balance issues, difficulty walking, weakness, vision issues, and bladder or bowel issues.

Sometimes those symptoms are obvious (e.g. vision problems like blurred or double-vision), which makes diagnosis “relatively easy,” Dr. Fox says. But often, the symptoms are harder to notice or definitively attribute to MS.

“There’s no hallmark symptom” of MS, which makes it complicated to diagnose, neuroimmunologist Fred Lublin, M.D., director of the Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for Multiple Sclerosis at The Mount Sinai Hospital and the Saunders Family Professor of Neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells SELF. “While there are some characteristic features to the illness, it’s different in every person, and that’s part of the challenge,” Dr. Lublin says.

It can be especially difficult to diagnose when the symptoms are more subtle or nonspecific, such as fatigue, mild weakness, or a barely perceptible loss of balance. Mild cognitive impairments like memory problems, for example, could be attributed to conditions such as depression, anxiety, or insomnia. Even seemingly obvious symptoms, like numbness in one limb, can be tricky—sometimes the sensation is very strong and concentrated in one place, in the body, while other times it can be more diffuse, Dr. Fox explains.

The ebb and flow of these symptoms also makes MS challenging to diagnose.

Additionally, “MS is a relapsing, remitting disease,” Jonathan Howard, M.D., a neurologist at NYU Langone’s Multiple Sclerosis Comprehensive Care Center and author of Multiple Sclerosis: Questions and Answers for Patients and Loved Ones, tells SELF.

“It most commonly occurs as episodic attacks,” Dr. Lublin explains. Although it is highly variable, Dr. Howard says these episodes typically last anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months, and occur on average about once a year—although the frequency can also be as low as once every 10 years or as high as five times a year. “The symptoms get better if you do nothing,” Dr. Howard adds. So if symptoms are relatively mild, you might be tempted to just wait them out and then think they’re gone for good.

Even if someone does seek medical attention, there’s no guarantee that their passing symptoms will be further investigated, Dr. Howard explains. “Doctors might say, ‘If it isn’t better in a month, we’ll do something.’ And then it goes away before a month.”

There’s no lab test that can on its own definitively indicate that someone has MS. But, in most cases, an MRI will give enough clues for a diagnosis.

“It’s not like swabbing for strep throat,” Dr. Fox explains. Rather, arriving at a diagnosis requires taking a thorough medical history, a careful neurological exam, ruling out other illnesses that could be causing the symptoms, and evaluating various lab findings.

The most useful test, Dr. Lublin says, is an MRI to scan for lesions on the brain and spinal cord (which Blair said she received). These lesions are like scars indicating areas of injury where the immune system attacked, Dr. Fox says. Sometimes the brain and spinal cord fully heal after a relapse, Dr. Howard says, but the vast majority of patients will show some scarring or “residual injuries” on their MRI. As this nerve damage accumulates, symptoms can become longer lasting or permanent, he explains, which is how the disease can progress to become much more severe in some people.

Although there is no cure for MS, there are treatments available to manage the disease, including medications to reduce the frequency and severity of relapses and treat them if they do occur, as well as physical therapy to manage symptoms, the Mayo Clinic explains.

The sooner these treatments begin, the more effective they are, Dr. Lublin says. That’s why getting diagnosed early early—and taking any new symptoms seriously—is so crucial. “The earlier that we can get to someone, the better,” he says.


11 Beauty Products My Boyfriend Always Steals From Me

One of the most foundational aspects of my seven-year relationship with my boyfriend has undoubtedly been learning to share. Of course it goes without saying that we share the important things like our thoughts and feelings, but aside from that, he’s really into borrowing (read: stealing) my beauty products. Although he has a few male-friendly tried-and-true beauty products of his own, for some reason he can’t get enough use out of mine, too.

At first it was kind of annoying—but also kind of cute—that I’d often find him using my body lotions and lip balms (does this mean I’ll go through them twice as fast?), but now I just take it as acknowledgement of my good beauty judgment, especially since he has sensitive skin. Here are the 11 beauty products that have now become a part of our daily grooming rotation.