Thursday, 30 July 2015

10 heavenly psychology studies you'll wish you'd participated in

If you volunteer for a psychologist's experiment, it might involve nothing more exciting than answering some questions online, or maybe you'll be asked to remember a list of numbers. On the other hand, if you're brave and willing, the demands of the experiment could be far more challenging – back in March, we documented 10 of the most hellish psychology studies ever conducted. You'll be glad you didn't participate in those! But now it's time to look at the lighter end of the spectrum. For this post, we searched the annals of psychology for studies that sounded simply heavenly, from swimming with dolphins to receiving a free back massage! Not only do some of the methods sound delightful, in some cases the findings are pretty surprising too:

1. Go swimming with dolphins
It's a hard life being a psychology participant, but somebody has to do it. In this research from 2001, psychologists asked dozens of participants in groups of four, to swim with four wild dolphins in the ocean off a beach in Australia. The participants completed well-being measures before and after the experience and the change in their scores was compared to a control group who went swimming after the dolphins had gone. Although the dolphin group felt more positive after their experience than the control group, they'd actually started out feeling more positive, so they didn't enjoy a greater gain than the control group. Sceptics have pointed out that most research on the benefits of swimming with dolphins has lacked methodological rigour. Writing in 2007 [pdf], Lori Marino and Scott Lilienfeld warned that: "The surprising paucity of scientific evidence for the long-term effects of DAT [dolphin-assisted therapy] raises profoundly troubling ethical questions regarding its widespread use and promotion."

2. Have a beer and play billiards with your mates
The students taking part in this Dutch study were paid €30 to spend a few hours hanging out with a group of friends in a "bar lab" at the university. The students were asked to watch a few adverts on a TV in the bar and then chat about them with their friends. After this, they were free to chill out, order any drinks they wanted and play games. "To create a similar atmosphere as in a real bar," the researchers explain, "popular music was played, nuts were offered and participants were allowed to smoke, and to play table-soccer or billiards during the break." Earlier, the participants had rated what they thought a typical tea-totaller was like, a typical social drinker and a typical heavy drinker (e.g. how boring, how immature, how cool etc). Students who held more positive views of a typical heavy drinker tended to order more alcoholic drinks at the bar (even after controlling for the influence of their friends). Rounding off this particularly cushy research gig, taxis took home any students who were over the drink-drive limit by the end of the study.

3. Play games for the chance to win half a year's salary

It's fairly common for psychology research participants to be offered modest incentives for better performance on a test, such as a book voucher or a ticket for a lottery. But imagine being offered the equivalent of half a year's salary. That was the prize on offer for some participants in research conducted by Dan Ariely and his colleagues in 2002 in an Indian village [pdf]. If participants in this peak bonus condition achieved a "very good" performance on a game (involving creativity, memory or darts skills), they would receive 400 Rupees – the local equivalent of nearly half a year's average salary (this was feasible for the researchers to offer because the cost of living was so low in India at the time compared with the US). This sounds like an amazing incentive, but actually Ariely's counter-intuitive finding was that massive cash bonuses backfire: participants in the conditions with more modest bonuses actually performed better. "Beyond some threshold level, it appears, raising incentives may increase motivation to supra-optimal levels and result in perverse effects on performance," the researchers concluded.

4. Have more sex
Plenty of research has revealed a rather unsurprising correlation – people who are happier report having more sex. But of course the causal direction could go either way (or the correlation could be explained by other factors that increase both happiness and frequency of sex). To find out if sex boosts happiness, George Loewenstein and his colleagues recruited 70 heterosexual married couples aged between 35 and 65 and instructed them to have more sex (none of them reported any relevant sexual problems that might complicate the results). To take part, the couples' current frequency of sex had to lie somewhere between once a month and three times a week. The simple instruction to the couples was to double their usual frequency for the next 90 days. Surveys completed before, during and after the study showed, contrary to the researchers' expectations, that although people instructed to have more sex did have more sex, they actually suffered reductions in happiness and the enjoyment of sex, as compared with a control group. "Perhaps being in the experimental treatment changed couple members’ construal of sex, from a voluntary activity engaged in for pleasure to a duty, engaged in at the behest of the experimenter," the researchers concluded.

Image: Brian Minkoff
5. Eat toffee made at one of the world's most famous restaurants 
Many psychology experiments give participants an excuse to sample chocolate, ice cream and other naughty delights. But this study is more heavenly than most in the genre because it involved paying participants to eat some toffee prepared at the experimental kitchen attached to chef Heston Blumenthal's  (pictured, right) famous Fat Duck restaurant. As the participants tasted the toffee, they were either played low-pitched brass instrumental music specially prepared to be congruent with bitter taste or higher-pitched piano music selected to be congruent with sweetness. The participants' experience of the toffee varied depending on the music they were listening to at the time they tasted it – specifically, they described the toffee as sweeter when it was accompanied by the piano music. This shows "the taste of a food can be systematically altered by playing a soundscape that shares a crossmodal correspondence with the taste in question," the researchers said.

6. Spend three weeks on a wilderness adventure
A growing body of evidence suggests that spending time in nature has a range of psychological benefits, a phenomenon that people seem to underestimate. Many studies involve short walks in the countryside or urban parks – this paper from 2000 (pdf) took things to another level by studying students enrolled in 21-day wilderness courses in the Superior National Park in Minnesota: over 6000 square miles of woods and water. Compared with control students who stayed at home, the 68 students who enjoyed the wilderness experienced increases in feelings of connection with nature and in self-efficacy (belief in one's own abilities) – moreover, later interviews suggested significant spill-over of this beneficial effect into everyday life. Unfortunately, because the wilderness programmes were multifaceted, involving skills training (e.g. canoeing, leadership) as well as time in nature, it's not possible to isolate the active ingredients of the programmes.

7. Get paid to laugh
OK, if you're not a Michael McIntyre fan, this recent study might not be heavenly to you. But for the rest of us who do enjoy Britain's most popular comedian, this would have been a great study to sign up to – you're basically getting paid to have a chuckle. Student participants in the "comedy condition" each received £10 cash to watch 10 minutes of McIntyre's comedy TV show and then they were asked to write down personal details of themselves that they'd be willing to share with other participants. Compared with participants who watched a nature video or golf instruction clip, those who watched the funny video were prepared to share more intimate details about themselves. "Given laughter’s ability to trigger endorphin activation and the role of endorphins in the formation of social bonds, laughter may increase willingness to disclose intimate information because the opioid effect of endorphins makes individuals more relaxed about what they communicate," the researchers said.

8. Pop this Bubble Wrap!
Squeezing the air-filled pockets of packaging until they pop is peculiarly satisfying. There's even a Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (January 25) listed in the Chase Calendar of Events! Back in 1992 psychologist Kathleen Dillon, then at Western New England College, gave 30 undergrads the perfect excuse to pop two sheets of "sealed plastic air-capsules" (AKA Bubble Wrap) – it was for science. Comparing their mood pre and post the popping, Dillon found that the experience left the participants feeling more energised, less tired and more calm (there were no effects on tension). Another detail: the students enjoyed popping larger sized Bubble Wrap (with 3-cm bubbles) compared with the smaller size (.9-cm bubbles). Dillon's theory is that popping Bubble Wrap releases stress-related "muscle inhibition" much like tapping a finger or foot wiggling.

9. Have six free massages
For this study published in the 90s, 18 lucky employees at a large US manufacturing firm received a weekly 15-minute "chair massage" (targeting their head, neck, shoulder, back, arms and hands) from a trained masseuse for six weeks. Control group participants spent the same time each week simply taking a 15-minute break from work. Tension was high at the firm because it was undergoing downsizing. The massage participants showed significant reductions in their anxiety levels compared with the control group. This was true during the 6-week intervention period and also three weeks after it had ended. "Stress and anxiety in the workplace have been a common and pervasive problem," the researchers said. "From a cost perspective, finding effects from a weekly 15-minute massage is quite encouraging."

10. Be prayed for by 12 religious congregations
We couldn't cover heavenly psychology studies without a single mention of the big guy upstairs. This study involved 371 heart surgery patients. OK, you obviously wouldn't want to be in their situation, but if you were, it might be nice to know lots of people were praying for you to get better, and in this study the patients' well-being was prayed for by no fewer than 12 religious congregations, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups. The idea was to see if these prayed-for patients' health improved more quickly in the six months after their operation than 377 similar patients who weren't prayed for. In fact the prayed-for group fared no better. At the time, lead researcher Mitchell Krucoff at Duke University was keeping the faith. He told Reuters that “This is not ‘God failed the test’ or ‘God passed the test’…it’s way too early”. There were methodological problems with the study, including the fact that many patients in the control group said friends and family would likely be praying for them.

Which heavenly studies did we miss? Please add any suggestions to the comments and maybe we'll publish a sequel. And remember to check out our companion post on 10 hellish studies

(If you enjoy hearing about hellish and heavenly psychology research, why not come to our birthday party in London, this December: Psychology, Heaven and Hell?)


Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

To keep your memories alive, it's better to write a diary in the evening than in the morning

By guest blogger Jordan Gaines Lewis

For over 15 years now, I’ve faithfully kept a diary. Every night, from age 11 until my senior year of university, I snuggled into my bedsheets and rehashed the day’s events before nodding off to sleep. Even though I’m more likely to scribble down my thoughts just once or twice a week nowadays, I’ve found that writing in a diary before bed is a fun way to capture my memories – no matter how frivolous – to enjoy again years down the road.

Now a new study, published recently in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that my nightly routine might help with something else: being able to recall a specific day’s events from memory weeks later. Importantly, however, I may be at a greater advantage than some diarists because I typically write in my diary just before hitting the pillow, instead of waiting until the next morning.

Cognitive psychologist Ágnes Szőllősi and her colleagues were interested in exploring how autobiographical memories, or personal memories of one’s life experiences, can be influenced by the time at which they’re recorded and consolidated. Because it’s known that sleep has a beneficial effect on learning and long-term memory formation, the authors hypothesised that people who recorded the day’s events in the evening just before bed would recall more events 30 days later than those who chronicled their day the next morning.

To test this, Szőllősi and her colleagues recruited 109 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 to keep a written diary online. The age range was purposely narrow to control for circadian effects, as young people tend to perform better at tasks in the evening than older adults.

The participants were divided into three groups: those who recorded their notes in the evening, just before bed, about an event that they had experienced earlier that same day (Group 1); those who recorded in the morning, right after waking, an event from the previous day (Group 2); and those who recorded in the evening, just before bed, an event from the previous day (Group 3). In addition to keeping their diary for five consecutive days, participants also rated the personal importance of the events they’d written about (on a scale of 1 to 5), the duration of the events, and the amount of sleep they’d had the night before.

Thirty days later, all participants were instructed to describe as many of the previously-recorded events as they could, and how certain they were about their recollections (on a scale of 1 to 5). “Recall rate” was then calculated as the percentage of recalled events out of those recorded initially in the online diary.

Importantly, there were no differences between the groups in the way that they kept their diaries: the number of recorded events, the length of descriptions (word count), ratings of personal importance, and duration of the events, were the same for all three groups. Nor were there any group differences in the amount of time the participants reported sleeping.

And yet, recall rate was nearly 10 per cent lower in Group 2 – these were the participants who chronicled the previous day’s events in the morning after awakening – compared to the two evening groups. Despite differences in how the groups performed, however, the three groups scored similarly in ratings of certainty – in other words, the evening diarists didn’t seem to know their memories were more accurate. Also, the evening benefit applied to all event memories equally, regardless of their personal significance.

The researchers concluded that the time of memory reactivation (in this case, the time at which an event is described in a diary) affects how the memories are reconsolidated. But why? Szőllősi and her colleagues suggest that when a memory is in an “unstable” form (which is what happens after reactivation – in this case, after writing about an event in a diary), it’s vulnerable to interference. When participants wrote in their diary in the morning, interfering events that took place later in the day could disrupt the consolidation process. However, when done right before bed – whether on the day of the event or even 24 hours later – sleep may work to re-stabilise and consolidate these memories.

To examine this hypothesis further – and given the effect of age on circadian preference – it would be interesting to re-run this experiment in older adults, as they tend to perform better on memory and cognitive tasks in the morning compared to young adults.

The new results might be useful if you’re considering using a daily diary as a way to keep happy memories alive – such as on holiday, say, or charting a special period in your child’s development. By recording your reflections in the evening rather than the morning, you’ll be carving the memories deeper in your own mind.

However, my own motives are different – I’ll keep up my diary habit mostly because I’m eager to see how 50-year-old Jordan will eventually interpret the mind of 11-, 18-, and 25-year-old Jordans.


Szőllősi, A., Keresztes, A., Conway, M., & Racsmány, M. (2015). A diary after dinner: How the time of event recording influences later accessibility of diary events The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-6 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1058403

Post written by Jordan Gaines Lewis, a PhD student at Penn State College of Medicine studying sleep and obesity in adolescents. She blogs about neuroscience at Gaines, on Brains. Follow on Twitter @GainesOnBrains

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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Why words get stuck on the tip of your tongue, and how to stop it recurring

Someone in a tip-of-the-tongue state will invariably writhe about as if in some physical discomfort. "I know it, I know it, hang on ..." they will say. Finger snapping and glances to the ceiling might follow, before a final grunt of frustrated submission – "No, it's gone".

Psychologists studying this phenomenon say it occurs when there is a disconnect between a word's concept and it's lexical representation. A successful utterance requires these two steps are bridged, but in the tip-of-the-tongue state, only the concept is activated (and possibly a letter or two) while the complete translation into letters and sounds fails. What's more, new research shows the very act of being in this state makes it more likely that it will recur.

Maria D'Angelo and Karin Humphreys provoked their participants into experiencing tip-of-the-tongue states by presenting them with the definitions for rare words (e.g. "What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves?"). Sometimes the students knew the word straight-off, other times they said they simply didn't know, but occasionally – and these were the important trials – they said they definitely knew the word, but couldn't quite spit it out.

The researchers quickly (after 10 or 30 seconds) put the students out of this last, uncomfortable tip-of-the-tongue state by telling them the answer. However, a key finding was that being in a tip-of-the-tongue state for a particular word on one occasion increased the likelihood of being in that state again for the same word on later re-testing, whether that second test came 5 mins, 48 hours or one week later (thus replicating and extending previous research by the same lab). This recurrence is despite the fact of having been told the word after the initial tip-of-the-tongue state.

This suggests the state involves an unhelpful learning process. Imagine a hiker who is lost en route to his destination – this is your brain trying to find the path between word concept and letters and sounds. The findings suggest that walking the wrong route once actually makes it more likely you'll get lost again as you unintentionally come to learn the wrong way to your destination.

Consistent with this account, spending more time deliberately but unsuccessfully attempting to resolve a tip-of-the-tongue state made it even more likely that it will recur (but note, contrary to the researchers' prior work, this time this effect was only found when participants put a lot of unsuccessful effort into resolving the tip-of-the-tongue state).

In real life, this means that if you're hopping about in a frustrated tip-of-the-tongue state and I tell you the word you're hunting for, I won't have done you any favours – next time you need that word, you're likely to get stuck again. The researchers believe this is because although I've told you the word, you haven't arrived at it through your own word-searching processes. To follow the hiking analogy, it's a bit like I've picked you up by car and fast-tracked you to your destination – by doing so, I will have done nothing to teach you the correct route.

So, is there anything you can do to help a person in a tip-of-the-tongue state? A clue comes from the fact that when the students in these experiments spontaneously resolved a tip-of-the-tongue state (i.e. they finally managed to find the word before the researchers told it to them), they were subsequently far less likely to get stuck again. Such spontaneous resolutions suggest that the word-search process has managed to resolve itself and when this happens, the correct concept-word connection is usually remembered. This is like the lost hiker managing to find his own way to the destination and remembering the route for future use.

The way to help someone in a tip-of-the-tongue state, then, is to nudge them towards a spontaneous resolution. When the researchers helped their student participants resolve a tip-of-tongue state by giving them the first few letters of the solution, this prevented the state from recurring on later testing. Point the hiker in the right direction and if he finds the right way himself, he will remember the correct route in future. This nicely complements an established phenomenon from research on word learning known as the generation effect: that is, generating words from clues (such as a word stem) leads to better memory for those words than being told them whole.

"These findings may have potential applications for both educational, and therapeutic settings, in which a student or a patient with neurological damage is trying to retrieve a difficult item," the researchers concluded.


D’Angelo, M., & Humphreys, K. (2015). Tip-of-the-tongue states reoccur because of implicit learning, but resolving them helps Cognition, 142, 166-190 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.019

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Monday, 27 July 2015

How rudeness spreads like a contagion

University of Florida researchers have finally put a long-standing hypothesis about rudeness to the test. The history to this is a study published in 1999 [pdf] that showed rudeness can create a vicious circle between individuals – if you’re rude to someone, they’re more likely to be rude back at you. What the authors of that paper also speculated though, and the new research investigates, is that an initial act of rudeness creates a "secondary spiral" where offended parties end up dumping on the innocent – meaning, effectively, that rudeness can spread like a contagion.

For the new research, Trevor Foulk and his team began by studying the interactions of 90 graduate students during negotiation training, which was conducted in pairs. After each negotiation, students rated the rudeness and likability of their negotiation partner and then played a series of nine trials that each involved splitting a cash sum with that same partner, either fairly, selfishly, or spitefully accepting a poor prize in order to deny the other any cash at all. Each participant then repeated the same procedure – negotiation followed by financial game – with ten more partners.

To walk through the main finding, let’s take a rude student called Alan. The data showed that if Bella interacted with rude Alan, she would find him less likeable and be likelier to spite him financially. But furthermore, in Bella’s next negotiation session with Carl, he would more likely find her rude, unlikeable and in need of spiting. In other words, one person’s rudeness could spread through many negotiation pairs.

A second study suggested why rudeness has this effect. Here, during a “word-or-nonword” recognition task, the student participants were especially fast at recognising rude-related words, such as boorish or pushy, but only when the start of the experiment had been marred by the experimenter rudely humiliating a latecomer (actually another experimenter undercover). This shows how experiencing rudeness brings it to the front of our minds, which may colour how we interpret other people’s behaviours, thus influencing our own behaviour.

A final study demonstrates this principle, and highlights how these biased interpretations thrive in ambiguous situations. Again, one set of participants witnessed a rude event: a video of an altercation between co-workers in the fictional bookshop within which the tasks were set. Participants then completed a version of the cash allocation task used in the first study: this time sharing proceeds with a customer who’d emailed the bookshop with a query about an undelivered book.

When the query was written in a neutral tone, participants were fair with the cash, but other participants who received an overtly hostile query chose to spite the customer in roughly one in four trials. Whether they’d experienced prior rudeness didn’t sway these choices. A third query version was rude but ambiguously hostile: “I REALLY need those books. I hope this isn’t asking too much!??????” When dealing with this ambiguous customer, participants who hadn’t experienced rudeness gave them the benefit of the doubt, treating them comparably to the neutral customer. But participants who had viewed the earlier rude encounter opted for spite, as if they were dealing with a hostile customer.

Serious workplace problems such as workplace bullying have been shown to act like contagion, systemically infecting organisations if unchecked. This study shows us that smaller behaviours can also make the rounds, and much like the common cold, require only one moment of exposure to kick things off. The difference is that we can’t fully control whether we pass on a cold, but we always have a choice with rudeness: when Bella opts for civility, the secondary spiral spins its last.


Foulk, T., Woolum, A., & Erez, A. (2015). Catching Rudeness Is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000037

--further reading--
The harm caused by witnessing rudeness
“Just try to ignore it”: How neurotic people respond to extreme rudeness at work
Guilt is catching
Self-esteem is catching

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Saturday, 25 July 2015

Link feast

Our pick of this week's 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

Making Holidays Work
With the holiday season in full swing, work and organisational psychologist Jessica de Bloom (writing for The Psychologist) takes a tour of the world of vacation research.

Experimental Psychology: The Anatomy of Obedience
Brendan Maher at Nature reviews two films probing notorious US psychological experiments.

Social Priming: Money for Nothing?
Neuroskeptic looks at a new study that failed to replicate the finding that thinking of money makes people more politically conservative.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris Selects 12 Books Every Intelligent Person Should Read
From Bertrand Russell to the Buddha, or why you should spend a weekend reading the Qur’an (from the Brain Pickings blog).

Teenagers Debunked
A transcript of "The Psychologist presents…" at Latitude Festival, supported by the Wellcome Trust. The discussion was chaired by editor of The Psychologist Jon Sutton, and featured cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and novelist Fiona Neill.

Are You a Head Person or a Heart Person?
At New York magazine, I looked at research that says your answer to this question is telling.

Placebo Effects in Medicine
A useful overview from the New England Journal of Medicine.

Daniel Kahneman: ‘What would I eliminate if I had a magic wand? Overconfidence’
According to the Nobel laureate in this interview with the Guardian, overconfidence "is built so deeply into the structure of the mind that you couldn’t change it without changing many other things."

Me and My New Brain (TV show)
This new documentary from BBC Three tells the stories of people who have survived serious brain injury.

The Strange Phenomenon of Musical Skin Orgasms
Some people feel music so strongly the sensations can be compared to sex. How does a good song move the body and mind in this way, asks David Robson at BBC Future.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 24 July 2015

Psychologists reveal our "blatant dehumanisation" of minority groups

Participants used a sliding scale under an image like this
 to indicate "how evolved" they believed an average
member of various racial and ethnic groups to be
Ghanaian footballer Emmanuel Frimpong’s match in Russia last Friday ended nastily: "When the match was stopped,” he said, “the fans started shouting 'monkey' at me.” Redefining human beings as animals in this way, or as vermin, or insects, is no small thing; time and again it’s augured the worst that our species has to offer.

In the wake of the Holocaust, early researchers sought to understand blatant dehumanisation, such as people’s greater willingness to apply an electric shock to subjects who were depicted as inhuman. More recently, researchers have turned to studying “infrahumanisation": a more subtle variant where certain groups are assumed to be less prone to embarrassment, compassion or other more sophisticated human emotions. But blatant dehumanisation is still with us, and a new paper suggests that by measuring it we can better predict people’s intentions (especially when they’re feeling threatened) towards degraded minority groups.

Across several online surveys, hundreds of US and British participants were asked a host of attitudinal questions and asked to rate different ethnic groups on how evolved they were, using a graphic depicting the famous "Ascent of Man" (see picture). By setting a slider somewhere between the two ends, participants were free to consign ethnic groups to being less than human.

Initial results found US citizens dehumanise Arabs and Muslims the most, so the paper focuses on these groups, although a similar, weaker pattern of results was also for the other groups, such as South Korean or Mexican people.

Where the US participants placed the Arabs on the Ascent scale turned out to be revealing of their wider attitudes: it correlated with their desire for reducing Arab immigration, lack of sympathy towards an unjustly treated delinquent teen of Arab ethnicity, and endorsement of acts of violence, such as advocating torture or bombing an entire Arab country (this was true even after controlling for measures of infrahumanisation).

The scale seems particularly useful when the in-group feels under direct threat of violence. In the two weeks following the Boston Marathon bombing, US participants showed significantly higher Arabic dehumanisation on the Ascent scale than in data collected two months before. This was again a strong predictor of many of the measures described above and of eliminativist attitudes such as agreeing with a tweet that all Muslims should be wiped off the face of the earth. A similar result was obtained with a British sample following the murder by Islamic converts of the off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby: dehumanisation of Muslims was high, and this time correlated with support for drone strikes, punitive treatment of the perpetrators, and aggressive counterterrorism policy against Arabs and Muslims.

In this paper’s initial surveys, the measures of more subtle dehumanisation (infrahumanisation) had offered some explanatory value, sometimes overlapping with the Ascent scale results, sometimes complementing them. This was much less so in these last two post-crisis situations. Pre versus post Boston Marathon, the participants’ subtle dehumanisation scores didn’t budge, failing to reflect the overt changes in attitudes evinced by the participants (on immigration etc), or the hostile advocacy of the US-Boston participants and the UK-Rigby participants.

This is not to say that measures of infrahumanisation are redundant – they capture a different aspect of “Othering", one that could occur in low-stakes, everyday interactions. But this more subtle dehumanisation appears to shift more slowly – perhaps through the drip-drip of culture – whereas blatant dehumanisation, as measured by the Ascent scale, seems to better capture our states of mind in volatile contexts. In an age where nationalism and ethnic identity are returning to the political centre stage – from the rise of the European far-right to the emergence of the so-called Islamic State which treats those unlike themselves as non-human – it’s important that we are able to measure and understand this treatment of “the other.”


Kteily, N., Bruneau, E., Waytz, A., & Cotterill, S. (2015). The Ascent of Man: Theoretical and Empirical Evidence for Blatant Dehumanization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000048

--further reading--
Seeing others as less than human
Robot prejudice
The psychology of violent extremism digested
Committed nurses cope with stress by dehumanising themselves and their patients

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Thursday, 23 July 2015

Why fathers might want to thank their handsome sons

Women rated men's faces as more attractive when they were shown alongside a good-looking son
If you're the father to a good-looking boy, you might want to give him your thanks – his handsome looks apparently mean women will tend to find you more attractive. That's according to a new study by Pavol Prokop at Trnava University in Slovakia, who says the result is consistent with the established idea from evolutionary psychology that women instinctively pick up on cues to the quality of a man's genes.

Just as past research has shown that women, on average, find taller men with symmetrical faces more attractive because such features are indicators of good genes, the new finding suggests a man's offspring also influence women's judgments about his attractiveness. If a man can sire a handsome boy, the instinctual logic goes, then he must be in possession of valuable genes.

In the first experiment, Prokop presented dozens of young women with several triads of photographs showing an attractive or unattractive young man alongside pictures of two boys, one attractive, the other less attractive. For each triad, the women's task was to say which boy the man was father to. The finding here was that the women were more likely to assume that attractive men were fathers to attractive boys (and unattractive men the fathers of less attractive boys). This simple test lay the groundwork for the remainder of the study, confirming that women generally assume that attractive fathers have attractive sons.

Next, nearly three hundred more young women rated the attractiveness of a series of attractive and unattractive men's faces, each of which was presented alongside a boy (also attractive or unattractive), who was supposedly the man's son. In truth, but unbeknown to the participants, none of the pictured men and boys were actually related. A further detail was that each man was described either as the biological father or step-father to the boy shown alongside him.

When a man's face was presented alongside what participants believed to be his handsome son, he (the putative father) tended to receive higher attractiveness ratings from the participants, than if he was depicted with an unattractive son. There was some evidence that this effect was greater for unattractive men, and the effect was more apparent when men were described as biological fathers than as stepfathers. A weakness in the methodology (there were no sons of neutral attractiveness), means we can't know how much attractive sons were making their fathers appear more handsome to the women, compared with how much unattractive sons were having the opposite effect.

If handsome men are more likely to sire handsome children, and those handsome children exaggerate their fathers' attractiveness still further, a self-perpetuating cycle could be set in motion that might help explain a previous finding: attractive men tend to have more children (within the same marriage) than less attractive men. Of course there's also the possibility that the attractiveness boost gained by having a handsome son could leave a man more open to advances from his partner's female rivals (known as mate-poaching in evolutionary psychology), a possibility that awaits further research.

The main finding of this research – that fathers are rated more attractive when their sons are good-looking – is open to some counter-interpretations. For example, perhaps there was a simple priming effect at play and seeing any attractive image alongside a man's face would lead that man's face to receive higher attractiveness ratings.

Prokop tested that possibility in a further experiment in which men's faces were presented alongside attractive or unattractive non-human pictures, such as nature scenes and buildings (e.g. a beautiful beach versus a dirty beach). This time, women's judgments about the attractiveness of handsome men were unaffected by whether a beautiful or ugly scene or object appeared alongside them, suggesting the effect of a handsome son on a father's attractiveness is unique.

However, unattractive men did benefit from higher attractiveness ratings when their faces were shown alongside a beautiful scene or object. This is good news for men who don't have film-star looks – after all, while the influence of genetic inheritance means they are less likely to have the chance to bask in the reflected beauty of a handsome son, this result says they can easily turn to other means of boosting their attractiveness instead. For example, Prokop said they could try "wearing fashionable clothes."


Prokop, P. (2015). The Putative Son’s Attractiveness Alters the Perceived Attractiveness of the Putative Father Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44 (6), 1713-1721 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-015-0496-2

--further reading--
You hunky smile magnet
The downside of being good-looking AND wealthy
Shiny, swanky car boosts men's appeal to women, but not women's appeal to men
Men feel more physically attractive after becoming a father
Freud was right: we are attracted to our relatives

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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