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UMBC Researchers Move Ahead: Exploring the Arts-Culture-Behavior Connection

In the fall of 2012, fifteen UMBC researchers assembled to submit a cutting edge proposal to a fledgling program at the National Institutes of Health. It was to explore some basic mechanisms that connect culture and health. Though we did not get the grant, the subject and the discussions we had were engaging. We want to keep exploring this research thread. In a meeting on 5/16/13, I promised to post the description (below) of the gist of our concept to gather our thoughts about it and take a snapshot of where we are. (I improved it just a bit since the meeting—it’s starting to get comprehensible). Please post comments to capture the valuable perspectives you all shared in the meeting, and any further thoughts you have.

Here it is:

Our culture-based approach to affecting behavior deserves to be tested. Our hypothesis comes from triangulating research from a number of disciplines including ancient studies, the arts, art history, anthropology, social psychology and education. We believe it is possible that arts making, around a subject of concern—say health or education, and the artifacts it produces can cultivate local culture and a psychological sense of community. These, in turn, might influence social norms in the forms of beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviors. We are now asking how/when/where might artist-facilitators work with a local population to investigate the process and its impact? Is ethnography the best way to study the processes of change? If we are at the beginning of this line of research, shouldn’t we be trying to determine whether it works rather than how it works?

Culture and Issues painting

Culture and Behavior Image

Announcing Our First Area of Focus

We at the Who We Am project scan the landscape of human behavior-related research to find emerging potential at the intersections of diverse disciplines. Where work in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Health Communications, Education, the Arts and Media come together, there is increasing interest in exploring how cultural traits and social norms form and impact behavior.

The National Science Foundation’s 2011 white paper, Rebuilding the Mosaic and the National Institutes of Health relatively new OppNet initiative direct new support to better understand and positively affect socio-cultural factors that impact health, education, poverty, and other issues. Rather than frame social problems as anomalies to be addressed once they appear, social and cultural thinking looks “upstream” to consider intervening where sociocultural determinants of behavior form.

Who We Am is now launching an effort to stimulate transdisciplinary discourse and research efforts to further explore:

  • How ideas become established in social and cultural environments?
  • How individual perceptions of social normalcy develop?
  • What sources of ideas do individuals report influence their beliefs, attitudes and decisions?
  • What have other civilizations done to infuse their cultures with prosocial ideas?
  • What types of cultural interventions might produce positive behavior change today?

We will begin this month by filming interviews with high school-aged young adults—asking them about their current circumstances and future aspirations: how they make both daily decisions and long-term plans; who and what influences them; what kind of messages they are getting from their social and cultural environments—from their families to advertising campaigns. We are striving for a high artistic level for these films, and hope that once edited and posted on this site, they spark discussion among those interested in these questions. This is preliminary research for a grant application we’ll be submitting  in December to answer an Request For Applications from the National Institutes of Health. We are actively seeking research team members now.

Please join us by commenting on this first post to give us your first impressions of this new direction. We are looking for interested people to guest post on this blog as well. Email us at if you would like more information or are interested in discussing your possible involvement in this research.


Hello Researchers!

We are working on building a transdisciplinary, online discourse about human behavior. To learn what we mean by that and why we’re doing it, see the About page. You can also watch the very short video below.

Right now, we are asking if you will help curate a multidisciplinary Reference List. It’s easy to find literature online, but for the transdisciplinary discussion we will host, it’s more valuable for people to bring their personal favorites. Right now, our list is barebones; we want it to grow to be rich and personal.

Please click on Reference List to suggest key literature from your discipline, or even whole disciplines you think we should list.

Also, please comment here, or at the above location to share any thoughts you have about the project—now in its nacent form.

We are also looking for co-investigators, collaborators and content experts!



How Great Businesses Think Differently

Companies are often too money-driven to actually make any money.

Great companies use different mindset. It actually isn’t all about the bottom line.
These wildly successful companies like Google and Amazon make money in a different way. Instead of clawing their way to the top by any means necessary, they consider the bigger picture: How they can improve society as a whole.

These companies have six common factors that make them so successful:

1. A common purpose

(Create an identity, not just a mission statement)

2. A long-term focus

(Know where you’re going!)

3. Emotional engagement in the workplace

(Make it fun to go to work, and everyone will work harder and better)

4. Partnership with the public

(Get people involved and mutually help each other)

5. Innovation

(Never be satisfied, always improve)

6. Self organization

(Create and rely on relationships, not rules)

These companies see incredible results. Such as more flexibility and stability under change, long-term perspective thinking, more dedicated and creative workers, more opportunities and sustainability, and more overall PROFIT.

And who wouldn’t want that?

So why do so many companies still use a cold and traditional approach to management, when these more socially-based tactics obviously work better?

The study implies that our Capitalist society makes it easy for businesses to ignore everything but the bottom line.

But by only looking at the numbers, many businesses are missing out on the larger equation…

…which is much more than forcing workers into cubicles for another 10 hours of overtime without pay.

Who wants to work under those conditions?

Let people trust each other and build on each other’s creativity. Help the community and get involved in symbiotic relationships. Develop an atmosphere and personality of the company, not just a business plan, and never stop improving.

Hey, it worked for Google.

Kanter, R. (2011). How Great Companies Think Differently. Harvard Business Review, 89(11), 66-78.

Pocket watch, Z's, midnight snack

Just Sleep It Off

Yet another cause for overeating and obesity in the US has surfaced as the result of a new study on sleep.

The study shows that a lack of sleep can actually cause weight gain from an increased appetite.

Lack of sleep is extremely common in our fast paced society. With all the things on our busy schedule who has time to get a full nights sleep?

But what links poor sleep to overeating? “From a physiologic perspective, we know that sleep is a very important time for the release of many physiologic hormones, it’s a time when the body repairs itself, the brain consolidates memories, and growth hormone is released. All of these important functions are impacted by less sleep time.” says Virend Somers, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

Maybe next time instead of breaking out the scale and the calorie counter just hit the snooze button a few more times.

Religion and Health

A Connection Between Religion and Health?

Is there a quantifiable connection between religious behaviors and health?

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi claims, “no, actually.” Here’s why.

As Beit-Hallahmi critiques a colleague’s article on the subject, he makes several interesting counterpoints:

1. Beit-Hallahmi’s colleague purposes that humans have a natural intuition to sense sickness and avoid it. This intuition is sometimes described in religious terms, as an ability to sense the non-physical.

Beit-Hallahmi throws this idea out the window:

If we instantly and instinctively knew which people had HIV or cancer, wouldn’t the history of the world look a little different?

Beit-Hallahmi says we’re taught to avoid risky behaviors because science and experience tells us what happens when we don’t wash our hands or use a tissue.

2. Beit-Hallahmi also mentions that in our new era of disease-awareness and prevention, many religious-minded groups link sickness with divine punishment.

He also rejects this, claiming that these links are adaptive expressions of tension: like having strange dreams when you’re stressed. A subconscious and imaginary explanation used to grapple with a difficult and real event.

3. Finally, Beit-Hallahmi criticized his colleague for linking religious behaviors with health.

“Are the more religious people of Afghanistan healthier than the less religious people of Sweden?”

Health is dependant on a multitude of other factors, like economic conditions and diet. Religious behaviors don’t necessarily have much to do with overall health, and in some cases, can prevent a person from seeking medical attention (blood transfusions, for instance).

Beit-Hallahmi has a lot of opinions and data on this matter, but what do you think?

Creativity Bias

Creativity Bias

Arts aren’t given the same emphasis in schools as other subjects.

“You want to be an artist? I hope you like Ramen noodles.”

But this may be more of a problem than we thought. Creativity, is an attribute that CEOs and engineers alike believe is key to progress, and something that our technology-obsessed culture might be diminishing. That’s because creativity requires special kinds of tolerance, like the ability to work with ambiguity and uncertainty.

It seems that it’s vogue to voice support for creativity, but quite another thing to make decisions that promote it.

When people are genuinely confronted with a complex problem, they are under-prepared and under-conditioned to deal with it.

In this article on, Amanda Enayati discusses some of the reasons creativity runs into barriers. She quotes Wharton School of Business Professor, Jennifer Mueller. “We are intolerant of uncertainty in general. The more creative something is, the more novel it is. And the more novel it is, the greater the uncertainty we are likely
to have about its feasibility.” These negative associations tend to be unacknowledged, and there is evidence that they are unconscious, as in the case of executives who demand creativity but continue to reject creative ideas.

Sir Ken Robinson’s acclaimed TED talk about the collision between education and creativity, is a must see for those concerned with the questions surrounding creativity in education.

The ability to think outside the box extends beyond acrylic paint. It’s vital to every aspect of life, from improving relationships to creating new fuel sources.

What changes would you suggest to schools to promote creativity in your children’s education?

lone man in town, hands almost touching

One is the Loneliest Number

It seems the elderly are not the only ones that suffer from depression when living on their own.

A new study of men and women ages 30 to 65 shows that those who lived alone were more likely to be on prescription antidepressant drugs.

The study also suggest that living alone may produce feelings of alienation.

This might not be surprising, but are antidepressants the only or best answer to this problem?

Sadness Makes Us Happy?

Sadness Makes Us Happy?

Why do people love tragedies like Titanic, Atonement, and even Romeo and Juliet?

Because being sad apparently makes us happy.

Sad movies of love and loss make us feel grateful for what we have. “It makes you count your blessings” -Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick

But it’s not a selfish thing; people who consciously compare their lives (“At least I’m not that person!”) to the situation of a character don’t feel happier. It’s only the people who empathize and feel grateful rather than prideful that have an emotional high from these flicks.

It at least explains why people will pay money to feel bad: feeling bad makes us feel good.

Weird, huh?

Human Tracking Patterns

Human Tracking Patterns

Apparently, we all run around in circles.

No, really.

A recent study tracked hundreds of smart phones, and discovered that Americans travel in patterns, with 93% accuracy.

We visit the places we’ve been, and do the things we’ve already done.

Over and over again.

Weird, huh? Why do we do that?

Now go do something spitefully rebellious and skip your morning trip to Starbucks.

Pills shaping A+, pill bottle, Pencil

ADHD and Maturity

It seems it has become a trend to be on some sort of prescription drug nowadays:

Anti-depressants; anti-anxiety; weight loss drugs; medicine for ailments such as restless leg syndrome…and last but not least, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyer-activity Disorder).

ADHD diagnoses have been on the rise since the syndrome was identified in the 1970s. It has caused controversy regarding plentiful diagnoses many consider questionable.

Could maturity simply be the answer to unfocused children?

This study says yes.

Gender Identity Bullying

Gender Identity Bullying

You can probably imagine that kids who don’t conform to traditional gender roles are often bullied.

But, by their own families?


Because acting in ways that change gender norms “goes against the grain” of our sensibilities. For many in our culture, gender identity issues are not only outside the box, they defy the box all together.

That makes people nervous.

Not all kids who experiment with their gender identity end up being apart of the LGBT community. For some, it’s a phase, for others, it’s not. Often, it’s far less black-and-white than popular culture might recognize.

Nonconforming gender behaviors occur in 1 out of 10 kids, and support from families often can make or break their transition into adulthood, regardless of whether the child sticks with their gender preferences.

“I went through various stages of depression,” says Cory (born Anneke) Seguin. “The only reason why I’m here right now is because of all the support my family gave me.”

Weight Prejudice in the US

Weight Prejudice in the US

Americans hate fat people.

Wait, what?

Individualistic Americans think weight is a solely personal responsibility; no outside forces like genetics, illnesses, or social factors required. “If you’re fat, you’re lazy and unmotivated.” Period.

But that’s just the problem: Even obese people hate obese people, and that means self-hate. Self-hate leads to comfort eating, which leads to even more weight gain.

See a trend?

With unparalleled pressures to be ultra-thin, American weight prejudice adds up to a cycle of obesity, hostility, and shame. Solution?

We don’t know. Yet.

But awareness seems like a good place to start.

What do you think is causing the weight-related problems in the US?

The Digital Addiction Business

Digital Addiction and the Future of Marketing

When was the last time you checked your Facebook? Email?


We’re all addicts. And tons of  thriving digital businesses know it.

Gone are the days of forced-selling and ad bombardments. Understanding your addiction is the new focus of online companies.

Just ask Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. They understand you so well they sell your attention by the hour.

Not to mention Pinterest, StumbeUpon, and Tumblr: by design they constantly morph to your interests and orders, adhering you to the screen with your own pins. Literally.

dollar sign, money, hand

Social Class and Unethical Bahavior

Since the economic crash of 2008, the media has been filled with rhetoric of disdain for the top 1%.

White collar crime is on everyone’s minds including those at the Justice Department.

It’s easy to stereotype the upper class as being greedy and dishonest.  But does economic status really affect peoples ethics?

A new study says yes.

Psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley conducted a series of experiments that suggests that people of a higher social class may indeed partake in more unethical behavior.

In two experiments, researchers investigated the relationship between car type and driver behavior. The findings showed that drivers with more expensive cars were more likely to participate in behaviors such as cutting off other drivers, and not yielding for pedestrians.

45% of people driving these expensive cars ignored a pedestrian, compared to 30% of people driving more modest vehicles.

Another experiment showed that college students who saw themselves as being from an upper-class background showed more potential to cheat on exams.

“We’re not saying you should distrust the rich, or the rich are corrupt,” says Paul Piff, the lead author who conducted the study. “Instead, this highlights the disparities in social environments — that different positions occupied give rise to almost natural tendencies and divergent social values.”

If these findings prove valid over time, might they explain what many see as corruption onWall Street?

If so, how might we possibly hope to prevent it?