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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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What kind of mass murderer is likely to die in the act, and why should we care?

There's a striking fact about mass murderers – an extremely high percentage (around 30 per cent) of them die in the act, either by suicide or because of deadly police force. Of course, only a saint would likely be moved to feel sympathy by this statistic, but a new paper digs into the reasons behind it, in the hope that doing so could help prevent future killings.

The formal definition for a mass murderer, as opposed to a serial killer, is someone who kills four or more people in the same act, "with no distinctive time period between the murders". This includes religiously inspired suicidal bombers, family killers (where one family member murders his or her partner and their children), and rampaging school shooters.

Researcher Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama (author of The Myth of Martyrdom) hired a crack team of investigative journalists to identify all the mass murders committed in the US between 2006 and 2014. The team mined media reports, FBI records and local police reports to find details of 242 cases of mass murder. Averaging 4.9 victims, and with over 90 per cent of the perpetrators being male, the crimes were coded according to several basic features such as killing type and age of offender, allowing Lankford to establish whether there was anything distinctive about the 31 per cent of mass murderers who died in the act (80 per cent died by suicide) compared with those who survived.

Gender wasn't a relevant factor, but older mass murderers were more likely to die, as were killers who operated alone (48 per cent of those who lived had a co-offender compared with just 5 per cent of those who died). Mass murderers who died also tended to kill more victims (an average of 5.5. versus 4.6 victims among the surviving killers). Regarding types of mass murder, family killers were the mostly likely to end up dead (61.7 per cent), followed by public killers (i.e. rampage shooters and such like; 28.7 per cent), perpetrators of miscellaneous mass murders (e.g. gangland killings or neighbour disputes; 5.3 per cent) and robbery-related mass killings (4.3 per cent).

Why should we care about these statistics? Lankford's thesis is that they support the notion that "suicidal motives play a major role in the behaviour of many mass murderers". He draws on the work of the nineteenth century French psychologist Émile Durkheim to suggest that many of the mass murderers effectively took their own and other people's lives either as an act of egoistic suicide ,"whereby people who lack social connections and the moderating influences of others are more likely to spiral into suicidal despair"; or anomic suicide, in which "[the killer's] anger and actions may lack clear purpose or direction"; or altruistic suicide, "which is carried out by people who feel they are serving some greater good".

Lankford points to the parallel between suicide statistics for the US population as a whole (where suicide rates correlate with greater age) and the fact that older offenders were more likely to die – "it is interesting that despite the aberrational natures of their crimes, mass murderers seem to fit with these basic demographic trends," he says. He also notes the apparently powerful protective influence of a co-offender. "Even among this extremely violent minority of homicide offenders," he writes, "the presence and social influence of fellow offenders may be critical to preventing a self-orchestrated death."

Lankford acknowledges that the exceptionally high rate of suicidal deaths among family killers may seem to contradict Durkheim's writings on suicide (Durkheim said that the married person's family bonds would keep them stable). But Lankford argues that "in the case of many family killers, that connection has clearly been broken" – frequently because the murderer suspects infidelity or feels abandoned in some way by the family.

One of Lankford's most important messages is that a "side-benefit" of improved suicide prevention strategies is likely to be a reduction in the occurrences of mass murder. And he warns that just as high-profile (non-homicidal) suicide cases often prompt a temporary increase in suicide rates, "it appears that some recent mass murderers have been influenced and inspired by their knowledge of other highly publicised killers." One preventive strategy in this context, he says, is for the media to avoid glamorising mass murderers and to deter potential copycats by covering "... the more humiliating aspects of the killers' own deaths, such as the fact that their bowels often release and leave their body soaked in urine or feces".


Lankford, A. (2015). Mass murderers in the United States: predictors of offender deaths The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1054858

--further reading--
The Psychology of Violent Extremism - Digested
How killing begets more killing (of bugs)
The psychology of female serial killers

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

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Your personality can invite loneliness, and loneliness can shape your personality

It's often assumed that personality is largely fixed, like your height or shoe size. But a better analogy might be between personality and body weight. After all, like an expanding waist span, there's evidence that personality changes as we get older. And just as we can strive to lose weight, there's evidence we can intentionally change our personalities.

Now Marcus Mund and Franz Neyer at the Institute of Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena in Germany have explored two factors – loneliness and feelings of health – that influence the way people's personality shifts in early to mid-life, and in turn how their personality affects those very same factors. In short, it appears our personality affects the likelihood that we'll become more lonely (and feel less well) as we get older, but also that being lonely (and feeling less healthy) shapes our personality, potentially setting up a vicious circle of isolation.

The researchers measured the personality traits, loneliness and subjective health of 661 healthy young adults (average age 24) in 1995 and then tracked down 271 of them in 2010 and asked them the same questions (by which time the average age of the sample was 40). To measure subjective health, participants simply responded to the question "How is your health in general?" on a 5-point scale from "very good" to "bad".

Over the fifteen-year span of the study, the participants on average grew more lonely and felt less healthy. Meanwhile, their scores on the personality traits of neuroticism and extraversion decreased over time, while their scores on agreeableness and conscientiousness increased (the other main factor of personality "openness to experience" was not measured in this study).

But where people ended up in mid-life also depended to some extent on the kind of person they were in their youth. That is to say, the personality measures taken in the participants' youth correlated with their health and loneliness scores in mid-life; also the loneliness and health measures in youth correlated with personality in mid-life. Specifically, people who scored higher in neuroticism in their twenties tended to be lonelier in mid-life; and people who felt less well and lonelier in their twenties tended in mid-life to score higher on neuroticism, but lower on extraversion and conscientiousness.

More intriguing still is the two-way dynamics between evolving personality factors on the one hand and changes to loneliness and subjective health on the other. For example, greater loneliness in youth went hand in hand with slower decreases in neuroticism with age, and slower increases in conscientiousness. In other words, feeling lonely when young appears to shape the course of personality development in an unfavourable way. And the reverse is true: for example, those participants who were less neurotic in their twenties and who grew more rapidly in extraversion with age tended to enjoy slower declines in health and slower increases in loneliness with age.

How might loneliness, or feeling less well, shape the way a person's personality develops? Mund and Neyer speculate that perhaps it is through physical and social inactivity. Who we are is based partly on who we mix with and the part we play in our social relationships. People who lack this connection (and those with an initial anxious and introvert personality are more vulnerable to this state of affairs) are likely to miss out on these experiences, further shaping their personality in directions that lead to more isolation.

This study has some serious limitations: a lot of the initial participants dropped out; it's a shame there were only two time points; and we know nothing of the participants' experiences in the fifteen year span of the study – such experiences could simultaneously shape personality, loneliness and health, explaining their correlation over time. Nonetheless, this is largely unexplored terrain and the study offers some tantalising glimpses of the dynamic two-way interactions between personality and loneliness and health.


Mund, M., & Neyer, F. (2015). The Winding Paths of the Lonesome Cowboy: Evidence for Mutual Influences between Personality, Subjective Health, and Loneliness Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12188

--further reading--
Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain's structure and function

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

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Monday, 20 July 2015

Older people are more willing to trust someone who has cheated others

There’s a stereotype that older people are more friendly and trusting, possibly leaving them vulnerable to con-artists. A new study using an economic trading game provides clear evidence that older people really are more trusting, at least in the sense that they are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people with a dodgy track record.

Phoebe Bailey’s research paradigm invited 72 Australian participants to complete a series of 30 trading game trials alone via a computer, in the knowledge that one random trial would pay off with real cash. In each trial, participants and their trading partner – an absent "trustee" – each began with an initial stake of Australian $5. First, the participant chose whether to entrust $0-5 to the trustee, and second, the trustee could return any amount back to the participant. Anything entrusted or returned was doubled in value by the computer, meaning that both parties could in theory come out on top by trading, but participants could also be easily betrayed by a trustee who returned them nothing.

Each trial involved a different trustee, who was distinguished using onscreen information, in the form of a grid of information that summarised whether the trustee had a generous (for half of the trustees) or mean track record in their past trials of the game with other participants. The researchers found that older adults (mostly aged between 70 and 80) compared to the youngsters (in their early twenties) made bigger hand-overs to trustees who had a grid depicting a mean track-record: that is, they were more likely to entrust money knowing that history suggested they might not see it again.

This tendency to trust was predicted by the researchers, as there are good theoretical reasons for it to emerge. There is some evidence of differential processing of low-trust cues by older adults in emotional brain areas. On a psychological level, age-related positivity may be due to people more actively pursuing desired experiences as the sands of time run out; while this can certainly include ambitious Bucket Lists, the simple experience of emotional connection to other human beings is desirable and may become more sought after when material goods become less salient (“you can’t take it with you”). Under this view, older people aren’t being irrational when they take greater trust-related risks, they are simply making a different kind of gamble because the trusting payoff means more to them. In this study, older people may feel no need to “sweat the small stuff”, and prefer to make 30 people feel there was someone nice at the other end of one trial, payoffs be damned.

It’s important to note that the researchers had expected another age-related effect – for older people to be swayed also by trustworthy facial features in mugshots presented alongside some of the grids. However, this effect didn’t emerge, possibly because it was swamped by the objectively more reliable grid information.

It strikes me as fairly healthy to forego small financial gains to feel altruistic and give someone a second chance. However, if the tendency to take trust-related risks generalises beyond this context, it could be a factor that makes older adults attractive targets for charlatans and fraudsters, especially when they offer the chance of meaningful connections.


Bailey, P., Szczap, P., McLennan, S., Slessor, G., Ruffman, T., & Rendell, P. (2015). Age-related similarities and differences in first impressions of trustworthiness Cognition and Emotion, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1039493

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