7 Things You Do That Actually Work Against You

When seemingly logical behavior tends to backfire, doing more harm than good.

By Sunny Sea Gold
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine June 2014
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    Making Direct Eye Contact

    Instead: Avert your gaze. Why: We’ve been told that looking someone in the eye conveys honesty, but if you’re trying to persuade a friend to try, say, skydiving, avert your gaze. In a recent study, researchers used eye-tracking technology to discover that subjects were less influenced by speakers who maintained the most eye contact, which seemed to work only when the audience already agreed with the speaker. “Eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages, ranging from attraction and interest to aggression and a desire to intimidate someone,” says lead study author Frances Chen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. To predict the reaction, consider your audience and the tenor of the conversation: In friendly situations, eye contact can connect people. In adversarial moments, it could be associated with dominance.

    Instagramming Your Life

    Instead: Put down the camera. Why: Snapping photos to preserve memories can actually get in the way of experiencing those moments fully and reduce your recall, new research from Fairfield University in Connecticut found. In the study, people in a museum were asked to take note of certain objects, either by photographing them or just observing. The next day, the photo takers were less able to recognize the art pieces they’d been assigned and had less detailed memories of the works. “It’s as if when we click the button to take the photo, we think, Done, next thing …, and don’t engage in the kind of processing that would enhance memory,” says lead author Linda Henkel, Fairfield University professor of psychology.

    Saying “I” a Lot

    Instead: Include others. Why: You might assume that people who say I have healthy self-esteem. But researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently did five separate conversation and e-mail studies and found that frequent I users are less sure of themselves than those who use the word infrequently. The explanation: “Pronouns [I, you, we …] reflect where we are really paying attention,” says study author and University of Texas professor of psychology James Pennebaker. I users may be looking inward 
because they are self-conscious, insecure, or worried about pleasing people. Instead, more secure folks, who say you more often, direct most of their attention to the outside world and look for positive feedback.

    Planning a Healthy Diet

    Instead: Commit to a routine. Why: A recent analysis of 50 studies found that thinking too hard about what to eat can undermine your goals. The more we consider our choices, the easier it gets to come up with reasons why we “deserve” to stray from our plan, says study author Jessie de Witt Huberts, a doctoral student and psychology researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “Regarding food and fitness, people’s good intentions for the future seem to have a detrimental effect on their eating behavior in the present,” she says. “People are more likely to eat unhealthy snacks now if they intend to go to the gym later that day.” What works best? 
Commit to a routine that easily suits your life (like eating the same healthy breakfast every day or walking home from work) and stick 
to it, with as little thought or variation as possible.

    David Silverman/Getty Images

    Living in the Present

    Instead: Get nostalgic. Why: Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t dwell in the past. 
But a study from the University of Southampton in the United 
Kingdom recently found that feeling nostalgic and reminiscing about long-ago events can increase optimism about the future. How are 
the past and future related in our minds? Nostalgic memories make us feel more connected to other people, explains lead study author Wing-Yee Cheung: “In our studies, we found that nostalgia first fostered social connectedness, which subsequently lifted self-esteem, which then heightened optimism.” In other words, when you remember holding hands with the cool kid at that middle school roller rink party, you feel good about the past, better about yourself in the present, and then hopeful about the future.

    iStock/Thinkstock

    Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

    Instead: Fix the problem. Why: One skill that many happy people have honed is “cognitive 
reappraisal”—the ability to reframe our thoughts about a situation 
to help ourselves feel better. This tends to work great in certain 
scenarios where you have little control over the outcome of the events at hand. However, a recent study found that when it’s applied to situations that can be changed, you can end up feeling more stress and depression. Why? Because it could prevent people from taking action to fix a problem, says Allison Troy, assistant professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Imagine your relationship is on the rocks in part because of your 
irresponsible spending. If using cognitive reappraisal makes you feel like what you’re doing isn’t wrong, you may be less likely to learn to 
live within your budget. Take self-soothing too far and it could 
become destructive.

    Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

    Creating Mood Lighting

    Instead: Go brighter. Why: If you dim the lights to heighten romance—or boost your attractiveness—you could be in for a bland evening. Cranking up the lights increases the intensity of any situation and all kinds of emotions—both positive and negative—scientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Northwestern University recently found. People participated in a series of different experiments, which included tasting chicken-wing sauces ranked from mild to hot, reacting to negative and positive words, and judging women’s attractiveness, while in either a brightly or a dimly lit room. Subjects in the brighter room chose spicier sauce, reacted more negatively or positively to the loaded words, and found the women 
considerably more attractive than did those in the dimmer rooms. 
Although the precise mechanism isn’t known, Alison Jing Xu, assistant professor of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says bright light may affect our emotional system because we naturally perceive it as heat, which is known to heighten our emotions.

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