Saturday, 24 January 2015

Link Feast

Our pick of the best psychology and neuroscience links from the past week or so:

Why are men more likely than women to take their own lives?
In the Guardian, Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman argue that suicide prevention programmes need to take sex differences into account.

Introducing The Psychologist Magazine's First Ever Poetry Competition
"There is no guidance other than to consider our publication and audience; come on what you know, pure discovery," says Editor Jon Sutton.

Brain-branded Energy Drinks Might Make You Less Smart
Over at Brain Watch, I took at look at the claims made by a supposedly cognition-enhancing energy drink.

How to Curb Hunger Pangs with Your Mind
Pay attention to your eating, says David Robson at BBC Future, and you may find it easier not to over-indulge.

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve the Mystery of Consciousness?
Oliver Burkeman investigates for the Guardian.

In Our Time: Phenomenology
On BBC Radio 4, Melvyn Brag and his guests discuss phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that has given its proponents the chance to "talk about everything from the foundations of geometry to the difference between fear and anxiety." (Listen again on iPlayer)

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others
The smartest teams are distinguished by three key characteristics, says this column written by psychologists for the NYT.

Psychology of Emotions and Emotional Disorders
90 free journal articles from Psychology Press (access is open until Jan 31).

Pretty in Pink
"My two-year-old daughter already knows that pink is for girls. And she loves it," writes Elisabeth Camp for Aeon. "Why does that make me see red?"

How To Get Stuff Done When You Really, Really Don’t Want To
Advice from for when you've got the time, but not the motivation.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Why the risk of losing is more fun than an easy win

I've started playing in a higher division in my local table-tennis league. I'm winning games less, but enjoying the experience more. I'm far from alone in preferring the danger of possible defeat to the comfort of easy wins. Psychologically this is curious because, at whatever level, virtually everyone who plays competitive games finds winning more pleasurable than losing, and most people like to feel good at what they do. In a new study, Sami Abuhamdeh and his colleagues have shone a light on this understudied paradox of motivational psychology.

The researchers invited 72 undergrads to play a sword-based video game on the Wii console (Speed Slice). The students thought they were playing against the console with the difficulty level occasionally changing in random fashion, but in fact one of the researchers, hidden nearby, was their real opponent. He had obviously spent many hours practising (what a great excuse to play video games at work) and was able to carefully control the closeness of the contests. Occasionally, the games were interrupted and the students answered questions about the experience.

The students enjoyed the game more when they felt they were playing well, but also when they felt a sense of suspense. These factors were relatively independent - students felt most competent when they were well ahead of their opponent, whereas they experienced the most suspense when scores were close. These influences obviously combine in some way, as the students reported the highest enjoyment levels when they were just slightly ahead of their opponent on points.

A second study with a different group of students was similar but this time there were two different games, Speed Slice and Duel, each played twice. The games were manipulated so that one ended in two easy wins, and the other in two close wins. At the end of the study, the students were told there was time for one more game - 69 per cent of them chose the game that they'd only managed to win by a narrow margin. The minority of other students who chose to play the game they'd previously won easily, had tended to say throughout the study that they had greater concerns about performing well. This makes intuitive sense - the thrill of possible defeat is bound to be less appealing when your need to excel is a priority.

On one level, the findings from this research seem very obvious - easy wins are boring whether you're a spectator or a player. Yet the role of suspense in the pleasure of competition has been little studied, and it's neglected by one of the most influential psychological theories that's used to explain intrinsic motivation - "Cognitive Evaluation Theory" - which states that intrinsic motivation is fuelled by our need for competence and autonomy. In fact, as this research documents, "the motive for competence may be trumped by the enjoyment of suspense in some situations."

Abuhamdeh and his colleagues think that the excitement of uncertainty is just as enthralling and important when we participate in competition, as it is when we watch a TV drama or read a thriller. It could also help explain why the psychological experience of "flow" (famously documented by study co-author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) - when we become fully and pleasurably immersed in an activity - is most often attained during tasks that are at the limits of our ability. As the researchers conclude, it will be interesting to explore these ideas with a wider range of activities and contexts.


Abuhamdeh, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Jalal, B. (2014). Enjoying the possibility of defeat: Outcome uncertainty, suspense, and intrinsic motivation Motivation and Emotion, 39 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9425-2

--further reading--
How losing can increase your chances of winning
No need to look at the score - athletes' body language gives away who's winning and losing

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

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Testing the American Dream - can the right mix of personality and IQ compensate for poverty?

We know that possessing certain personal traits can help people do better in life – by knuckling down, making the right connections or having the best ideas. A new study goes further and asks whether a person’s traits and their background interact, with personal qualities being more important for people of lower socio-economic status. If true, this would provide intellectual support for the “American Dream” – being smart or diligent might make some difference for the rich, but for the poor, it would make all the difference.

Rodica Ioana Damian and her colleagues analysed a gargantuan US survey initiated in 1960 and involving data on 81,000 students - their high school personality and cognitive ability scores, parents' socio-economic status, and various life outcomes eleven years on. Where personality aided life outcomes, was it more useful to children from poorer families?

At first blush, the data suggested it did. For example, highly agreeable (compared to highly disagreeable) students from very wealthy families stick with education for a further four months, on average, compared to an extra twelve months if they are from the poorest families. Similarly, all extraverts go on to more prestigious jobs, but the advantage to the poorest pushes them an average additional nine points up the job prestige scale (to make this concrete, nine points takes you from a mail handling role to a retail sales position).

But all these effects were found without taking into account an elephant in the room: intelligence. When this was controlled for, almost all of these personality compensation effects melt away - the exception is that conscientiousness is still more useful to those from poorer backgrounds when it comes to gaining a higher income. So it seems personality does influence life outcomes, but mostly it doesn't especially benefit the poor once the influence of intelligence is taken into account. It’s also worth noting that the benefit of affluent socio-economic status dwarfs the benefit of being highly conscientious or extraverted, so a poor kid with "the right stuff" is unlikely to outperform rich kids with less impressive personal qualities.

What about that elephant? In this dataset, as with many past studies, intelligence has big benefits for life outcomes. And its impact differed due to socioeconomic class ... but not in favour of the poor. A very poor child who is also very smart is likely to stay nearly 30 months longer in education than his or her low IQ peers. But for a rich child, they'll stay 40 months longer. Wealthier families also see their intelligent kids entering more easily into prestigious jobs than their poor high-IQ peers.

This kind of finding is called, after the gospel author, a Matthew Effect: “the rich get richer”. One way to interpret this is that leveraging a child's brightness in fields of higher education or societal prestige requires other assets out of reach of poor families, such as a college fund or knowing the right connections.

This isn't new data - over 40 years old - so circumstances may have changed that remodel the interaction between personal qualities and background. But its comprehensive approach strongly suggests that in 20th Century America, people on the bottom rungs of society could only compensate for their lot on the basis of intelligence - and even there, their richer counterparts are often going to find that easier. Diligence, effort, and can-do may be prized components of the American ethos, but when they come up against class, they just can't compensate.


Damian, R., Su, R., Shanahan, M., Trautwein, U., & Roberts, B. (2014). Can Personality Traits and Intelligence Compensate for Background Disadvantage? Predicting Status Attainment in Adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000024

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

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

What do confident people say to themselves before giving a speech?

Before you speak to an audience, can you first talk yourself out of feeling nervous? One step towards this strategy is to find out how confident people speak to themselves in their heads (their internal "self-talk"), compared with others who are more anxious.

Xiaowei Shi and his colleagues surveyed nearly 200 students on a public speaking course. The researchers approached the students after they'd given two public presentations on the course and were soon to give their third. The students answered questions about how much they'd engaged in self-talk in the preceding days, and about how much anxiety they feel towards public speaking.

The women tended to be more nervous than the men. Once this gender influence had been accounted for, the students' frequency of various types of self-talk over the last few days explained 20 per cent of the difference in their anxiety levels. Specifically, the more confident students tended to say they'd engaged in less self-critical self-talk (e.g. chastising themselves about their poor preparations) and less self-talk related to social assessment (e.g. replaying ways people had reacted in the past), whereas they had engaged in more self-talk related to self-reinforcement (e.g. talking to themselves about how pleased they were with their own preparations).

In other words, the students who were more self-confident tended to be less self-focused and less self-critical in the way they spoke to themselves, and when they were self-focused, this tended to be with a positive bias.

This study assumes people are able to remember and recognise their own past self-talk, which some readers may question. Of course, it's also just as likely that anxiety triggers particular categories of self-talk, as it is that the wrong kind of self-talk fuels anxiety. Nonetheless, the researchers said their insights could help inform interventions aimed at helping people overcome fear of public speaking.

"As we know that high public-speaking-anxiety individuals engage in higher levels of self-critical and social-assessing self-talk than low anxiety individuals," Shi's team concluded, "instructors can intervene in the early phases of the speech preparation process by helping these students to attend to, recognise, and adjust the frequency and nature of their self-talk."


Shi, X., Brinthaupt, T., & McCree, M. (2015). The relationship of self-talk frequency to communication apprehension and public speaking anxiety Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 125-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.11.023

--further reading--
Self-motivation: How "You can do it!" beats "I can do it!"
What are elite cricket batsmen saying when they talk to themselves?
The science of how we talk to ourselves in our heads

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

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

When our beliefs are threatened by facts, we turn to unfalsifiable justifications

On being told physics could undermine
religious claims, believers said faith
was more about living a moral life
It's great to have facts on your side. The fundamentalist is delighted by the archaeological find that tallies with scripture, just as the atheist seizes on the evidence that contradicts it. But when the evidence goes against us, we're less likely to change a belief than to criticise the validity or provenance of the evidence. Now, research suggests that the mere prospect of a factual threat leads us to downplay how much our belief depends on such evidence at all. We become attracted to other, less falsifiable reasons for believing.

Justin Friesen and his colleagues conducted a series of studies each with a hundred or more participants. The first presented participants with a summary statement from a conference on science and God. When it suggested that science could one day settle the question of God's existence, religious participants wavered in their religious conviction, rating it significantly lower than those told that science was not armed to answer such questions. The very possibility that the religious belief was falsifiable made it vulnerable.

A subsequent study presented the discovery of the Higgs Boson as either a threat to or unlikely to affect matters of religion. Asked what reasons underpinned their belief, religious participants gave more importance to unfalsifiable statements such as "living a moral life would be impossible without God" when told the particle was a threat, and relatively less to evidence-linked statements such as  "historical and archaeological evidence shows how God intervened in the world."

This effect wasn't restricted to religious belief. In another study, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage were shown data on life outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples; by presenting these outcomes as either positive or troubled, participants were exposed to data that either supported or undermined their position. When the facts were on their side, they rated the issues of same-sex marriage and child-rearing as a matter for evidence to decide; when the facts were against them, they saw it as more a matter of opinion.

The authors speculate that this tendency to revert to unfalsifiable justifications may mean that many beliefs, over time, shear off their evidential component and become increasingly unchallengeable. But they also note that unfalsifiability may have important psychological value, for instance in making inviolable beliefs such as "love is real" or "genocide is wrong", whose compromise could otherwise be deeply distressing and disorientating.  Cherish or bemoan it, our belief systems are laced with unfalsifiable aspects that won't be budged by evidence alone.


Friesen, J., Campbell, T., & Kay, A. (2014). The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000018

--further reading--
Five minutes with the discoverer of the "Scientific Impotence Excuse"
The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors
Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren't really there
Can psychology help combat pseudoscience?

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

Monday, 19 January 2015

The psychology of Facebook, digested

With over a billion users, Facebook is changing the social life of our species. Cultural commentators ponder the effects. Is it bringing us together or tearing us apart? Psychologists have responded too - Google Scholar lists more than 27,000 references with Facebook in the title. Common topics for study are links between Facebook use and personality, and whether the network alleviates or fosters loneliness. The torrent of new data is overwhelming and much of it appears contradictory. Here is the psychology of Facebook, digested:

Who uses Facebook?
Extraverts have more friends on FB
but shy people probably use it more

According to a survey of over a thousand people, "females, younger people, and those not currently in a committed relationship were the most active Facebook users". Regarding personality, a study of over 1000 Australians reported that "[FB] users tend to be more extraverted and narcissistic, but less conscientious and socially lonely, than nonusers". A study of the actual FB use of over a hundred students found that personality was a more important factor than gender and FB experience, with high scorers in neuroticism spending more time on FB. Meanwhile, extraverts were found to have more friends on the network than introverts ("the 10 per cent of our respondents scoring the highest in extraversion had, on average, 484 more friends than the 10 per cent scoring the lowest in extraversion").

Other findings add to the picture, for example: greater shyness has also been linked with more FB use. Similarly, a study from 2013 found that anxiousness (as well as alcohol and marijuana use) predicted more emotional attachment to Facebook.

There's also evidence that people use FB to connect with others with specialist interests, such as diabetes patients sharing information and experiences, and that people with autism particularly enjoy interacting via FB and other online networks.

Why do some people use Twitter and others Facebook?

High scorers in "need for cognition" prefer Twitter
Apparently most people use Facebook "to get instant communication and connection with their friends" (who knew?), but why use FB rather than Twitter? A 2014 paper suggested narcissism again is relevant, but that its influence depends on a person's age: student narcissists prefer Twitter, while more mature narcissists prefer FB. Other research has uncovered intriguing links between personality and reasons for using FB. People who said they used FB as an informational tool (rather than socialising) tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and "need for cognition". The researchers speculated that using FB to seek and share information could be some people's way to avoid more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. The same study also found that higher scorers in sociability, neuroticism and extraversion preferred FB, while people who scored higher in "need for cognition" preferred Twitter.

What do we give away about ourselves on Facebook?

FB seems like the perfect way to present an idealised version of yourself to the world. However an analysis of the profiles of over 200 people in Germany and the US found that they reflected their actual personalities, not their ideal selves. Consistent with this, another study found that people who are rated as more likeable in the flesh also tend to be rated as more likeable based on their Facebook page. The things you choose to "like" on FB are also revealing. Remarkably, a study out last week found that your "likes" can be analysed by a computer programme to produce a more accurate profile of your personality than the profiles produced by your friends and relatives.

If our FB profiles expose our true selves, this raises obvious privacy issues. A study in 2013 warned that employers often trawl candidates' FB pages, and that they view photos of drinking and partying as "red flags", presumably seeing them as a sign of low conscientiousness (in fact the study found photos like these were linked with high extraversion, not with low conscientiousness).

Other researchers have looked specifically at how personality is related to the kind of content people post on FB. A 2014 study reported that "higher degrees of narcissism led to deeper self-disclosures and more self-promotional content within these messages. [And] Users with higher need to belong disclosed more intimate information". Another study last year also reported that lonelier people disclose more private information, but fewer opinions.

You might also want to consider the friends you keep on FB - research suggests that their attractiveness (good-lookers give your rep a boost), and the statements they make about you on your wall, affect the way your own profile is perceived. Consider too how many friends you have - somewhat paradoxically, research finds that having an overabundance of friends leads to negative perceptions of your profile.

Finally, we heard about employers frowning on partying photos, but what else do you give away in your FB profile picture? It could reveal your cultural background according to a 2012 study that showed people from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context, while US users were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame. Your FB pic might also say something about your current romantic relationship. When people feel more insecure about their partner's feelings, they make their relationship more visible in their pics.

In case you're wondering, yes, people who post more selfies probably are more narcissistic.

Is Facebook making us lonely and sad?

This is the crunch question that has probably attracted the most newspaper column inches (and books). A 2012 study took an experimental approach. One group were asked to post more updates than usual for one week - this led them to feel less lonely and more connected to their friends. Similarly, a survey of over a thousand FB users found links between use of the network and greater feelings of belonging and confidence in keeping up with friends, especially for people with low self-esteem. Another study from 2010 found that shy students who use FB feel closer to their friends (on FB) and have a greater sense of social support. A similar story is told by a 2013 paper that said feelings of FB connectedness were associated with "with lower depression and anxiety and greater satisfaction with life" and that Facebook "may act as a separate social medium ....  with a range of positive psychological outcomes." This recent report also suggested the site can help revive old relationships.

Yet there's also evidence for the negative influence of FB. A 2013 study texted people through the day, to see how they felt before and after using FB. "The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; [and] the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time," the researchers said.

Other findings are more nuanced. This study from 2010 (not specifically focused on FB) found that using the internet to connect with existing friends was associated with less loneliness, but using it to connect with strangers (i.e. people only known online) was associated with more loneliness. This survey of adults with autism found that greater use of online social networking (including FB) was associated with having more close friendships, but only offline relationships were linked with feeling less lonely.

Facebook could also be fuelling envy. In 2012 researchers found that people who'd spent more time on FB felt that other people were happier, and that life was less fair. Similarly, a study of hundreds of undergrads found that more time on FB went hand in hand with more feelings of jealousy. And a paper from last year concluded that "people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others." However, this new report (on general online social networking, not just FB) found that heavy users are not more stressed than average, but are more aware of other people's stress.

Is Facebook harming students' academic work?

This is another live issue among newspaper columnists and other social commentators. An analysis of the grades and FB use of nearly 4000 US students found that the more they used the network to socialise, the poorer their grades tended to be (of course, there could be a separate causal factor(s) underlying this association). But not all FB use is the same - the study found that using the site to collect and share information was actually associated with better grades. This survey of over 200 students also found that heavier users of FB tend to have lower academic grades, but note again that this doesn't prove a causal link. Yet another study, this one from the University of Chicago, which included more convincing longitudinal data, found no evidence for a link between FB use and poorer grades; if anything there were signs of the opposite pattern. Still more positive evidence for FB came from a recent report that suggested FB - along with other social networking tools - could have cognitive benefits for elderly people.

And finally, some miscellaneous findings

That was our digest of the psychology of Facebook - please tell all your friends, on and off Facebook! Oh, and don't forget to visit the Research Digest Facebook page.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Link feast

Our pick of the best psychology and neuroscience links from the past week or so:

To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This
Mandy Catron fell in love after following the format of a psychology study from 20 years ago. "I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life."

Trying to Cure Depression, but Inspiring Torture
The sorry tale of how Martin Seligman's work on depression and "learned helpless" was misapplied by the cowboy psychologists who advised the CIA on interrogation techniques.

Should Schools Teach Personality?
Or does teaching "grit" and other beneficial characteristics take attention away from problem schools?

The Secret History of Thoughts
NPR has launched a wonderful new programme called Invisibilia, with the first episode looking at intrusive thoughts and whether they reveal our innermost wishes.

Napping "Key" to Babies' Memory and Learning
NHS Choices takes its characteristically calm look at new research that's been in the headlines.

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward
Moving first-hand account of living through serious mental illness. "Even during our best moments as husband and wife, father and mother, we can feel lingering traces of our roles as caretaker and patient," writes Mark Lukach at Pacific Standard.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words—or Is It?
Stephan Lewandowsky at the Psychonomic Society reports on new research that suggests, when it comes to free recall of textual information, accompanying diagrams are no more helpful than a simple repetition of the text.

The Journal Psychological Science Turns 25
The Association for Psychological Science looks back on the launch of its flagship journal. If you go to the birthday bash, better not mention this.

Mindfulness: Panacea or Fad?
BBC Radio 4 investigates (listen again on iPlayer).

Can Curry Cure Alzheimer’s? Four Healthy Ageing Diet Myths Busted
Which foods really benefit us as we grow older? The Guardian hears from doctors and nutritionists. _________________________________

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