Posted on 25-02-2011
Filed Under (Applying to Graduate School) by Anita Kelly

Look at the competition, not in the mirror.

This week was a challenging one for me at work. I was reading the folders of truly well qualified applicants to our doctoral program in clinical psychology here at Notre Dame. My assessment was that about 50 of them would be such excellent picks — they are really outstanding, well-trained, high-GRE-scoring individuals. And yet only a handful were even offered interviews for the positions we have in the doctoral program.

The rest of these 50 well-qualiifed applicants must be scratching their heads wondering how someone as great as they are (and I agree!) could not even land an interview. Well, the answer is simple: They are great, and the competition is really, really great.

What’s interesting is that Paul Windschitl and his colleagues at the University of Iowa set up some competitions, including a game of poker, among college students to see how well they could anticipate their rate of success at these competitions (1). It turns out that they tended to focus on their own skill level, rather than the skill of their competitors, when estimating their likelihood of winning. In reality, a much better predictor of their success was the skill level of their competitors. 

So the bottom line is that whenever you are in a competition with others and you want to know your likelihood of success, try to assess how strong or weak your competitors are. It will be tempting just to focus on how good you are, but your success typically depends more on the competition.


(1) Windschitl, P. D., Kruger, J. & Simms, E. N. (2003). The influence of egocentrism and focalism on people’s optimism in competitions: When what affects us equally affects me more. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 85, 389-408.

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Posted on 21-01-2011
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

Today ends what’s known as “syllabus week” here on Notre Dame’s campus. This is the one relaxing week when you are not yet buried in homework and paper assignments.

In some ways, it’s the most important week because now is when you figure out if you should drop a given class that sounded good until you met the professor. Previous research has shown a strong relation between students’ impressions of their professors in just a short period of attending their classes and their final evaluations of that professor. If you already bored, it’s time to run from that course if you can.

Also, I know that you have been listening to your professors carefully as they describe what they are hoping you will get out of their course. If they put a big emphasis on class participation, make sure that’s the class you are always ready for and show up on time for. Make sure you say really insightful things about the readings or remarks others have made in class. Don’t miss the chance to ace your participation grade in any class. It will help you get more out of the class too, of course.

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Posted on 28-05-2010
Filed Under (Overcoming barriers) by Anita Kelly

After what was a grueling year for so many of you, you now find yourself with time on your hands. Oddly, just when you feel so great that you can finally relax with no exams to study for or papers to write, you might discover that you feel a bit down. You might even be getting over a cold or some over ailment that comes with the end-of-semester let-down. This kind of temporary let-down is common. It likely will pass as you come to structure your summer and get busy with your new commitments and routine.

I myself am on a new summer schedule, working on a book and a paper. I won’t be posting regularly again until school is back in session at the end of August. However, I welcome your emails and will respond to them over the summer months.

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Posted on 07-05-2010
Filed Under (Overcoming barriers) by Anita Kelly

School’s just about out now, and many of you will soon have time on your hands. If you decide to use your summer to beef up your poker game, pleease get yourself financially and emotionally ready for the inevitable swings of the game. This means making sure that you are not in a game that is too big for you. And when you do find yourself in a big downswing, perhaps you can be comforted by the following (I wrote this after my own gut-wrenching downswing 2 years ago):

It’s another night on-line playing Texas Hold’em, and you can’t believe you’ve dropped even more cash after you’ve been losing so much lately. Your slide has been so unbelievable that you bury your face in your hands and let out a muffled groan. Perhaps you feel some tears of frustration make their way past the corners of your eyes. “Why me?” you ask, wondering how such rotten players at your table seem to keep robbing you of pot after pot. It’s gotten to the point where you would gladly take a bit of luck over skill. To make matters worse, a close family member or friend expects to hear how you did. As a desperate young Hold’em player at the local casino once told another player at my table, “I would take a $30 win right now – anything.”

If you are in this spot, I know that it hurts. Research has shown that the brains of gamblers who are in the throes of chasing their losses look just like the brains of drug users coming down off a cocaine-induced high.

Chasing losses is so compelling because people would rather risk losing a lot more money than accept a certain loss. Years back, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky set up a series of probability scenarios involving money and asked people which scenario they would prefer. Now using pure logic and probabilities, as opposed to emotion, you should just multiply the probability of an event and the amount of money gained or lost to see which option you should pick. For example, if asked whether you would rather have a 50% chance of losing 2500 dollars or a 100% chance of losing 1000 dollars, you should always pick the latter. This is because the expected loss of $1000 (1.00 X $1000) is less than the expected loss of $1250 (.50 X $2500).

But Kahneman and Tversky discovered that people routinely would pick the high probability of losing a lot of money over the certainty of losing less money. They concluded that it’s human nature to try run away from a certain loss. So, if you have recently lost a lot of money gambling, you are probably more anxious than ever to return to the tables and win it back.

If you are playing more and more because you simply can’t forgive yourself for wasting $500, $1,000, or even $20,000 or more at the tables, please consider the following. Instead of chasing your losses, you can put that energy into your career now so that later you will have such a huge bankroll that these early losses won’t seem so bad. You can be comforted later (and along the way) by the fact that your losses pushed you to maximize your earning potential with your career. Remember, even really good poker pros eek out only a meager living anyhow.

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Posted on 23-04-2010
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

Back in the 1990s, when I was teaching Introductory Psychology, I invited my colleague, Jeanne Day, to give a guest lecture on social intelligence. It was so fascinating and good that all 160 students applauded when she finished. She must have felt so appreciated.

The reason I mention this now is that you are about to get the chance to express appreciation for your great professors, as well as to criticize the poor ones, on your Course Evaluation Forms (CIFs). But why should you stop there? If you want to applaud your professor, go ahead. If you want to give a small gift or leave a thank-you note, do it. You will feel really good about yourself for making your professor feel appreciated.

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Posted on 09-04-2010
Filed Under (Overcoming barriers) by Anita Kelly

This week I showed my Personality class some data (from Jean Twenge and her colleagues) that the students already knew about. It turns out that college students’ narcissism, as measured by the Narcissism Personality Inventory, has been steadily rising since 1982.

So what exactly does this mean? Have you youngsters watched one episode too many of Barney? Are you exploiting your roommates and friends more than your parents did back in college?

Jean Twenge has argued that this increase in narcissism is bad news because she has shown that when narcissists get rejected, they lash out aggressively against their rejecters AND innocent bystanders.

But maybe when you’re in college, you are supposed to be a little narcissistic. How else are you supposed to muster the energy to do important things with your life, like start a foundation or write a great book? Was Bill Gates a narcissist when he dropped out of Harvard to eventually head Microsoft and then start a foundation to save millions of children from dying of malaria?

Please let us know what your thoughts are about all this.

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Posted on 02-04-2010
Filed Under (Overcoming barriers) by Anita Kelly

I was at work late this past Wednesday. In honor of Holy Week, there was a sermon on the lawn just outside my office. In it, the priest emphasized the idea that we should transcend superficiality in our lives.

This made me reflect on how it might seem to students like psychology emphasizes exactly the opposite message. After all, psychologists have observed just how much weight people give to little things when deciding whether they want to be friends with us, date us, or even marry us. For example, something as small as your not giving a big enough tip to the waitress on a first date could turn your date off completely.

A solution that I have found for this seeming discrepancy between messages from the Church and from Psychology is as follows: Pay attention to the little things when it comes to other people, and keep the Big Picture in focus for yourself.

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Posted on 26-03-2010
Filed Under (Overcoming barriers) by Anita Kelly

After much anticipation, I finally heard back from a big literary agent in New York about my newest idea for a book (incidentally, it’s called, The Unpopular Child: How to Help Your Kid Fit in). She wrote, ”This one really rubbed me the wrong way.”


After feeling low about my prospects for getting a major book deal for a few days, I am now fired up and ready to work even harder on a new book idea.

It’s when we’re down and questioning our talents that we have the greatest opportunity to rise up and overcome our shortcomings. So, if you just got feedback on a paper or test and didn’t get the grade you were hoping for, keep in mind that you will have many opportunities to prove just how well you can do. One paper says little about how good a writer you are or how good you can be. Hang in there…you’ve still got your final papers and exams ahead of you.  You can figure out what went wrong and redouble your efforts to ace them.

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Posted on 19-03-2010
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

…and easier to get caught at it. Sadly, as the Chair of Notre Dame’s Arts and Letters Honesty Committee, I have been seeing more and more cases of plagiarism. I’ve seen perfectly intelligent students take word-for-word from the Internet several long passages or even their whole paper and try to pass it off as their own work.

It’s as if they don’t realize that professors can spot wording that is too professional sounding, too formal, or just plain too good to be the student’s own work. Then their professor can run the suspicious paper through a an Internet plagiarism detection service called TurnItIn. The service will tell the professor what percentage of the paper has been plagiarized.

The professor will then report the case to our Honesty Committee. The evidence from these TurnItIn reports can be so compelling that we are left with little choice but to find the student guilty and impose a hefty penalty to the student’s overall grade in that professor’s course.

So here’s a simple solution if you want to use written material from the Internet in your paper. Just rephrase everything — don’t take anything word-for-word unless you use quotation marks around it. And whether you paraphrase or put something in quotes, you must cite the source. Is that so hard?

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Posted on 12-03-2010
Filed Under (Conflicts over grades) by Anita Kelly

Every semester some students miss the mark on my first exam. Sadly, they do far worse than they expect and are left wondering what do to. Since there are only 3 exams (and no final) that make up the whole grade for the semester, they are in a tough spot.

Some will email me and tell me how bad they feel. They will ask what I think they should do. They seem surprised when I respond, “What prevents you from dropping my class?” It’s as if students believe that we professors think that you should stick it out no matter what. They think that things somehow will get better by the end of the semester if  they simply stick it out.

Here’s my advice: If your university gives you the opportunity to drop classes well into the semester, do it. Dump those classes that will hurt your GPA. There is no reason to feel guilty for dropping.

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