Student essays from UCLA’s Honors 43w, written during the pandemic and remote learning, Winter quarter 2021. The students are justifiably proud of their work, and so they’re sharing essays on the following topics here:
*Trigger Warning: this article contains content related to domestic violence*
An Emotional Support Animal serves to alleviate the effects of an emotional disability. For someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the presence of such a companion can lead to a reduction of symptoms and a greater feeling of security. As more people are prescribed Emotional Support Animals, it is important to test how these therapeutic tools could most effectively be utilized. In this case study, I tested my mood and stress response before and after playing, walking, and cuddling with my emotional support animal and recorded my thoughts in a journal for each activity. My moods, physical symptoms of stress, and thought processes were then analyzed to monitor the improvement across each category. While all activities showed benefits to my mood, playing with the ESA showed the greatest improvement. Additionally, there were no physical responses to stress noted after the playing sessions. However, the changes in my writing characteristics and observations were consistent across all forms of activity. Based on the data collected, active interactions with an ESA provided the most useful form of self-therapy for the subject.
The Effect of Emotional Support Animals on the Mood and Stress Response of a Person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after a “shocking, scary, or dangerous event” and can lead to flashbacks, difficulties sleeping, avoidance of triggers, and memory issues among several other debilitating symptoms (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, n.d.). The Vietnam War is widely associated with the first identification of PTSD as a mental disorder, and the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 (Crocq, M. A., & Crocq, L., 2000). However, this was not the first instance of PTSD as it likely went unidentified in trauma survivors long before its formal identification. Although psychologists started studying the disorder as “shell shock” in combat veterans, the term has since changed and expanded to include victims of abuse, assault, neglect, and other traumatic experiences.
Therapy can be useful in managing symptoms and addressing their underlying causes. There is an abundance of mental health providers that specialize in their own unique styles of therapy along with physicians that can provide medications to help address the symptoms. However, patients respond differently to the various methods of treatment available. What might work well for one person can have absolutely no effect on another.
Emotional support animals (ESAs), also referred to as “assistance animals,” provide a new method for treating patients with PTSD. ESAs are not considered service animals, and there are no training or species requirements to qualify as an ESA under the Fair Housing Act. Any animal, from a professionally-trained Labrador Retriever to a hamster from the local pet store, can be categorized as an assistance animal with the correct documentation from a qualified mental health professional. Because the treatment method is relatively new, there is no landmark study that has conclusively determined the effects of having an ESA. However, there are a few common themes seen across research papers on the subject. The animals provided “emotional work” by alleviating feelings of worry and loneliness in addition to providing comfort, “practical work” by promoting physical activity and distracting from symptoms, and “emotional nourishment” by enabling social interaction (Brooks, et al., 2018). A preliminary study of an animal-assisted intervention program applied this technique to the treatment of children exposed to domestic violence, many of them exhibiting symptoms of PTSD and other clinical disorders before treatment. During the program, the participant would perform structured activities with the animal, such as playing, grooming, or feeding, in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy. Even though there was no significant improvement in aggressive or unruly behavior that is associated with the externalization of symptoms, the researchers observed an overall decrease the symptoms of PTSD, as well as a decrease in the internalization of such symptoms in the form of anxiety or depression (Muela, et al., 2019). The benefit to the children’s’ emotional well-being demonstrated by this study shows the potential of assistance animals and the need for further research.
Even though most studies report that participants experience mental health benefits, it is unclear whether the type of activity done with the ESA changes the level of improvement. In order to optimize treatment plans, it is important to know what strategies would optimize the available time. The categories compared for the purposes of this experiment were playing, walking, and cuddling. This case study seeks to observe the effect of the activity performed with an ESA on the mood and low-level stress response of the participant.
Materials and Methods
I monitored my own mood and responses over the course of the case study. A therapist diagnosed me with PTSD within the past year due to my experience with domestic violence. Based on his recommendation, I was seeking treatment through talk-therapy and was prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors by a psychiatrist, which I continued to take over the course of this study. The emotional support animal used was a 50-pound cattle dog/ kelpie mix, Theo, which I adopted approximately three weeks before the study. Theo is a very calm, six-year-old dog who primarily spends his days napping on the couch or running outside. He loves physical affection and treats but does not seem to be interested in dog toys of any kind.
A baseline assessment was conducted at the beginning of each activity. The assessment consisted of a short journal entry of my thoughts and mood before and after being exposed to a photo and text conversation that typically triggers a minor emotional response due to traumatic associations; the photos were not graphic and were known to not cause an overwhelming response. At the top of the page, I recorded a rating of my mood on a scale of one to ten. The scale had no specific meanings associated with the values and was based on an intuitive response. My writing primarily focused on physical sensations, such as chest pain and changes in breathing, as well as my thoughts and what I focused on during that time.
I categorized the activities into cuddling, walking, and running/playing. The last category is combined because of the Theo’s lack of interest in dog toys and typical play activities. Instead, we would play a game similar to tag where he would chase me as I ran. The timing of each session varied due to Theo’s needs and tolerance of different activities. Once we completed the activity, I exposed myself to the same image as the beginning of the session and scrolled through an old text conversation that was consistent for each session throughout the study. I recorded my response in the same format as the initial journal entry. Different photo stimulus was used for each trial, and a series of similar images was used so that declines in responsiveness would not be attributed to overexposure.
At the end of the study, I compiled the journal entries and analyzed the results, comparing my mood ratings and the physical nature of my stress responses as well as identifying key words and phrases.
My mood improved after each activity performed. On average, playing showed the highest increase in my mood ratings, averaging an increase of 1.5. Walking showed the next greatest improvement, averaging at 0.75, and cuddling closely followed with an average increase of 0.5. These numbers do not provide any specific revelations about how the characteristics of my mood changed, but they do offer a comparative scale. Both activities performed outdoors ranked higher than the activity performed indoors, possibly due to the benefits of being outside combined with the effects of my ESA. Even though cuddling seems to only offer a small increase in mood, it offered a more meditative experience where I was able to reflect upon past trauma and remain calm. The outdoor activities acted more as a distraction, not allowing me to dwell on old memories for too long before being pulled away to focus on Theo.
I noted feeling physical symptoms of stress before every session, but the response was less severe after cuddling. The common symptoms I noticed were changes in my breathing pattern, a pressure at the top of my chest, and an ache in my left forearm. This set of responses was known to occur before the study and was not unique to this set of stressful situations. After cuddling, I reported noticing a “hitch in my breath” when opening the messages app that quickly subsided and my breathing returned to normal. However, before that specific cuddling session, I had noted a pressure in my chest and a subsiding pressure in my arm. Before the final cuddling session, I felt pressure in my chest and arm, changes in breathing, as well as a “rising feeling of panic.” However, afterwards, the extremity of the physical response was limited to a “slight change in breathing and chest sensation,” which was a significant improvement from the previous entry. Additionally, I felt less of a physical response to typing or writing the abuser’s name after cuddling, which I typically refrain from writing unless absolutely necessary. Even when I still noticed a response to the stimuli, the physical indicators suggest that the stress was less severe after cuddling.
Walking provided a greater reduction in physical stress responses than cuddling, and there were no noticeable stress-induced sensations after playing. After one walking session, I did report a localized ache in the outer portion of my left wrist, which is similar to a common stress indicator, but it did not cover the inside part of my forearm where the related response would usually occur. This was the only recorded instance of a physical response after performing an outdoor activity with Theo. In all my other entries for walking and playing, there were combinations of the various physical sensations before the activity, but none were reported after. Similar to cuddling, there was also a decreased response to writing the abuser’s name. Since I usually use the monitored aches and abnormal sensations to determine my level of stress, the intervention of an ESA demonstrated significant improvement in the severity of my reaction to low-level triggers.
Another beneficial change that occurred across all activities was a shift in what I focused on in the stimuli. When I opened the last text conversation with the abuser before each activity, I primarily focused on his insults and vulgar profanity. My eyes were drawn to reading what was being said, and I almost felt like I was being verbally attacked all over again. In contrast, I focused more on my responses to his statements after each activity, regardless of which category the activity fell into. I was no longer feeling vulnerable; instead, I felt justified in my assertions and irritated at his attempts at manipulation. When I wrote about his messages in my journal entries after the sessions, my responses demonstrated a greater sense of annoyance or apathy compared to the stress I felt beforehand.
After the activity, regardless of which category it fell into, my journal entries showed a greater attention to the background of the pictures as well as a few less serious descriptions of the abuser’s appearance. Even though I noticed a few objects in the background when I initially looked at the photos, I was more observant and able to determine the context of the photo, such as a Halloween or dojo party. In the original entries, I would glance at the images, but paid little attention to why certain objects or people were there and mostly focused on how they juxtaposed the abuser’s face. Often, this contrast would make him appear “like a cardboard cutout” that felt like it was “staring at me” and did not fit in with the other lively subjects in the photos. While I continued to harshly comment the photos after my activities with Theo, I also wrote some comments that were a little more absurd and less stressed. In response to his yellow sweatshirt, I wrote “Banana or lemon. Rotten on the inside.” This statement made me want to continue writing a journal in a more poetic style to help vent some of my frustration and turn it into a less serious form of art. The most notably cheerful statement came after I spent time playing with Theo. I audibly laughed and wrote “he kind of looks like a worm.” This observation still brings a bit of amusement, even though I have to picture the image again. After the activities, my improved mood seemed to provide a buffer against the uncomfortable images and decrease the emotional toll of the associations.
My time spent with Theo also showed signs of mental improvement that were not directly related to mood or stress response. One trial was omitted from the mood average because of the large deviation from the regularly performed activities, but it did provide important insights to how Theo has improved my emotional well-being. During the first play session, I was approached by a photographer associated with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who was interested in taking photos of Theo and me. Even though I would normally be self-conscious about my appearance after quickly throwing my hair up in a messy bun and running around on the grass, I happily agreed to be photographed. This unusual occurrence significantly boosted my mood and the presence of Theo encouraged me to do something that I would have once considered to be far outside of my comfort zone.
Discussion and Conclusions
Playing with my ESA provided the greatest improvement in mood and the fewest physical signs of stress response after the activity. These results suggest that more active interactions with an ESA would provide the greatest benefits to an individual. However, since play activities were performed outside, it is important to expand future studies to analyze how the environment impacted the results by testing the activity in different location. Either way, this method provides a therapeutic benefit that an individual can achieve with their ESA.
There are also some notable benefits to cuddling with an ESA, despite the activity showing the least significant improvement in mood. While walking and playing provided a distraction from intrusive thoughts and stressors, cuddling allowed my mind to wander and think about traumatic memories without the typical feeling of being overwhelmed. In this case, it may be useful to combine the act of touching or cuddling an emotional support animal with some form of talk-based therapy with a licensed mental health professional. In this controlled setting, it may help the patient address the underlying issues without becoming overwhelmed by an emotional response that would normally come from having a conversation about one’s traumatic experiences. This potential benefit might not be as effective when performing more active activities where the individual is more distracted than meditative.
Because I tested myself, the results may have been influenced by what I expected to happen or what I observed after first few sessions. For this reason, it is important to have a larger group of subjects and to perform a double-blind experiment, where the experimenters are unaware of which journal entry they are analyzing, and the subjects do not know what the expected results are. Some other potential factors that influenced the results were the different environments and levels of social interaction. Even though the walk and playing took place in the same outdoor space, the cuddling sessions were performed inside, which may have influenced the results. The different amounts of social interaction that occurred when outside may have also affected the results, which would have been amplified by the effects of quarantine. In order to improve upon this case study, these external factors should be accounted for and standardized.
Further research is needed to understand the effects of different species of ESAs and the personalities of the assistance animal and its owner. Since this study only included one animal, it is unclear whether the benefits would be consistent across different species. Would the hamster from the pet store provide the same benefits as thee professionally-trained Labrador Retriever? It is also important to test how the personality of the animal and how it corresponds with the owner’s personality and preferences since animals differ greatly in their levels of playfulness and affection. While I am highly fond of animals, especially dogs, this is not the case for all people. The compatibility of the animal and the owner could potentially impact the therapeutic benefits.
Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L., & Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 18(1). doi: 10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2
Crocq, M. A., & Crocq, L. (2000). From shell shock and war neurosis to posttraumatic stress disorder: a history of psychotraumatology. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 2(1), 47–55.
Muela, A., Azpiroz, J., Calzada, N., Soroa, G., & Aritzeta, A. (2019). Leaving A Mark, An Animal-Assisted Intervention Programme for Children Who Have Been Exposed to Gender-Based Violence: A Pilot Study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(21), 4084. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16214084
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml
Empathy is understood as an affective and cognitive human skill that incorporates understanding the feelings of others and a personal emotional reactions to those feelings. The positive relationship between empathy and self-reflection has been explored in scientific literature but the nature of this relationship remains ambiguous. With the understanding that empathy is a beneficial skill that can be improved, this work serves to explore self-reflection in journaling as a method of improving empathy. The experiment was conducted as a between-subjects design where participants were randomly assigned to emotional-awareness journaling or daily activity journaling conditions. The Empathy Quotient (EQ) for Adults and the Social Stories Questionnaire (SSQ) for Adults were utilized to measure the participants’ empathy levels before and after the experimental manipulation. It was hypothesized that participants in the emotional-awareness journaling condition would demonstrate significant empathy score increase across both tests and that the daily activity journaling condition would show no significant score change on these measures. In the emotional-awareness condition, most participants showed an increase in EQ and SSQ scores while SSQ scores stayed fairly consistent among participants in the daily activity journaling condition. The results of this study suggest emotional-awareness journaling can be a beneficial activity to promoting empathy.
Psychological mindedness (PM) is understood as an awareness and comprehension of mental processes such as thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, of which empathy and self-reflection are essential parts (Beitel, Ferrer, & Cecero, 2005, pp. 740-747). One aspect of empathy, and therefore psychological mindedness, is perspective-taking, or the “transposing of oneself into the thinking, feeling, and acting of another,” (Dymond, 1950, p. 343). A literature review conducted by Gerace, Day, Casey, & Mohr (2017) evaluated the relationship between self-reflection and perspective-taking according to previous research. Gerace et al. (2017) advocate the importance of accurate self-knowledge in self-reflection, thus impacting the empathetic skill of perspective-taking (pp. 4-24). This is further supported by experimental study results that demonstrate a positive relationship between personal insight and empathy (Dymond, 1950). However, despite supporting the relationship between self-reflection and empathy, Gerace et al. (2017) recognize the ambiguity in studies exploring this relationship and the need for further research into these two skills.
As self-reflection impacts perspective-taking, it stands to reason that activities designed to improve self-reflection and accurate self-knowledge can foster the development of empathy. Likewise, as empathy is widely recognized as a beneficial skill, exploring potential methods of improving empathy is a worthwhile endeavor. Journaling is one such method that can promote the development of empathy. It is our personal understanding that journaling can be an important introspective practice to improve emotional awareness and self-knowledge when utilized for this purpose. It was through this personal interest and experience that we began our study. Additionally, under the presumption that journaling proves to be effective in promoting empathy, this is a relatively inexpensive activity that can be easily and widely implemented.
Previous research suggests the practice of journaling may be beneficial in improving empathy, however journaling was not the main subject of previous studies and not all results were empirically based. Doctoral research conducted by Patton (2019) explored journaling, among other methods, to promote learning and empathy within the classroom. The results of her thesis concluded that journaling fostered empathy with regards to perspective-taking but not other explored measures, attributing the results to students’ ability to utilize journaling to process their own emotions while learning about the emotions of others (Patton, 2017, pp. 117-118). Another experiment explored journaling as a method to encourage self-reflection and awareness in students from a client-centered Occupational Therapy program (Jamieson et al., 2006). While it was assumed that journaling was beneficial, the assessment lacked an empirical evaluation. This prevented any determination of whether journaling significantly impacted the training experience and student empathy (Jamieson et al., 2006, pp. 79-82). Research focused solely on the practice of journaling, and how it should be utilized, is required to measure its impact on empathy more directly.
This study explores the relationship of journaling on empathy. We anticipate that the impact of journaling on empathy scores will be mediated by the way in which journaling is utilized. It is hypothesized that an increase in empathy scores, determined by the Emotion Quotient (EQ) for Adults and the Social Stories Questionnaire (SSQ) for Adults, will be significant when journaling content is centered around emotional-awareness, as opposed to no significant change in empathy scores when journaling consists of reiterating daily activities. This hypothesis is based upon the principle that reflection upon one’s emotions is important in fostering empathy.
The experiment was conducted as a between-subjects design focused on the effects of journaling utilization on empathy scores. Undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to one of two journaling utilization conditions, tested on scores of empathy, and engaged in journaling for the duration of one week. Afterwards, they were again tested on empathy and the pretest and posttest scores were compared for significance.
Participants. Eight undergraduate students were recruited from the University of California, Los Angeles for a week long study (M=3 , F=5, Mage= 20.43, age range: 19-22). All participants are undergraduate colleagues of the researchers. One participant’s data was excluded from data analysis as they requested to leave the study. Refer to Table I for participant information according to group.
Group 1 (Control)
Group 2 (Experimental)
Table I. Summary of Participant Information.
Design. The experiment was conducted as a between-subjects design where participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. The independent variable, journaling utilization, existed in two conditions: daily activity journaling (Group 1) and emotional-awareness journaling (Group 2). Empathy, the dependent variable, was operationalized according to the Empathy Quotient (EQ) Test for Adults and the Short Stories Questionnaire (SSQ) for Adults, two different measures of empathy (Appendix A). All participants took the EQ and SSQ tests and submitted the questionnaires for scoring. This pretest provided baseline empathy scores to compare later posttest empathy scores to, allowing for an analysis of empathy change following the experimental manipulations. Both conditions were then instructed to journal nightly before going to sleep for the duration of one week. Participants in Group 1 were instructed to utilize their journal to recall daily activities and served as the control group. Group 2 participants were instructed to journal regarding their emotional states throughout the day and served as the experimental group. A list of different emotions and associated signs and behaviors were also provided to Group 2 participants (Appendix B). They were encouraged to refer to the chart to precisely identify and label their different emotional states when journaling each night to promote deeper emotional-awareness and reflection. All participants were instructed to journal for the same amount of time each night (10 minutes) and for the duration of one week to control for potential confounding variables. At the end of the last day of journaling, both groups retested on the EQ and SSQ tests and submitted them for scoring. The pretest and posttest scores were then compared and analyzed across conditions for significant trends.
Results and Discussion
It was anticipated that the journaling utilization would mediate the impact of journaling upon empathy scores. We hypothesized that the increase in empathy scores would be significant for the emotional-awareness condition (Group 2) compared to no significant change for the daily activities condition (Group 1). Across the emotional-awareness condition, the resultant data was consistent with the original hypotheses. Group 2 participants improved by an average of 2.35 points for the EQ test (approximately 3.00% improvement) and 1.0 point for the SSQ test (approximately 5.0% improvement). These were considered to be a marginally significant and significant results, respectively, observed for almost all participants in Group 2. For the daily activity journaling condition, SSQ scores were fairly consistent with an average increase of .33 point (approximately 1.65% improvement). This change was deemed nonsignificant, and corroborated previous expectations. However, the EQ scores for the daily activity journaling showed an unexpected decrease; on average, participants in the daily journaling condition showed a decrease of 6.17 points from the pretest to the posttest (approximately 7.71% decrease). This was an unexpected result demonstrated across over half of participants in the control condition. SSQ and EQ scores are summarized in Table II.
Group 1 (Control)
Group 2 (Experimental)
Table II. SSQ and EQ Pretest and Posttest Means.
The increase in empathy scores observed for participants in the emotional-awareness condition was consistent with our hypothesis. While this result could be attributed to the retest effect (also referred to as the practice effect) as the exact same SSQ and EQ tests items were administered twice, the effects would have been universally applied to both conditions. As the only marginal or significant increases of EQ and SSQ scores were observed for Group 2, the score improvement is more likely due to the effects of practicing emotional-awareness journaling than to previous exposure to the test questions.
Across nearly half of the participants, average scores on the EQ tests (44-50) and low scores on the SSQ test (5-8) were paired together for a participant, which is not typical for the empathy tests. The inconsistent results are unexpected, as these items typically have high concurrent validity. However, the SSQ and EQ differ on the number and nature of items presented, which may pose an explanation for this occurrence. The EQ relies upon self-report of how strongly a participant identifies with a list of 40 provided statements (Appendix A). The SSQ consists of ten different stories and corresponding responses, of which participants are asked to identify any responses could be perceived as upsetting. Additionally, whereas the EQ is an American test, the SSQ was created by the University of Cambridge in the U.K. As the majority of study participants were American undergraduates, it is likely that British phrases in the SSQ impacted comprehension and led to lower test scores. The combination of the different methods of assessing empathy and the language differences across the test likely contribute to the low concurrent validity observed.
The substantial decrease in EQ scores for the daily activity journaling was unexpected and consistent across most Group 2 participants. It is unlikely that the act of daily activity journaling was a major cause of the decrease in EQ empathy scores. Rather, this was likely caused by a careless task approach on the self-report, as traditionally EQ scores show high test-retest reliability over the course of 12 months ( “The Empathy Quotient (EQ) for Adults”, n.d.).
Previous studies indicate journaling promotes the improvement of empathy skills. This research was supported by the results from this study, as the emotional-awareness journaling condition showed an increase in scores across both the EQ and SSQ tests. The empathy score increase deemed marginally significant or significant were only found for the emotional-awareness condition and not for daily activity journaling. This implicates the importance of self-reflection in promoting empathy, as empathy scores only increased when participants were instructed to foster emotional-awareness by utilizing their journaling sessions to recognize and label their emotions. This study suggests it is not the act of journaling itself that is significant, but the way in which it is utilized to promote self-reflection that has an impact upon empathy.
The resulting trends demonstrated that journaling focused on emotional-awareness was a likely contributor to the observed increase in empathy scores across the EQ and SSQ tests. However, further research directed specifically at the practice of journaling is needed to further support previous research findings and assert whether journaling is a major cause of empathy improvement. Additionally, the degree to which empathy scores can improve through journaling remains unexamined. The small sample size and the limited duration of the experiment posed limitations that should be considered and improved upon for future study, as a larger participant pool and a longer period of journaling could lead to more substantive results. Likewise, further study is necessary to determine which manner of journaling is most beneficial for the improvement of empathy.
Beitel, M., Ferrer, E., & Cecero, J. J. (2005). Psychological mindedness and awareness of self and others. Journal of Clinical Psychology,61(6), 739-750. doi:10.1002/jclp.20095
Davis H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,44(1), 113-126. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
Dymond F. (1950). Personality and empathy. Journal of Consulting Psychology,14(5), 343-350. doi:10.1037/h0061674
Gerace, A., Day, A., Casey, S., & Mohr, P. (2017). ‘I think, you think’: Understanding the importance of self-reflection to the taking of another person’s perspective. Journal of Relationships Research,8. doi:10.1017/jrr.2017.8
Jamieson, Krupa, T., O’riordan, A., O’connor, D., Paterson, M., Ball, C., & Wilcox, S. (2006). Developing empathy as a foundation of Client-Centred Practice: Evaluation of a university Curriculum Initiative. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy,73(2), 76-85. doi:10.2182/cjot.05.0008
Patton T. (2019). Engaging Methods to Teach Empathy: A Successful Journey to Transformation(Doctoral dissertation, Union University School of Education, 2019) (pp. 1-160). ProQuest LLC.
Sample Items from the Empathy Quotient (EQ) Test for Adults
THE CAMBRIDGE BEHAVIOUR SCALE
Please fill in this information and then read the instructions below.
How to fill out the questionnaire
Below are a list of statements. Please read each statement very carefully and rate how strongly you agree or disagree with it by circling your answer. There are no right or wrong answers, or trick questions.
I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.
I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they don’t understand it first time.
I really enjoy caring for other people.
I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation.
People often tell me that I went too far in driving my point home in a discussion.
It doesn’t bother me too much if I am late meeting a friend.
Friendships and relationships are just too difficult, so I tend not to bother with them.
I often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite.
In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.
When I was a child, I enjoyed cutting up worms to see what would happen.
In the spring of 2020, I was on the cusp of a virgin voyage to Georgetown, Malaysia. With flights and hotel rooms booked and local “foodie” Instagram recommendations saved, I had but one item left on my to-do list: plan activities! I began my Google search with enthusiasm and intentionality. I would strive to find activities that upheld the principles of sustainable ecotourism I had recently learned about in one of my ecology classes.
In recent years, a style of traveling called “ecotourism” has grown enormously in popularity. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (2015). This method of travel typically requires much less infrastructure than traditional travel, as it tends to rely on tents rather than resorts and hikes rather amusement parks. Due to this environmentally-friendly and low-cost setup, the local habitat remains preserved, and locals wishing to start a business can do so with limited funds. Although ecotourism sounds like a win-win for conscientious travelers who are passionate about seeing the world, the realities of the trend are a bit more grim.
As I learned in class, many areas of the world are plagued by large corporations, such as resorts and tour companies, hiding behind the ecotourism brand in order to take advantage of its popularity. These businesses are often run by foreign operators who exploit local people and animals for economic gain. Even when businesses have good intentions, it can be hard to predict the detrimental effects that will befall the local community. Environmental, social, cultural, and financial impacts often harm the area tourists are aiming to preserve. When locals experience the dishonesty or harsh consequences of foreign ecotourism businesses, they lose trust and turn away from the industry as a whole. The result is a lack of cooperative efforts between native people and tourists that makes for an unpleasant living and traveling environment.
If you have ever ventured into a different community, whether that be one state over or halfway across the world, you know that entering unfamiliar territory can be intimidating and demands reverence for local ways. Likewise, if you have ever hosted visitors, you most likely expect them to show respect for your home and your family. Imagine you extend an open invitation for friends of friends to visit your hometown. These acquaintances then hire foreign guides, who have also only just arrived, for a tour of the area, even though you have lived here all your life. The tour guides are then generously paid to bring tourists to one or two of the most popular spots in town, where the tourists, who have not been educated in proper local etiquette, obliviously trample native foliage and scare endemic species with noise pollution. On top of all of this, the money these tour groups generate never enters the local economy– rather, the tour guides spend their salaries importing goods from back home and encourage tourists to spend money at foreign-owned restaurants. This scenario is unfortunately all too realistic in many parts of the world. For example, economics experts call the Cambodian tourism industry a “money-in, money-out” system. Despite the two million tourists descending upon the Angkor temples each year, a mere seven percent of tourism-generated revenue reaches the locals there, who have the lowest per capita income in the region (Becker 2017).
Not all ecotourism businesses are created alike, however. Some truly are operated by local people who reinvest profits into the local economy. They evenly distribute financial gains within the entire community, and they genuinely care for the species inhabiting the earth around them because this is, after all, their home. So how can you, as a conscientious traveller, discern between the good and the bad? Which businesses deserve your support and which should you avoid when traveling to a new destination?
There are myriad aspects to consider when making your ultimate decision to be an ecotourist. Before traveling, delve into how the industry at the specific locale you plan to visit affects the social and cultural structure of the local people, how economic gains are distributed within the community, and how the business affects local, and especially endemic, wildlife. In addition, your own personal motive for participating in ecotourism is important to take into account.
While it may be difficult to ascertain all of this information in every setting across the globe, even a small sense of the industry’s effects in the area you are traveling to is beneficial and can guide your gut feeling on whether or not to support tourist operations there. For example, if you were aware of the unfair financial distributions in Cambodia, you could actively seek out locally owned businesses to support during your trip. A little time spent digging can go a long way in uncovering the systematic inequalities that have become all too commonplace in the ecotourism industry.
Before supporting a business, it is essential to first analyze its social and cultural effects on the local community. Frances Brown calls tourism a “two-way influence” in his book Tourism Reassessed: Blight or Blessing? Tourists gain knowledge of the culture they are visiting while they inadvertently give locals a taste of their own culture (Brown 2011). The rise of globalism across the board has led to this merging of cultures, but many smaller communities resent the encroachment of foreign cultures, especially in regards to the consumerist and sometimes self-righteous attitudes of many travelers. In addition, local communities may not be equipped to handle the realities of foreign influences in much more tangible ways. For example, UCLA professor Dr. Alison Lipman performed a study in a small Bolivian municipality and observed that, as more travelers visited the town, local vendors began importing a larger quantity of plastic items to sell these travelers without any formal method for disposing of the additional trash created. This led to an increase in burning trash, which emits huge amounts of carcinogenic greenhouse gases into the environment and contributes to climate change. Alongside the introduction of plastics, Westernized attitudes and styles of dress became especially popular for the teenagers within the town, who began rebelling against their cultural norms and rejecting the traditions of their families (Lipman 2020). While individuals should have the ability to choose their own lifestyles, it is tragic to see unique cultures lose their identities in order to assimilate and cater to the cultural norms of visitors.
In terms of my own trip, I read about the incredible intersection of cultures within Georgetown, Malaysia– centuries of colonization and immigration had left the city an eclectic mix of Muslim Malay, Indian, Chinese, and English contributions. I planned to visit a few of the temples, mosques, churches and shrines around the city and Googled the customs for entering each place of worship. I compared the local practices to various tour companies to see which were taking into account and respecting this intersection of cultures. Many of the websites offering tours of these landmarks lacked any mention of the customs I had found, but through my search I was able to find a locally-operated guide service whose first FAQ emphasized that the tour would not begin if each tourist were not dressed appropriately. Knowing this business was committed to preventing disruption of the local culture, I booked my tour.
Before setting off on your trip, reading up on local customs and practices will be beneficial to ensuring you are not disrupting the community with your visit. You can then research any businesses on the degree to which they adhere to these practices to decide whether or not you would like to support them. If the information is not listed on their website, you can even call or email the company with your questions.
The second step of your ecotourism evaluation is one of the harder pieces of the puzzle to uncover: the distribution of wealth within the community. An ecotourism business in which all profits made off of the local community land in the laps of foreign CEOs is not sustainable. The local economy will suffer as it is drained of resources without seeing any monetary returns. One way to look into the financial details of an ecotourism business is outlined by Ogutu et. al in their 2002 analysis of ecotourism in Kenya. Ogutu used data from large ecotourism companies in the area to quantify employment rates, types of individuals employed, and human conflicts among other categories in the hopes of determining how widespread the industry’s impacts on the local community were (Ogutu 2002). The categories Ogutu outlined in his analysis serve as good benchmarks for evaluating whether or not the ecotourism business you are considering is being managed properly and is providing equal and widespread positive benefits. When inequality is present, such as in the Kenyan locality Ogutu explored, the community suffers, and tensions ignited by this inequality can lead to dangerous situations for tourists caught in the middle of the aggression.
I went about the process of exploring this second factor in Georgetown by scrutinizing the websites of tour companies I was interested in. If the website mentioned that the tours would be led by a guide native to the city, that the company was owned by locals, or that the profits from tours were directly invested back into the local economy, I felt comfortable supporting the company. I also double-checked that the restaurant recommendations I had gathered from Instagram were locally-owned to ensure my money would go directly into the hands of people native to the area.
While this type of economic data is not always readily available to the general public, company websites usually list at least some form of information about their employees. You can also call the company to ask what percentage of employees are locals. In addition, doing some research about the region’s per-capita income and asking for restaurant and store recommendations from people who live in the area are wonderful steps towards ensuring your money ends up in local hands. As an added bonus, you’ll most likely end up enjoying the region’s most authentic dishes and exploring beautiful areas most tourists unknowingly fail to see.
The third and probably most apparent area to evaluate when considering supporting an ecotourism business is how that business affects the native wildlife. In theory, ecotourism is a much less harmful way to travel as it requires less infrastructure than classic tourism and therefore preserves the natural state of the ecosystem. In the most successful cases of ecotourism, species populations are actually restored and bolstered, such as in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. At the Conservancy, profits from ecotourism have been reinvested to create a protected environment for endangered rhinos and zebras whose populations have risen 650 percent (Lewa 2017). However, the logistics of ecotourism can have a severe negative impact on the very biodiversity it attempts to preserve. For example, ecotourism along the St. Lawrence River necessitates increased nautical traffic as boat tours take tourists to observe the pods of beluga whales that call the river home. Profits from these tours are put towards conservation efforts. Upon further analysis, however, researchers Blane and Jaakson found that the ecotourism traffic led to reduced feeding grounds, lowered nursing rates, and a loss of pod integrity for the beluga whales (Blane 1994). It seems counter-intuitive to put ecotourism profits towards fixing a problem that the ecotourism created or perpetuated itself.
In planning my trip, I was most excited about the opportunity to interact with elephants, my favorite animal. I wanted to ensure that any company I paid to help me achieve this dream was completely ethical and in no way harmed the environment or the animals themselves. I found many instances of elephant interaction that basically functioned as zoos: elephants were subjected to thousands of visitors a day and kept in enclosures on the ground they used to walk freely. After a long online search, I finally discovered an elephant rehabilitation facility that allowed tourists to serve as volunteers for the day. I could pay to help wash and feed the elephants, who had been taken into the facility because of injuries or other inabilities to function in the wild. My money would go towards maintenance of the facility and ongoing conservation efforts for the elephants. This was the ideal scenario for me.
In planning your own trip, you may not be able to find such a benevolent organization. That is okay– there are plenty of other factors you can look into to ensure your activities won’t harm native species. Research the natural ways of life for the flora and fauna in the area, and try to minimize any disruptions to their everyday existence. One of the best ways to do this is to choose activities centered around passive observation of the plants and animals surrounding you. Another way is to support companies that hire locals and focus their efforts on conservation rather than zoos or safaris that carve asphalt roads into the habitats these animals need to survive. You can typically find information about where profits go on the “About Us” page of most company’s websites. If companies are truly aimed towards conservation, they will most likely offer data and statistics as proof of the positive impacts they have made on their community. If this information is not available, it is likely a red flag that the organization is not truly accomplishing what they may claim to be.
The final, and most often overlooked, aspect to consider before embarking on a journey is what you personally hope to gain from your trip. If you are open to gaining knowledge and widening your perspective, ecotourism can be a wonderful opportunity to do just that. In a recent study by Lee and Moscardo, researchers measured the awareness, involvement and enthusiasm for conservation practices of tourists before and after participating in the activities at an Australian ecotourism center. They reported a positive impact on visitors, finding that most people felt more knowledgeable and passionate about becoming involved with conservation efforts after their visits (Lee 2005). Whether visitors were inspired to visit more native gardens or donate to preservation initiatives, the positive effects of their experience helped further the important goal of maintaining the beauty and biodiversity of our planet for generations to come. If an ecotourism business is truly operating in accordance with the sustainable values outlined in the ecotourism definition, it will expand your worldview and provide you with invaluable knowledge about the local community of people and animals. This insight is a gift that appeals to many travellers and will hopefully motivate you to search for businesses that are truly on the right operational track.
Ecotourism as a concept is an incredibly beneficial way to travel in terms of encouraging an awareness of and a passion for conservation efforts, supporting biodiversity preservation, and increasing cash flow into communities that are often disadvantaged. In practice, however, many ecotourism companies miss the mark, whether accidentally causing more harm than good or purposefully focusing on profits rather than benefits for the local community. It can be hard to detect the differences between businesses that benefit their local communities and those with detrimental effects, especially because these effects often lie on a spectrum. However, as you jet off to your next exotic vacation or even road-trip to a forest mere hours away, consider the effects of your actions on the plants, animals, and human beings you encounter. Do a little research into where your finances are going. Knowing your money is doing more good than harm and that local people are benefiting from your trip just as much as you are will allow you to enjoy fun tourist activities while simultaneously feeling altruistic about your impact.
Blane, Jean M., and Reiner Jaakson. “The Impact of Ecotourism Boats on the St Lawrence Beluga Whales.” Environmental Conservation, no. 3 (1994): 267-69. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0376892900033282.
Brown, Frances. Tourism Reassessed: Blight or Blessing?. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2011. International Ecotourism Society. 2015. “What is Ecotourism?” Accessed May 23, 2020.
Lee, Won H., and Gianna Moscardo. “Understanding the Impact of Ecotourism Resort Experiences on Tourists’ Environmental Attitudes and Behavioural Intentions.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, no. 13 (2005): 546-565. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1080/09669580508668581.
Lipman, Alison. “Sustainability & Ecotourism” Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 116: Conservation Biology. Class lecture at University of California, Los Angeles, January 16, 2020.
Ogutu, Z.A. “The impact of ecotourism on livelihood and natural resource management in Eselenkei, Amboseli Ecosystem, Kenya.” Land Degradation & Development, no. 13 (2002): 251-256. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1002/ldr.502
A public science essay written and illustrated by Jessalyn Smith
The Mexican free-tailed bat looks like a gargoyle. There is no sugar-coating it, this species pales in comparison to the puppy-like fruit bat or the world’s smallest mammal, the bumblebee bat. However, they do not have the startling ears of Townsend’s big-eared bat or the reputation of the vampire bat that makes them stand out among the scientific order of gargoyles. Their fur is typically on the muddy end of brown, and their lips are wrinkled like the ridges of a pecan. Their large ears are stubby and rounded. The tail that gives them their name extends past the tail membrane and almost looks like a third leg; the only thing it’s missing is a foot. But despite all these unappealing features, they come together in an “it’s so ugly it’s cute” kind of way. The fluffy gargoyles of the sky won’t win any beauty competitions, but they certainly make up for their looks in the talent portion.
This species of bat is an insectivore, meaning they eat the wasps and other bugs you would rather pretend don’t exist. Their diet varies by region but primarily includes airborne insects due to their method of travel. However, they will stray from their typical diet if necessary, like in cases of high competition. Competing for food drives the Mexican free-tailed bat to fly at least 50 miles away from its home (also referred to as a “roost”) in order to find food (Tuttle, 1994). Since they fly at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and altitudes over 10,000 feet, the Mexican free-tailed bat can be difficult to track and watch their every move, but it is known that an individual bat can eat its two-thirds of its own body weight (about 12.5 grams) in bugs over the course of one night (Tuttle 1994). Alone this may seem unimpressive but considering the Bracken Cave colony consists of about 20 million bats, the number of bugs eaten in one night really starts to add up.
The appetite of a Mexican free-tailed bat colony is worth approximately $741,000 per year due to the consumption of agricultural pests. The monetary value was calculated by looking at the profits lost due to crop consumption and the cost of alternative forms of pesticide that would be necessary over a 10,000 acre agricultural region (Cleveland et al. 2006). The most notorious agricultural pest in the studied region is the cotton bollworm, a moth whose larvae can destroy cotton, tomato, and corn crops and whose population is difficult to control. The bollworm lays its eggs on the leaves or near the fruit of a plant, and the hatched larvae will burrow inside and mine the plant, ruining the crop (“Cotton Insects” 2013). By eating the adult moths, bats prevent the adults from laying more eggs and continuing to bolster the population of ravenous larvae. According to an article published in the “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,” an average bat’s consumption of 1.5 bollworms in one night prevents five eggs
from being laid (Cleveland et al. 2006). The Mexican free-tailed bat can provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in pest control services based on the cost of lost crops and the price of pesticides that would be needed without the presence of bats.
After a long night of eating bugs and protecting crops, what goes in must come out. The bat guano industry is not commonly thought about, but it’s incredibly bountiful. The most obvious use for bat droppings is as a natural fertilizer, similar to the use of cow manure. Guano is high in nutrients and contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are nutrients that are useful for improving plant growth and strong stems. The guano can even help improve the texture of soils that are too loose or too dense due to the presence of beneficial microbes in the droppings that improve the water-holding capacity and presence of air-holes (Koski 2015). Additionally, guano can be used as a fungicide and to control nematodes. These agricultural services are possible due to the abundance of bacteria and microorganisms in the droppings that break down the unwanted garden intruders through decomposition and the production of enzymes. Even though tons of guano are available due to the size of bat colonies, farmers don’t use as much because of its ability to persist in the soil after application (Koski 2015). Guano is more difficult to wash away than the typical inorganic gardening products, meaning the multitude of benefits are not easily lost during a rainstorm or poisoning the runoff that enters nearby water sources. Guano is safer than chemical-based agricultural products and provides services that would normally require multiple inorganic products.
Bats should be a farmer’s best friend, but they aren’t treated that way. Instead, humans have poisoned the bats through the use of pesticides, which has been connected to population decline in bats. Organochlorine (OC) pesticides, including the infamous and widely discontinued insecticide DDT, have been shown to accumulate in organisms due to their incorporation into the living tissues after consumption, also known as bioaccumulation (Clark 2001). OC content increases as you go further up the food chain since the predators have to eat more organisms that contain pesticide residue in order to sustain themselves. This process is also referred to as biomagnification. This class of pesticides is also very resistant to degradation and evidence of its usage can still be found decades after the last application. Scientists have found DDT in the fat stores of mammals, such as the Mexican free-tailed bat.
Even if the initial exposure does not prove to be fatal, breaking down fats during the migration process can lead to toxins entering the nervous system. It once again accumulates in the living tissue of the brain since it is not able to pass back through the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that selectively protects the brain tissue from solutes in the bloodstream. This buildup of toxins can lead to potential neurological effects, such as spontaneous neuron firing and spasms (Thies, Thies, and McBee 1995). The barrier is similar to the wasp traps where the insects can enter but are unable to find the exit due to the structure of the container. Without a usable outlet, the wasps begin to pile up inside the trap and make it unable to properly function. Female bats are able to rid themselves of the toxins through lactation, which are then passed on to the offspring, adding to the number of individuals affected (Thies, Thies, and McBee 1995). Males do not have the luxury of breastfeeding a child and are left with continuously increasing levels of toxins in their bodies. Man-made mistakes are proving to be costly to the Mexican free-tailed bat, even though their presence has actively been saving the agricultural industry money.
Even though the Mexican free-tailed bat is the last thing on people’s minds when applying dangerous chemicals, their presence is widely noted when a city can economically benefit from them through ecotourism. People line the Congress Avenue Bridge and the nearby banks of the Lady Bird Lake in Austin to watch the 1.5 million bats fly out at sunset (Bat Conservation International n.d.). Boat tours profit from this spectacle, and national parks containing bats make money off ticket sales. Not to mention, the local economy is supported by the travel expenses incurred by tourists. Most bat activities occur during the evening, making it more convenient to stay in a hotel if you don’t live nearby. Of course, there’s always the need for food and transportation or gas if you’re on a long trip. From personal experience, I know that some cavern-based attractions embody the “ride ends in the gift shop” mentality, which encourages people to spend even more money. The consumer surplus due all these expenditures brought about by bats was estimated to be about $6.5 million in the southwestern United States (Bagstad and Wiederholt 2013). Even if a business is not directly related to the ecotourism of the Mexican free-tailed bats, they can still benefit due to the influx of outside spending.
If you are interested in spotting these beautiful creatures, Mexican free-tailed bats primarily make their roosts in the southwestern region of North America through Central America and partially into northern South America. Most of these individuals are migratory, but a few will remain in their summer home through the winter in the western United States (Tuttle 1994). Their ideal roosting locations include caves and hollow trees, as well as buildings, bridges and abandoned mines. Nursery colonies can contain millions of bats in a single location. There can be 400 pups per square foot on average, looking more like a swarm of bees than roosting bats (Tuttle 1994). With such dense populations, colonies emerging from caves or structures look like thick plumes of smoke, signaling the locations of even the lesser-known sites to people nearby. In contrast, the bachelor colonies are much smaller, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred individuals (Tuttle 1994). Even though they are seemingly less impressive in scale, watching each bat dive from their lofted home into the open air is just as breathtaking as the flurry of wings of larger colonies.
It’s no secret that humans have been displacing animals through deforestation and other forms of ecological intervention, and the Mexican free-tailed bats are no exception. The reduction of natural roosting sites has forced the bats into man-made structures. Some colonies would roost in abandoned mines, but as these structures are destroyed, killing the bats trapped inside and preventing future colonies from developing there, the bats have moved to urban areas (Bellwood and Waugh 1991).
Bats tend to favor human-free buildings in low-income neighborhoods, likely due to the lack of visitation and maintenance that would make the building inaccessible to the flying mammals or remove the colony directly. The stereotype of an abandoned, tall building being filled with bats is not totally inaccurate. Structural damage can make the building more accessible for roosting, and the height of the ceilings can make it more difficult to remove the colony (Li and Kenneth 2015). Resources are also an important factor in choosing a roosting site. The Mexican free-tailed bats prefer buildings that are close to water and free of obstructing vegetation. The lights of the city can even help provide a food source as bugs gather around the brighter spaces (Li and Kenneth 2015). However, these sites are not entirely safe. With the enactment of more urban renovation projects, many roosts are being removed and potential homes being demolished (Li and Kenneth 2015). While these projects aren’t necessarily a bad thing, it is important that we create alternative homes for the displaced Mexican free-tailed bats and don’t leave them with a dwindling number of suitable habitats.
As the Mexican free-tailed bats start to intermingle with humans more often, it is reasonable to be concerned about the potential disease transfer that can occur. Bats are commonly viewed as vectors for devastating viruses such as rabies and various coronaviruses. The impact of such viruses when transferred to humans can be worsened due to the heightened immune system of their bat hosts, making it more memorable when bats are identified as the source of an outbreak. Their defense systems cause the virus to adapt more quickly, while the host remains asymptomatic or minimally affected (Cottier 2020). The protein responsible for signalling cells to fortify against an imminent attack, called interferon-alpha, is basically the Paul Revere of the immune system. It is abundant in the bats’ immune system, leaving viruses to remain in the host without causing major health issues. However, there are some side effects that typically limit the amount of the protein found in other mammals. Interferon-alpha causes inflammation as it passes through the body, which can become dangerous in high amounts. However, the way the bat’s immune system evolved minimizes inflammation, allowing the protein to flood the body and fortify the immune system at a high level (Cottier 2020). While this is beneficial for the bat host, it causes some serious damage when passed on to a different species. The human encroachment on bats and their habitat causes the bats to excrete more virus-containing waste, putting people at a higher risk (Cottier 2020). Humans amplify the problem. Why should the bats take all the blame? It’s like poking a sleeping bear and acting surprised when it chases you.
It would be naive to think that habitat destruction is only affecting the human immune system. White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that affects multiple species of bats and is connected to large-scale population decline. The Mexican free-tailed bats remain asymptomatic, but they can spread the disease to other species as they share roosts. Hibernating bats are the most vulnerable(“Bats Affected by WNS” n.d.). The fungus is associated with individuals waking up during hibernation, severely depleting their energy stores that were supposed to last through the winter, and many infected bats die from starvation or dehydration. As more roosting sites are destroyed, bat colonies are forced to find homes closer together, increasing the transmission of White Nose Syndrome (Meierhofer et al. 2018). Important pest-controlling and pollinating bats will be unable to perform their ecological jobs as the fungus spreads further across the United
States into more colonies, causing ecosystems as we know them to change beyond recognition.
The Mexican free-tailed bats are our friends. However, it is best to maintain a safe distance from bats, especially if an individual is active during the day and likely diseased. Animal control services can be called to properly remove an infected bat from the area without putting people nearby in danger. If you want to attract bats, instead of get rid of them, building a bat box can be an effective way to bring the fascinating creatures to your own backyard. You can even see a nightly show of the bats swooping through the air, almost too fast to see, and hear their reassuring chirps that tell you that your garden will be protected throughout the night. If you really want to help the bats and keep yourself safe from potential disease, there is one crucial piece of advice to follow based on historical events. DON’T. EAT. THE. BATS!
Bagstad, Kenneth J. and Ruscena Wiederholt 2013. Tourism Values for Mexican Free-Tailed Bat Viewing, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 18:4, 307-311, DOI: 10.1080/10871209.2013.789573
Clark, D. R. 2001. “DDT and the Decline of Free-Tailed Bats ( Tadarida Brasiliensis ) at Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico.” Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 40 (4): 537–43. doi:10.1007/s002440010207.
Cleveland, Cutler J., Margrit Betke, Paula Federico, Jeff D. Frank, Thomas G. Hallam, Jason Horn, Juan D. López, et al. 2006. “Economic Value of the Pest Control Service Provided by Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats in South-Central Texas.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4 (5): 238–43. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2006)004[0238:evotpc]2.0.co;2.
“Congress Avenue Bridge.” 2020. Congress Avenue Bridge. Bat Conservation International. Accessed June 6. http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro#:~:text=Every summer night, hundreds of,a better place to live.
Li, Han, and Kenneth T. Wilkins. 2015. “Selection of Building Roosts by Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (Tadarida Brasiliensis) in an Urban Area.” Acta Chiropterologica 17 (2): 321–30. doi:10.3161/15081109acc2015.17.2.007.
Meierhofer, Melissa B., Hsiao-Hsuan Wang, William E. Grant, John H. Young, Lauren H. Johnston, Lilianna K. Wolf, Jonah W. Evans, Brian L. Pierce, Joseph M. Szewczak, and Michael L. Morrison. 2018. “Use of Box-Beam Bridges as Day Roosts by Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (Tadarida Brasiliensis) in Texas.” Southeastern Naturalist 17 (4): 605. doi:10.1656/058.017.0410.
Tuttle, Merlin D. 1994. “The Lives of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats.” BATS Magazine Article: THE LIVES OF Mexican Free-Tailed Bats. Bat Conservation International. http://www.batcon.org/resources/media-education/bats-magazine/bat_article/656#:~:text=Mexican free-tails typically live,of droppings that they produce.
It’s the phrase a love-sick partner never wants to hear said about their significant other; a phrase uttered by ornery grandmothers everywhere when another year of dating passes without someone ‘popping the question’:
“They’ve got commitment issues.”
With the changing nature of family dynamics and relationships in the technological age, successful marriages in the 21st century have become something of a mystery. How do previous experiences shape future commitment? What is considered in commitment, and how does it last through decades of married life? These topics have exasperated young people and married couples for decades. In a world where “commitment issues” are offered as an explanation for the prevalence of causal relationships and divorce, how do we know what commitment is and how to make it last?
Defining Commitment. Commitment in relationship psychology is a construct that is defined differently depending on the nature of the study. According to Tran and Simpson (2009), “it entails a concern for the future and stability of the relationship along with the desire for the relationship to continue,” (p. 687). Though typically commitment is seen as a positive thing, Rusbult et al. (1991) note in their research this is not always the case. Commitment encompasses a wide variety of factors that bind individuals together in a relationship, whether or not a relationship is a healthy one (p. 56).
Childhood Attachment Styles. Even before Harry Met Sally, psychology tells us that childhood development has an impact on later relationships. Attachment theory, according to Bowlby (1973), proposes that interactions with a caregiver tell the infant important information regarding the caregiver’s reliability and accessibility (as cited in Cassidy & Berlin, 1994, p.972). The emotional bond to the caregiver is formed from this information, depending on the quality of the caregiving. When caregivers are inconsistent, infants are more likely to express anxiety and negativity upon separation and reunion to the caregiver, called anxious/ambivalent attachment (Cassidy & Berlin, 1994, p. 982). When caregivers are rejecting, infants are likely to show anxious/avoidant attachment styles, marked by little distress at separation and avoidance behavior upon reunion (Crittenden & Ainsworth, 1989, p. 439).
These patterns also tend to extend beyond childhood, as research shows the caregiver-infant bond can inform later connections with romantic partners. According to Fletcher et al. (2015),“the bonding and commitment components of adult romantic love are remarkably similar to the love between parents and infants,” (p. 24) including a strong longing to be around one another, discomfort when unable to see one other for long periods, and a keen awareness of the others’ needs.
These similarities are not the extent of the connection between childhood and later relationships, however. A 2011 study conducted by Oriña et al. followed participants long-term; observing interactions with their mothers at age two, resolving a conflict with a peer at age sixteen, and completing a relationship measure with their partner at age 20-21. The study demonstrated that poor parenting in childhood (less supportive and sensitive, more intrusive) or diminished conflict resolution as a teenager (less willing to compromise, less effective approach) increased the likelihood of an individual being the lesser-committed partner in an adult relationship (Oriña et al., 2011, pp. 911-912).
More specifically, maladaptive attachment styles (such as anxious/avoidant or anxious/ambivalent) or negative experiences in relationships can influence an individual’s interpretation and response to current and future relationships in ways that may be harmful (Tran & Simpson, 2009). Tran and Simpson explain, “for example, insecurely attached individuals may anticipate negative reactions or behaviors from their romantic partners, perceive greater partner negativity or mal-intent, overreact to those perceptions, and then unwittingly evoke negative behaviors from their partners,” (2009, p. 687). Simply put, these individuals expect their partners to behave negatively and thus feel less committed to the relationship. As attachment styles are formed in response to caregiver interactions, this provides a mechanism to explain how upbringing and past experience can impact commitment.
However, it is important to remember that no individual is doomed by their past. Being in a committed relationship can also help ease the anxieties of an insecurely attached individual, allowing them to potentially avoid negative actions and promote more substantive and healthy relationships (Kelly, 1987, as cited in Tran & Simpson, 2009, p.687). As Tran and Simpson describe, relationship commitment can “buffer” against the effects of negative experiences in childhood and young adulthood.
What Influences Commitment? Although childhood attachment styles and prior experiences influence commitment, dependence upon a relationship is more directly associated with other factors. Interdependence Theory states that commitment is determined by the level of satisfaction experienced in the relationship, the “quality of available alternatives”, and investment size (Rusbult, 1998, as cited in Mattingly, 2008). As an individual becomes more dependent upon a relationship’s benefits and resources, they tend to become more committed to the relationship as well (Rusbult, 1998, p.360).
Relationship Satisfaction. Relationship satisfaction refers to an individual’s assessment of whether their needs are met in a relationship, which can include “intellectual, companionate, and sexual needs” (Rusbult, 1998, p. 359). Relationship satisfaction shows a positive relationship to commitment, as the more an individual feels their needs are met in a relationship, the more dependent they become and the more committed they feel.
A study conducted by Guilbault and Philippe (2017) confirmed this point. Researchers asked the participants to think about a positive memory they considered important to their relationship. They then asked their partners to assess the degree to which that memory satisfied their needs and to rate the memory’s importance. It was found that the partner’s assessment of their need satisfaction in the memory was associated with their commitment to the relationship (Guilbault & Philippe, 2017, pp. 598-603).
This makes sense. Especially early on in a relationship, we’re trying to figure out what we gain from being with a partner and whether or not the relationship is worth our time and energy. If we feel that a partner can provide us with the things we consider important, we are more likely to feel increased dependence upon that relationship and increased commitment as a result.
Quality of Available Alternatives. Another component of commitment, according to Interdependence Theory, is our assessment of available alternatives. Rusbult (1998) defines the quality of alternatives as “the perceived desirability of the best available alternative to the relationship,”(p. 359). According to Rusbult, the quality of alternatives depends upon the degree to which a person’s needs could be satisfied outside of the relationship, such by friends, family members, other possible partners, or individually. This allows us to assess and compare our relationship to other options and determine how much we want to stay. This works in conjunction with relationship satisfaction; when an individual is satisfied with their relationship and they think the alternatives are worse, they’re more likely to be dependent (Rusbult, 1998, p.359). But, when an individual is unhappy in the relationship and sees “plenty of fish in the sea”, they are less so.
Once we are, in fact, committed – a mechanism called “devaluing alternatives” kicks in. In one of several studies conducted by Johnson and Rusbult (1989), participants currently involved in a relationship were asked to rate the attractiveness of several individuals by their photographs, under the guise of research for an online dating service. These ratings were compared to questionnaire answers regarding the participants’ current relationship satisfaction and commitment. Through this comparison, it was found that more committed partners were more likely to rate the photographs as less attractive, also known as “devaluing the alternatives”. This finding was especially likely when the alternative was very attractive and deemed to be a bigger threat. Further studies by Johnson and Rusbult extend and further this work, asserting that “commitment fairly clearly mediates tendencies to devalue alternatives,”(1989, p.978), and devaluing alternatives is most likely a response to threats to commitment. Although relationship satisfaction does have its role in influencing devaluing alternatives, commitment was demonstrated as the more dominant force in these studies.
Assessing the quality of alternatives, as discussed earlier, could be seen as wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side. However, once someone wants to stay in a relationship (i.e. they are highly committed), they don’t look for opportunities to leave. Instead, the other pastures start to look less green.
Investment Size. There is one more piece to the puzzle. Rusbult (1998) asserts that investment size, or the significance and amount of resources tied to a relationship, can explain why not all committed relationships are healthy or happy ones. The idea says that the resources we gain from a relationship are taken into consideration when assessing commitment. Different types of resources can accompany a relationship, whether financial assets like property or relational resources like family, friends, and children. Rusbult (1998) says this could explain why individuals stay in unhappy, or abusive, relationships– a partner could be invested in, reliant upon, or not willing to lose the associated resources.
Wisdom of an Older Generation. Relationships psychology provides us with a valuable framework with which to approach these topics, but is there something still missing from the conversation? The findings of psychological research have definite merit and value, but there are still many lessons to learn from older generations who have fought for their marriages. The voices I value most on these topics are those of my grandparents, who speak with the experience of a long and successful marriage. When asked about commitment in relationships – this is what they had to say.
“Love is about self-sacrifice,” my grandfather said simply as I asked him to share the culmination of his knowledge on the subject. Considering the fifty years they’ve spent in a loving, committed marriage, there is much I have yet to learn. “It’s being more interested in the other person’s happiness than your own…you don’t really know what love is until your satisfaction, for one reason or another, is challenged or diminished,” ( G. Black, personal communication, May 29, 2020). Listening to his wise words, I was struck by how this view was contrary to a focus on self-satisfaction. Indeed, my grandfather proposed that it was not your happiness that matters most, but the happiness of those you care for—a sentiment very much in opposition to a Western, 21st-century view that epitomizes personal happiness. My grandfather continued, “I think people leave marriages these days because when they don’t get what they want, they find they’re not as interested in their partner over themselves.”
He may be onto something. Psychological research confirms that healthy self-sacrifice is beneficial to relationships more generally, improving relationship quality and diminishing conflict (Impett et al., 2005, p.340). However, I can’t help wondering if my grandfather’s insights signify a bigger mindset difference between the “Boomers” and the infamous Gen-Z with regard to commitment. Increased gender equality in relationships, the explosion of online dating, the rise of casual relationships, and diminished barriers to divorce have changed the rules of engagement, to say the least. The quality of available alternatives has flipped on its head as the dating pool has expanded infinitely, the U.S. maintains that 40-50% of marriages end in divorce (“Marriage & Divorce”, n.d.), and “hookup culture” is the buzzword on college campuses. Modern dating seems to place greater emphasis on personal needs and satisfaction in determining commitment in relationships, rather than viewing commitment as an act of self-sacrifice like my grandfather. This is something I believe deserves attention.
If one of the factors involved in commitment is need satisfaction, then commitment may naturally experience greater turbulence over time as greater stress is experienced, and as the physicality in a relationship changes with age. Self-sacrifice is beneficial to relationships, as are assessments of personal desires and satisfaction that impact commitment (according to the Investment Model). Perhaps this new generation must grapple with where the line is, between advocating for one’s personal needs and sacrificing for the needs of others. Then, healthy, committed relationships may form that both benefit from and overcome the challenges of dating in the 21st-century.
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–By a student who would like to remain anonymous (June 2020)
Personalizing one’s study habits and developing time management skills is an essential part of academic success. According to previous studies, an effective study habit is one that promotes focused learning and academic achievement, while an ineffective study habit is one that inhibits learning and academic progress. One time management technique, the Pomodoro Technique, has gained popularity over the years as a productivity booster and procrastination reducer. Alternating between 25-minute focus sessions and 5-minute breaks, the Pomodoro Technique has the potential to be an effective study habit by facilitating intentional learning and improving efficiency. To test whether this technique could improve my studying, I conducted a two-week, personal study. For one week, I observed and characterized my regular study habits using a journal. For the second week, I implemented the Pomodoro Technique and timed my study sessions using the phone application “Focus Keeper.” After comparing the average time studied per day, the average time per study session, the average number of phone interruptions, and perceived effectiveness of study sessions between the two weeks, I experienced an 8.95% decrease in daily study time, a 46% decrease in distractions, and a significant increase in motivation and focus with the Pomodoro Technique. From these results, I concluded that the Pomodoro Technique was an effective study habit that I could implement into my busy schedule.
Whether in grade school or university, students of all ages have struggled with developing effective study habits and time management techniques. To aid in student learning, previous studies have proposed various frameworks to measure and evaluate study habits (Rabia et al., 2017; Burns & Dobson, 1984). One definition by Alzahrani et al. (2018) suggests that a good study habit is systematic andefficient, allowing students to plan, execute, and achieve learning objectives consistently and thoughtfully. Other scientists argue that a good study habit is measured by improved academic achievement, such as higher test scores and grade point averages (Jafari & Khatony, 2019; Purdie & Hattie, 1999). Still others—for example, Mustafa et al. (2010)—believe that a good study habit encourages flow, a state of uninterrupted engagement, focus, and effort on an academic task or topic. Although many of these studies identify characteristics of effective studying, few studies recommend specific study habits since these habits vary student to student based on learning styles, academic resources, and motivations (Idika, 2017). To improve my own study habits, I conducted a personal study to assess whether the Pomodoro technique could lead to more effective studying.
In the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro Technique as a university student struggling with a busy schedule, low productivity, and a lack of motivation (“Pomodoro® Press Center,” n.d.). Wanting to accomplish more in less time, Cirillo challenged himself to study effectively within the time allotted on a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (Cirillo, 2018). This pomodoro, or tomato in Italian, eventually became the logo for his business consulting firm and time management system. Comprising of six steps, the Pomodoro Technique breaks down larger projects into smaller tasks. The individual (1) chooses a task to complete, (2) sets a timer for 25 minutes, (3) works on the designated task for the allotted time without distraction, (4) stops working once the timer rings, (5) breaks for 5-minutes, and (6) repeats these steps three more times before taking a longer 20-minute break (Cirillo, 2018). One 25-minute focus interval is defined as a “Pomodoro,” and completing all six steps, or four Pomodoro’s, is known as a “Pomodoro Cycle” (Cirillo, 2018).
For the last two decades, the Pomodoro Technique has gained popularity in technology companies (Abrahamsson et al., 2008; Ruensuk, 2016) and business magazines, such as Forbes, The Guardian, and Harvard Business Review (“Pomodoro® in the News,” n.d.). Recently, the Pomodoro Technique has also reached mainstream audiences and students through self-help blogs and productivity articles that herald it as an effective time management system and study habit (Jubbal, 2016; Productivity tip: the Pomodoro technique, 2019; Boogaard, 2020). Although some observational studies have analyzed the Pomodoro Technique’s effectiveness (Feng, n.d.; Ahmed et al., 2014), to the best of my knowledge, few experiments verify its effectiveness for students. Despite this paucity of evidence, the Pomodoro Technique’s systematic, goal-oriented approach and intense, distraction-free focus intervals satisfy many of the aforementioned criteria for a good study habit. Additionally, studies have shown that short, intentional mental breaks during long intervals of work can improve performance and prevent fatigue or procrastination (Ariga & Lleras, 2011; Strongman & Burt, 2000). Thus, the Pomodoro Technique’s alternating system of intense work and mindful breaks has the potential to facilitate effective studying.
I am a current full-time, undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles taking 20 units in Spring 2020. As a premed struggling with balancing extracurriculars, homework, and classes, I have had a growing interest in productivity and study tips that maximize my time. A few months ago, a medical student (whose channel I was following) posted a video explaining the Pomodoro Technique and its simple set-up. Curious to try this study habit, I designed this two-week study to examine whether I could use the Pomodoro technique as an effective study habit. During the first week, I evaluated my regular study habits as a control. During the second week, I implemented the Pomodoro Technique and used a phone application to time my study sessions. Over both the control and experimental weeks, I collected quantitative data (e.g. time spent studying each day, start and stop times, and the number of distractions) as well as qualitative data (e.g. journal entries about my mood and focus).
To compare my regular study habits to the Pomodoro Technique, I analyzed differences in average daily minutes of study, average minutes per study sessions, number of tasks completed each day, and perceived effectiveness of study sessions between the two weeks. Based on the data I gathered, I concluded that adding periodic breaks and focusing on one task at a time with the Pomodoro Technique resulted in fewer distractions and more effective studying.
For the first phase of the study, I characterized my regular study habits as a control. During this week, I tracked how long I studied each day, the number of distractions (namely, phone interruptions) per study session, and the start and stop times of my study sessions. Since I was not prone to open unrelated tabs or applications on my computer, I instead recorded the number of times I reached for my phone during a study session. I defined a study session as a prolonged period of studying with a maximum of 15 minutes of break time. Additionally, I recorded each task that I planned, the number of tasks I completed, and a short description of my mood or focus each day.
For the second phase of the study, I implemented the six-step Pomodoro Technique and used the iPhone application “Focus Keeper” to time my 25-minute focus sessions and 5-minute breaks. Like the control period, I noted the time studied each day, the number of distractions per session, the start and stop times of my study sessions, the number of tasks completed, and a short description of my mood or focus. I also recorded the number of Pomodoro’s I completed each day.
Due to variations in daily workload and the time needed to familiarize myself with the new study habit, I decided to collect data on the Pomodoro Technique for a week. Once the control and experimental periods passed, I inputted the data into Excel to calculate the mean of the following variables: time studied per day, time per study session, number of distractions per day, and the number of tasks completed each day. I then calculated the percent change of these variables by subtracting the experimental statistic from the control statistic and dividing the result by the control statistic. This allowed me to compare the relative differences between the experimental and control statistics. If a variable had a percent change of more than 5% or less than -5%, the difference between the control and experimental week was considered significant.Additionally, I calculated the standard errors of the average time studied per day and the average time per study session to compare the variability, or spread, of the control and experimental data.
Regular Study Habits – Based on my journal entries, my regular study habits were consistent day to day. Since mornings and afternoons were dedicated to lectures and meetings, most of my studying occurred in the evening. Before beginning my study sessions, I prioritized my tasks based on deadline. Once I began a task, I tended to complete it in one sitting with minimal breaks. When I did pause, it was to use the restroom or eat.
Each day, I studied an average of 314.13±25.83 minutes that I divided into three to four study sessions. These study sessions lasted about 88.83±10.90 minutes each. Additionally, I averaged 6.50 phone interruptions and completed 4 major tasks per day.
On days I woke up early (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), I recorded more instances of fatigue and sleepiness. On these same days, I completed more tasks than when I was well-rested or energetic. This was most likely because I had more hours in the day to study.
The Pomodoro Technique – Since data from the first two days were significantly less than my daily averages later in the week, I discarded these outliers. Based on my journal entries, I initially struggled with dividing tasks into neat 25-minute blocks and finding a suitable phone timer that could record my study sessions as I completed them.
I averaged a total of 286.00±64.77 minutes studied, or 9.40 Pomodoro’s, per day. Study sessions, or periods of consecutive Pomodoro’s, lasted about 90.00±61.13 minutes. Throughout the week, I averaged 3.50 phone interruptions and completed about 4 major tasks each day.
Although general levels of fatigue and sleepiness did not differ from the control week, I felt more focused during my experimental study sessions than usual. I was less distracted by daydreaming, worries about deadlines, and lack of motivation to initiate and finish tasks.
Percent Change – After implementing the Pomodoro Technique, my daily time spent studying decreased by 8.95%, and the number of distractions each day decreased by 46.00%. I did not observe significant changes in the average time per session or the average tasks completed each day between the control and experimental data.
Discussion and Conclusion
Based on the 8.95% decrease in average daily study time and my reflections on perceived focus during study sessions, the Pomodoro Technique significantly increased my focus during study sessions. The number of completed tasks each day did not change significantly; however, I was able to reduce the overall time spent completing them. My efficiency and concentration improved while studying because I was more intentional about dividing work into manageable 25-minute spurts. Instead of wasting time motivating myself to start a task or procrastinating, the Pomodoro Technique held me accountable with a strict timer.
Additionally, the Pomodoro’s did not allow for distractions while studying, as evidenced by the 46.00% decrease in phone interruptions. The short, 5-minute breaks were more than enough time to decompress and reply to notifications. This promise of rest time reduced the temptation to check my phone during the 25-minute focus sessions.
One surprising finding in the experimental data was the rather large standard errors for the average time spent studying each day and the average time per study session—64.77 minutes and 61.13 minutes respectively. Although the experimental averages for these two variables were significantly different from the control averages, the standard errors indicated a larger variability in the experimental data. Some possible explanations for this discrepancy include inadequate time to adapt to the Pomodoro Technique, early completion of tasks before the timer rang (resulted in shorter Pomodoro’s), or more variation in assignments and tasks that week. The standard errors would likely decrease with an additional week of data collection.
Other limitations of this study included a small sample size of one, possible bias in the self-reported data, and restricted measures of effectiveness. Although this study measured efficiency, intentionality, and focus, further research can be done to understand the Pomodoro Technique’s effect on learning, memory, and other factors that contribute to effective studying. Additionally, future experiments can better quantify the Pomodoro Technique’s correlation with focus (e.g. tests of concentration or quantifications of brain activity), implement more extreme versions of the Pomodoro Technique (e.g. locking students out of browsers or enforcing longer focus sessions), or test alternative study habits, productivity systems, and apps.
Through this experiment, I concluded that the Pomodoro Technique was a simple yet powerful study habit that promoted intentionality, discipline, and focus. Although it was not always feasible to divide my tasks into 25-minute blocks or 2-hour Pomodoro Cycles (group projects and assigned readings were especially harder to complete), I learned two skills, allotting specific times for tasks and taking mindful breaks, that can improve my efficiency and concentration for future study sessions. This study is not representative of the general population and may not suit most university students; however, examining and experimenting with systems like the Pomodoro Technique is a worthwhile exercise in understanding and improving one’s study habits.
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Empathy is a core character trait that is often forgotten in the realm of STEM students. It is a deeply humanizing characteristic that allows us to understand and connect to other people, like an emotional ethernet cable. In this work, I discuss some figurative “empathy bicep curls” that I used to develop empathetic habits. In particular, I explored connecting to fellow lab-mates in a strictly non-lab setting, through casual check-ins and weekly video calls. During these weekly calls, I tried to read people’s moods, like a mystic crystal ball reading of green-boxed video streams. I used this mood-reading to engage everyone, sowing the seeds of a deep support system in both my lab group and my larger network of friends.
Graduate school in STEM is excellent at producing two types of people: excellent scientists, and social zombies. Moreover, if we were to draw a Venn diagram of social zombies and excellent scientists in a STEM graduate program, we might guess the result would look like nearly a solid circle (see Fig. 1).
This result is of little real blame on anyone involved–graduate school inherently requires an immense amount of research and work, which quickly eats away time. And graduate students are generally happy to do this work, with little regard for their mental health. If this statement seems doubtful, a quick cursory glance through some of the top posts on various forums reassures that working until burnout is a common feeling.
A major part of this problem arises because graduate students stop treating themselves and their lab mates as real people. This isn’t to say that lab meetings suddenly become awkward menageries of mythical creatures, but more that students forget how to interact with each other on a simpler, person-to-person level.
The goal of this experiment was to remind myself and my lab of the importance of these sorts of interactions. I often use this “Everyone Poops!” style of reminder to keep myself humble, and also to muster the courage to talk to people. It’s the same method I used when I asked my girlfriend to date me while standing in a unitard at the National Mall. (The deeper reasoning for this picture is an excellent story that I’d be happy to explain another time.)
The “empathy workout” that I felt aligned with the importance of humanizing people, and in particular graduate students, was item 12 on the assignment list for the empaty experiment:
Make at least one personal contact with one of your fellow students (or lab-mates or coworkers) each week. It can just be “hi, how are you doing?” or you can share a personal story, one that you think the other person can relate to and that may then help them connect to you better afterward (Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face?, 146-7).
Using this suggestion as a guideline, I doubled down on these efforts: I organized a weekly lab video call that did not include our professor, and I reached out weekly to a student in my lab who is quarantining alone.
My lab is fairly social, especially when compared to others in our area. Before the quarantine came into effect, we often had small social gatherings that were unrelated to the lab itself. We played games, went for drinks, even played instruments together.
During our time apart, however, I felt we needed something to remind us that we are more than just “work associates,” we’re friends. And moreover, that we are all here to lean on in these odd times. More than anything, I argued to myself, this process would humanize us, and remind us that we are all just people coping as best we can. This “humanization” of myself and my lab mates is arguably the ultimate goal of empathy: to understand and relate to each other, despite cultural, social, and computer screen divides.
In the current state of quarantine, video calls are the new norm. They pranced into everyone’s homes as though they had been there all along, silently creeping into our offices, our kitchen tables, and even our closets. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it is the world we live in. It is about as close as we can get these days without breaking Center for Disease Control guidelines.
Knowing this situation, I organized a two-pronged approach to this empathy exercise:
1. Reach out to one lab member a week who I know is quarantining alone.
2. Organize a group video call, outside of normal lab meetings, to keep everyone connected.
There are several international students in my lab, which means there are several friends of mine who are stuck alone in studio apartments, away from their families, during the quarantine. I sent them messages weekly–some were more conversational than others–and tried to gauge how comfortable they felt talking to me. The goal with this experiment was to not only provide a support system for these students (and myself), but to try and understand the immense difference in quarantine scenarios between us.
With video calls, I sought to keep our lab community close through quarantine. We needed a space where we were allowed to be just people, not research machines. To further this goal, I included several members of our extended friend group, to keep the call from feeling too much like a repeat of each week’s multi-hour lab progress report. I tried hard to note how everyone felt and seemed to be handling things both when talking, but also when just sitting on camera. Did they seem distracted, nervous, bored? Aside from the goals of better camaraderie, I wanted to learn to read audiences in video calls, because this skill seems to be invaluable these days.
Results and Discussion
I followed this exercise for approximately four weeks. This meant four weeks of reaching out to a person alone, and organizing a non-work video call.
Over the course of just sending messages, I learned more about my lab-mates who were living in isolation. Not just what they were working on, but what they did in their free time, and what they thought about while relaxing at home. This slightly deeper connection helped me understand them, and I’d argue to be a better friend.
I learned that one of my lab mates has become a plant parent several times over, by snagging and re-planting pieces of several neglected plants around his apartment complex. In an entirely opposite direction, he had become immensely invested in a series of war documentaries. By proxy, I learned a lot about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War from an Argentinian engineering graduate student.
I also learned all flights to Argentina were cancelled, and he had nowhere else to go. He said his plants helped keep him sane, and he had a strict regimen of “class times” to divide his workday. His admission of this was sobering, coming from a person who is typically the happy-go-lucky type.
Meanwhile, I learned that another lab mate was extremely okay with being alone, because he was a less social person to begin with. I learned he had dug up some archaic and unused programming languages and trying to re-learn them. Some people are born masochists, I suppose.
Though not necessarily massive leaps, these conversations were enlightening. I spend so much time connected to these people, since my lab is basically a second home. But small conversations like this–especially during such uncertain times–help build us together into a support system.
The video calls, by contrast, started slow. Nearly everyone in my lab had used Zoom for our cross-campus research meetings in the past, so we all felt some odd pressure to stay professional. This pressure manifested itself with awkward fits of “So how is research going?” and “What’ve you been working on?” when conversation lulled.
I did my best to break these habits by instating a no “shop talk” rule during these calls. These calls were meant to be our lab utopia–a free space for us to be normal people, not just runners on the graduate research hamster wheel. To further limit “shop talk,” I invited some friends from outside the lab to join. These people helped set a distinctly different tone than in our typical weekly lab meetings.
The calls eventually became something expected—friends would text to remind me to send out invites to the week’s call. If anyone missed, they would later check in with me to see if everyone was okay, and also how the call went. It became a weekly pulse check on everyone in the lab: are they here? If not, has anyone heard from them? Especially in this time of quarantine, these weekly calls seemed to be a moment for us to take stock of the lab as people, building a tighter network of people to depend on.
I also tried to identify the mood and level of engagement of different people in the calls, especially when not talking. This meant learning a whole new set of social cues, watching people in a small green box as they scroll through their phone, or nod absentmindedly against a shimmering and pixellated “The Office” backdrop. The audience-centered empathy skills for in-person speaking are familiar and easy to read after much practice, but translating them to Zoom calls feels like trying to infer typical lion behavior from my dad’s house cat “Simba.”
I used these mood gauges to try and engage everyone as best I could, teasing people into un-muting microphones and turning on video streams. “We’re good enough friends to hear each other’s static,” I reassured everyone.
As the weeks went on, I found it easier to identify people who needed to be involved. This process felt like re-learning elementary lunchroom etiquette, remembering to invite the sad-looking boy sitting alone to come eat with everyone else. However, unlike the sad-looking boy in elementary school, people in Zoom calls are usually quite content to sit looking at their cell phone instead of talking to a computer screen of ten floating heads.
Learning these mood cues through video call reminded me a lot of the initial test we took, reading emotions through just eye expressions. I think in future weeks, I could further my video calling exercise by trying to assign these sorts of emotion labels on my lab mates while in the call. Ultimately, I may continue this experiment with several small variations, with my friends as the unknowing test mice in my empathy laboratory.
Empathy is an immensely useful characteristic of effective communicators, researchers, and friends. It is an incredible humanizing tool that allows us to connect with an audience, a reader, or a group of friends. I took this experiment as an opportunity to humanize my lab environment, by initializing weekly video calls to keep touch during the quarantine.
Though video calls are common these days, my lab only ever participated in one all together on a regular basis: research meetings. While important, these meetings are a rapid- fire pop-quiz on the science we worked on the past week, with few pauses to connect as people. I felt my lab could retain and strengthen its own empathy support system by having a special time set aside where we were allowed to be people, and talk to each other as people.
These weekly calls started as awkward chats, but eventually became an anticipated occurrence. It’s easy to forget through all of the research meetings and classes that under it all, our lab is also a group of good friends. I hoped and felt that these calls reminded us of that fact, while strengthening our empathy networks.
My own empathy skills could use continued work, and I plan on using these weekly calls as a training ground for reading audiences over video call. As we brace ourselves for an online fall quarter like the Starks preparing for winter, these sorts of skills seem more invaluable than ever.
Even more so, I need to retain the ability to connect to other people, lest I emerge from quarantine a full Neanderthal, unsure of how to appease the lab group tribe.