I vividly remember receiving a letter from my grandmother one summer while I was away at camp. It had a big red heart on the front and read, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” As an 11-year-old, I found the message deep and very meaningful — absence from my family did, without a doubt, make me appreciate them more. However, as a 21-year-old, I now find myself falling out of touch with people because they are “out of sight and out of mind.” Some long distance relationships work because absence helps to keep things alive, but some relationships fizzle because of failure to maintain contact. Do opposites actually attract or do birds of a feather flock together? Is patience a virtue? Or is he who hesitates lost?
My grandmother imparted so much folk wisdom she probably could have written greeting cards for a living. I assume most grandmothers did. And when I was younger, Grandma’s catchy maxims helped me make sense of my feelings and of others’ behavior. But as a grown-up, I now understand (I think) that we can’t be explained in a just few short words — especially if they rhyme.
It appears this kind of folk wisdom is inconsistent, at best. And I need answers. No offense to grandma, but the skeptic in me started looking up some of her favorites to see how folk wisdom stands up to behavioral science.
Boys Will Be Boys
According to developmental psychologists, although much of who we grow up to be comes from the environments we are reared in (i.e. how we are nurtured), girls, on average, talk sooner, walk earlier and excel in fine motor skills like drawing and writing. But boys (again, on average) show, perhaps due to differences in cultural environments, greater gross motor skills — they jump further, run faster and throw farther. So Grandma, boys can and will be boys if they’re encouraged to be them.
Practice Makes Perfect
This was every teacher’s favorite motivational mantra, too. And, according to research, for good reason. Biopsyhologists have found that motor representations in the neurons of the brain change as a result of training and repeated use. For example, the primary motor cortex in piano players’ is significantly wider than in normal, non-pianist individuals. Similarly, as a movement or skill becomes more familiar, the neurons used to carry it out fire more efficiently, requiring less energy and fewer neuronal connections. So really, practice makes familiar.
No Pain, No Gain
Coaches everywhere borrowed this from their Grandmas — with research to support them. When we take on and conquer more challenging tasks, we show higher levels of self-esteem and happiness. However, with that said, research has also shown that when we set high goals and fail to achieve them, we show lower self-esteem than if we had we not set any goals at all. The struggle is only beneficial if we actually win in the end.
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
Look no further than the social divisions at Cornell to recognize that we are attracted to people who are like us. Not only do we like to spend time with people who share similar interests and ideals, but we also take on their behaviors. In one study, when divided into groups based on an arbitrary characteristic, people were more likely to rate group members as their “best friends” and to rate members of other groups as enemies.
So, Grandma, you were, for the most part, kind of right. Folk wisdom, when put to the test of behavioral science, proves (as most things do when studied by psychologists) to be true — sometimes. My grandmother’s easy to remember and easier to understand short words of virtue were helpful to me when I was younger. But now that I better understand that no two birds are alike, it seems behavioral science should step in to further blur the contradictory statements and create a muck of “maybes” and “it depends.”
So what about those long distance relationships? Not surprisingly, it depends on who you ask. In one study, over 40 percent of participants who were in a long distance relationship experienced “out of sight, out of mind” as the best descriptor of their experience. A large majority said the distance either ended or made worse their relationship. However, a study done in the same year but across the country found that 70 percent of males and 72 percent of females who were surveyed believed “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” So look before you leap, and certainly don’t count your chickens before they hatch … or something like that.
Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shades of Grey appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.