Thursday, 21 August 2014

Back to the future - Psychologists investigate why some people see the future as being behind them

Speakers of English and many other languages refer to the future as being in front, and the past behind (e.g. "I look forward to seeing you"). This manner of thinking and speaking is so entrenched, we rarely pause to consider why we do it. One influential and intuitive explanation is that humans have an obvious front (the way our heads face), which combined with our tendency to think about time in terms of space, leads us to see ourselves moving forwards into the future, or the future coming towards us. A problem with this account is that there exist cultures and languages - such as the Andean language Aymara - that think and speak of the future as being behind them (and the past in front).

This leads to the proposition that perhaps people’s sense of the location of the past and future is somehow tied to their culture's linguistic convention. Not so. In a new paper, Juanma de la Fuente and colleagues investigate Moroccan Arabic speakers - these people refer in their language to the future being in front of them (and the past behind), yet in their hand gestures they convey the opposite temporal arrangement. Clearly the ways we speak and think about time can dissociate. Still unanswered then is what leads people to differ in where they locate the past and future.

In the first of several experiments, de la Fuente’s team presented Moroccan Arabic speakers (most were students at the Abdelmalek Essaadi University in Tetouan) and Spanish speakers (students at the University of Granada) with a diagram featuring a human face with one box in front of it, and one behind.  The participants were told that an object had been picked up by the person in the diagram yesterday, or was to be picked up by them tomorrow. The participants’ task in each case was to indicate which box the object was located in.

This test confirmed that, despite speaking of the future as being in front of them, the majority of Moroccan Arabic speakers think of it as being behind. Around 85 per cent of them located tomorrow’s object behind the person in the diagram, compared with just over 10 per cent of the Spanish speakers. De la Fuente’s group think the reason has to do with temporal focus. Their theory - “the temporal-focus hypothesis” - is that people and cultures who focus more on the past tend to locate it in front.

This argument was supported by several further investigations. A “temporal focus questionnaire” (example items included “The young people must preserve tradition” and “Technological advances are good for society”) confirmed that Moroccan Arabic speakers display a greater focus on the past, as compared with Spanish speakers. Within a group of young and old Spanish speakers, meanwhile, the older participants had a greater focus on the past and they more often located the past in front (on a diagram). Among another group of Spanish speakers, those people who were more focused on the past also tended to locate the past in front. Finally, when the researchers primed Spanish speakers to think about their past (by having them write about their childhoods), they were subsequently far more likely to locate the past in front of them (and the future behind).

The researchers said they’d demonstrated “a previously unexplored cross-cultural difference in spatial conceptions of time” and that they’d validated “a new principle by which culture-specific habits of temporal thinking can arise: the temporal-focus hypothesis.”

ResearchBlogging.orgde la Fuente J, Santiago J, Román A, Dumitrache C, & Casasanto D (2014). When You Think About It, Your Past Is in Front of You: How Culture Shapes Spatial Conceptions of Time. Psychological science PMID: 25052830

--further reading--
The surprising links between anger and time perception

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

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Can relationships with fictional characters aid our self development?

"... forming a relationship with an interesting but
potentially dangerous character does not present the
same obstacles in the narrative world
as it might in the physical world.”
By guest blogger Robin Abrahams.

If you’ve been on the internet at all this year, you may have noticed an explosion of fiction-based personality quizzes. What house would you belong to in Hogwarts—or in Westeros? Which “Mad Man” are you? What Shakespeare role were you born to play?

Why do we want to know?

Researchers led by Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker may have some answers. Their paper, “Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters” rests on the concept of parasocial relationships—a relatively new construct in the social sciences that is becoming increasingly relevant in our media-saturated age.

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

Can our fictional friends make us better people?

Other than safe distance, what might a relationship with a fictional mobster have to offer? This study examines the extent to which parasocial relationships facilitate “self-expansion,” or the sense of greater possibilities for the self. Real-world relationships lead to self-expansion when people view their relationship partner as “a valuable source of new knowledge and experiences.” Can fictional characters have the same effect of helping us envision a bigger, better version of ourselves?

They can. University students were asked to read an unfamiliar short story about a young person competing in a race, and then to rate the story’s protagonist, along with two real-life contacts (a close friend and a classmate) and two television characters (the participants’ favorite and a non-favorite character) across various dimensions of likability and relevance to the self. Self-expansion was measured by a 14-item scale (e.g. “How much does X help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?” and “How much has knowing X made you a better person?”) and was found to vary upwards in line with the intensity of the relationship, not its real-life or fictive origin.

Close friends inspired the most self-expansion, followed by favourite television characters, then non-favourite characters, and finally casual acquaintances. The more a character was perceived as being like the participant’s ideal (as opposed to actual) self, the stronger the effect. Participants’ “narrative transport,” or the degree to which they felt engaged and absorbed in a fictive world (this was manipulated via instructions given to participants before reading the short story) also enhanced self-expansion.

While no one claims that parasocial relationships can replace mutual ones, the authors see their study as largely good news, as it implies that our capacity to learn and grow from relationships is not constrained by our daily environment. “[I]mmersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development,” the authors maintain, pointing out that parasocial relationships can provide role models “especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, or those with homogenous social groups.”

The authors note two shortcomings of the study—the lack of developmental and personality perspectives. What are the effects of long-term parasocial relationships? Are they as beneficial as brief ones, or are there potential dangers to an extended commitment to someone, real or imagined, who can never reciprocate? Secondly, why are some people more likely than others to identify themselves with fictional characters, and use that identification as a source of personal growth?

Personal experience suggests, unsurprisingly, that both temperament and upbringing play a role. Self-enhancing parasocial relationships require a fair amount of imagination and psychological-mindedness. Real-life peers and authority figures, meanwhile, can encourage such relationships or mock them as "imaginary friendship" or a pop-culture obsession. Of course organised religion has harnessed the power of parasocial relationships for self-betterment for millennia: Asking one's self "What would Jesus [or Mohammed, Buddha, or Martin Luther King Jr.] do?" is, after all, a classic case of transcending the self through a relationship with a person one has never met.


Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., & Arkin, R. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters Self and Identity, 13 (5), 556-578 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.882269

Post written by Robin Abrahams for the BPS Research Digest. Robin Abrahams is a writer with a PhD In psychology. She is the author of the popular Boston advice column "Miss Conduct" and the book "Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners," and she blogs about the intersection of science and the performing arts.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

How to help an anxious interviewee - be mean to them?

They've barely taken their seat, but it's obvious that your interviewee is nervous. You give her a reassuring smile and nod affirmatively at each of her answers, hoping to put her at ease. Unfortunately, it turns out that positive feedback does a socially anxious interviewee no favours. In fact, it would be better to turn that smile upside-down.

We know this from a new study from North Illinois University where a "careers counsellor" (actually a research assistant) conducted practice interviews while moderating his or her tone of voice, posture and facial expression to provide either positive, negative, or no feedback to the interviewee. The sessions were recorded to allow later evaluation of interview performance and behaviours, and each of the 85 student participants initially completed a questionnaire to rate their social anxiety.

Under positive and neutral feedback, the more relaxed participants gave better interviews than their anxious counterparts, making more impact and looking more hireable. But under negative feedback this pattern reversed, and the anxious were the stronger performers. This wasn't simply due to the relaxed participants collapsing under the baleful eye of the negative interviewer; the socially anxious actually benefited from the negative feedback, giving better interviews under that condition than any other.

Drilling into the specific behaviours shown by the socially anxious participants, Christopher Budnick's team observed that positive and neutral feedback was associated with an upswing in anxiety displays - fidgeting, low eye-contact, sparse responses - and fewer assertive tactics such as positioning themselves as being like the interviewer. The anxious individuals actually made a better impression when facing off against an interviewer who seemed to have a low opinion of them.

This paradoxical effect can be explained by our need to have a consistent self-image. Consider a relaxed person given reassuring cues: their self-image is unchallenged, so they can place their attention on external concerns, including making a good impression. By contrast, a socially anxious person typically has a negative self-image, meaning positive feedback is jarring and invites self-consciousness, distracting them from effective interpersonal engagement and social behaviours.

Budnick's team tested this explanation by presenting participants with open-ended questions and counting their use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, myself, and mine) in response, which was taken as a sign of increased self-focus. The anxious interviewees relied on more of these under positive (vs. negative) feedback, with a reversed pattern in relaxed participants. A subsequent analysis confirmed that this higher self-focus was part of the route by which incongruent feedback led to worse performance.

The researchers conclude with a recommendation: "high anxiety interviewees might not benefit fully from traditional interview training"; instead they could try learning techniques that "reduce the perceived disconnect between positive feedback and self-views." If you have a tendency to be anxious, you could prepare by thinking through all the reasons why someone might express an emotion without it necessarily being about you, and even put this into practice by asking a cheery friend to put you through a mock interview.
Budnick CJ, Kowal M, & Santuzzi AM (2014). Social anxiety and the ironic effects of positive interviewer feedback. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 1-17 PMID: 24773204

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

The simple piece of information that could dramatically increase your muscular endurance

How most of us choose to behave is shaped powerfully by the behaviour of others (or, more specifically, our perception of their behaviour). Psychologists call this the influence of "social norms", and its potency has been investigated extensively in the context of environmentally friendly behaviours like recycling, and health behaviours, such as binge drinking and frequency of exercise.

What if this same psychological lever could be exploited, not to encourage people to take up more physical activity, but to boost their athletic performance? A pair of researchers, Carly Priebe and Kevin Spink, have tested this idea for the first time.

Sixty-eight regulars (average age 40, nine men) at a pilates studio were asked to perform two plank exercises, and to hold each for as long as they possibly could. As a cover story, they were told that the purpose of the challenge was to help find out the average performance level for this exercise.

The plank is a physically demanding exercise that involves adopting a face-down prone position, then raising the body on forearms and toes, and holding this position rigid, parallel to the ground. It was emphasised to participants that they should hold the the position for as long as possible on both attempts, and that their times would be averaged for the research.

The participants were given a three-minute rest between each attempt. The key intervention is that between planks, half the participants were given the "social norms" message that 80 per cent of people similar to them (in terms of age, gender and pilates level) had achieved a 20 per cent longer time on their second effort. The other participants were told nothing of this kind, or anything else (this is a potential weakness of the study, which I'll return to).

The researchers had hoped their intervention, if successful, would lead merely to sustained performance on the second attempt. The rather dramatic result is that participants given the social norms message achieved a five per cent increase on their second attempt (first attempt average time was 95.82 seconds; second attempt average was 99.79 seconds). This is dramatic because after performing a first plank to exhaustion, one would typically expect participants' second attempt to be shorter. The control participants, as expected, achieved a significantly shorter time on their second plank attempt (76.38 seconds vs. 90.09 seconds on their first attempt - a drop of 18 per cent).

Priebe and Spink said their findings "hint at the potency of the descriptive norm information and the potential effects of social influence on physical activity tasks." Participants in the social norms condition reported higher "self-efficacy" (belief in their own ability) than control participants, so this hints at a possible mechanism for the effect of the intervention.

A strength of this research is that the researchers gauged participants' beliefs about other people's performance before presenting them with the social norms message. The majority of participants assumed that most others would decline in performance on their second attempt. This was important to check because past research has shown that social norms interventions can backfire if people hold initial beliefs that exceed the reality of the normative message.

As hinted at earlier, a weakness of the study is the lack of a control condition that communicated a different message to the participants. This means we can't tell how much of the apparent effect of the current intervention was specific to its social norms content. It's possible receiving any kind of motivational message between exercises would have had a galvanising effect. Another problem, of course, is that the social norms message was a fabrication - the participants were effectively fed a lie. It's also not clear how long this kind of intervention could sustain its effects. News of other people's performance might be motivating at first, but could quickly lose its potency, or even become counter-productive.


Priebe, C., & Spink, K. (2014). Blood, sweat, and the influence of others: The effect of descriptive norms on muscular endurance and task self-efficacy Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15 (5), 491-497 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.04.012

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

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Link feast

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

One Death Too Many
Clinical neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell criticises the sensationalist media coverage of Robin Williams' suicide. Addressing newspaper editors, Bell says: "you ... have a personal and professional responsibility to ensure that you are not putting people at risk by your need to sell copy."

The Science Behind Suicide Contagion
Margot Sanger-Katz for the NYT summarises the relevant science, but she also wonders if suicide reporting guidelines are out-of-date and unrealistic.

Image of the Week: Wiring of the Human Brain
From Wellcome Images and taken by Zeynep Saygin: "A bird’s-eye view of nerve fibres in a normal, healthy adult human brain."

Malcolm Gladwell on Desert Island Discs
The pop psychology author was BBC Radio 4's most recent cast-away (listen again on iPlayer).

Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself
Your body is full of bacteria that might be controlling your behaviour.

Why I Live in Mortal Dread of Public Speaking
Newly released TED talk by singer-songwriter Megan Washington.

Darwin's Neuroscientist: Gerald M. Edelman, 1929–2014
Anil Seth pens an obituary to his former mentor, nobel laureate and "scientific great" who "quoted Woody Allen and Jascha Heifetz as readily as Linus Pauling and Ludwig Wittgenstein".

The First Smile
"Why do laughter, smiles and tears look so similar?" asks Michael Graziano. "Perhaps because they all evolved from a single root."

Society: Don't Blame The Mothers
Contemporary research on epigenetics and the developmental origins of health and disease needs to be discussed and reported with care, argue Sarah S. Richardson and her colleagues.  

A Sound You Can't Unhear (and What It Says About Your Brain)
Audio illusions shows how our senses reflect a "mixture of the world out there and our own expectations."

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

Friday, 15 August 2014

We're happier when we chat to strangers, but our instinct is to ignore them

It's become a truism that humans are "social animals". And yet, you've probably noticed - people on public transport or in waiting rooms seem to do everything they can not to interact. On the London tube there's an unwritten rule not to even look at one another. This is the paradox explored by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder in a series of nine new studies involving members of the public on trains, planes, in taxis and a waiting room.

The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions - to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience. Their answers were compared to the predictions made by other commuters, who instead of fulfilling one of these three conditions, imagined what kind of experience they'd have had if they'd taken part.

The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who'd had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between). Surprisingly perhaps, chatting with a stranger didn't come at the cost of self-reported productivity. These findings contrasted starkly with the predictions made by the commuters who imagined taking part - they thought that being asked to engage with a stranger would have been the least enjoyable of the three conditions. Epley and Schroeder said this provides evidence of a "severe misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement", thus providing a clue as to why, despite being social animals, we so often ignore each other.

Why do we think chatting to strangers will be so unpleasant? To find out, the researchers approached more commuters on Chicago trains and buses. One possibility is that people's predictions are skewed by the dominance of memories of past negative experiences. To test this, the researchers asked commuters to imagine having a positive conversation with a stranger, a negative conversation, or just any conversation. If memories of bad experiences skew people's perceptions, then being asked to imagine any conversation with a stranger should be negatively toned by default. In fact no evidence was found for this.

Another possibility is that each of us mistakenly assumes that other people don't want to talk, thus creating a situation of "pluralistic ignorance". This theory was supported: people said they were more interested in chatting to strangers, than strangers would be in chatting to them. Also, they predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk - in fact, this didn't occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.

If the reason we ignore each other is because so many of us hold the mistaken assumption that no one else wants to talk, then you'd expect greater past experience chatting to strangers (and discovering it's mutually enjoyable) would lead to more accurate predictions. That's exactly what the researchers found when they tested people queueing for taxis. Participants who said they frequently chatted to taxi drivers correctly anticipated that other passengers instructed to chat to their driver would have the most pleasant journeys, as compared with those instructed to sit in silence, or simply behave as normal. Note: people instructed to chat to their driver tended to report having more pleasant journeys, even if their usual habit was to sit in silence.

In a final study, the researchers attempted to address two issues - perhaps chatting to a stranger is only fun if you're the one who initiates it, and/or perhaps the results were due in part to participants' satisfaction at completing a goal set by the researchers. This time Epley and Schroeder asked strangers to spend time in pairs in a waiting room. Some of the individuals in each pair were instructed in advance to chat to the other person; others were "invited" to do so, but it was emphasised to them that this was not an instruction. Consistent with the earlier results, people reporting having a more pleasurable time in the waiting room if they chatted to each other, and this was true whether they were invited or instructed to chat. It was also true for those people who were the recipient of the initial approach, as well as those who initiated the conversations.

A further interesting detail from the studies is that the pleasure of talking to strangers was observed for introverts and extraverts alike. "Removing the barrier to starting a conversation, rather than trying to increase a person's own trait extroversion, may therefore be the most effective way to encourage interactions with distant strangers," the researchers said.

Of course one can look for loopholes in these studies. One problem is the results may be specific to urban US culture. Another is this research involved isolated instances of chatting to a stranger. In real life, frequent commuters may avoid striking up conversation with fellow travellers, for fear of getting stuck talking with the same person everyday.


Epley N, & Schroeder J (2014). Mistakenly Seeking Solitude. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 25019381

--further reading--
We're happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness
Is it the darkness within? Some people would rather shock themselves with electricity than spend time with their own thoughts

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

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Star performers suffer more than most from a loss in status

Tiger Woods experienced a loss of status in 2009.
(He didn't win another major until 2012.)
Compared with lower-ranked people, those higher up the pecking order find it more difficult to stomach a drop in status, and their performance takes a bigger nosedive as a result. This is the verdict of a new article that presents experimental work, together with a more unusual source of evidence: major league baseball arbitration, in which players and clubs contest the players’ worth.

In many ways, individuals with high status are sitting pretty: more likely to receive praise, support, and positive influence from others; more likely to have positive life outcomes and perform better at work. You might expect them to be armed with the resources to cope with a threatening situation, such as being sidelined or demoted, and many psychologists would back you up.

But Jennifer Marr and Stefan Thau predicted that a status drop may have deeper repercussions for high-status individuals because their identity is likely to be more tied to their status, and identity threats suck up psychological resources and make focus harder.

Their first study examined 186 instances of baseball "final-offer arbitration" - a last-ditch contract renegotiation where the player and his club each make a proposal of his true worth for a third party to select between. In this adversarial situation, a club’s case often involves an indictment of the player’s health, team spirit, and temperament. A decision in favour of the club’s case therefore reflects a real status loss for the player. After controlling for player past performance and team results, Marr and Thau found that players ranked as high-status (based on awards and selection for All-Star Games) experienced a larger slump in their on-field performance following unfavourable arbitration.

Follow-up experimental work had participants recruited from a university pool interact in groups before completing a solo task (for example, some of them had to propose adjectives to describe the taste of a chocolate chip cookie). Between the group work and the solo challenge, some participants were told they’d sunk in the estimation of their teammates. This news led to poorer performance specifically for those participants who’d previously seen themselves as top dog, thanks to some rigged feedback they received earlier. When this status drop was followed by a positive self-affirmation exercise, those in the high status condition didn’t slump so badly on the final task, supporting the idea that the adverse effect is due to identity threat.

Taken together these findings suggest that when a high status person takes a tumble, a vicious cycle may result, with poor performance making further status drops possible. This is most likely for those who haven’t earned their status from superior ability and effort: once toppled, poseurs and Machiavellians may quickly slide into obsolescence. Legitimate high-status figures, with a track record of commitment and performance arguably deserve our attention and support. They should know that, perversely, a strong identification with their status could actually make it harder to hold onto it.

Jennifer Carson Marr and Stefan Thau (2014). Falling from Great (and Not-So-Great) Heights: How Initial Status Position Influences Performance after Status Loss. Academy of Management Journal.

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