Saturday, 3 October 2015

Link feast

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

Why It Was Easier to Be Skinny in the 1980s
People today are apparently about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans. That's according to Olga Khazan who reports on an intriguing new study for The Atlantic.

Keeping a Spotless Mind: The Neuroscience of "Motivated Forgetting"
This year's joint annual British Academy/British Psychological Society Lecture was by Dr Michael Anderson and you can watch it on YouTube (also check out this report from Ella Rhodes at The Psychologist).

Confessions of a Neurotic Extravert
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes a deeply personal article for The Creativity Post.

A Glorious Hour
Colin Marshall at Open Culture looks back to 1924 when Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, described the ecstasy of feeling Beethoven’s Ninth played on the radio.

Noël Carroll on the Paradox of Horror (video)
The desire to be scared or disgusted is odd. So why do audiences enjoy the unpleasant in horror fiction and film? From Aeon Video.

Blindsight: The Strangest Form of Consciousness
Some people who have lost their vision find a “second sight” taking over their eyes – an uncanny, subconscious sense that sheds light into the hidden depths of the human mind. By David Robson for BBC Future.

Drugs and Talk Therapy Affect the Brain in Different Ways
And sometimes they offer complementary benefits, suggests a new study that I reported on for New York's Science of Us.

The Problem of Too Much Talent
It’s true of basketball players, businesspeople, and even baboons: When too many powerful personalities are present, discord ensues. Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer report on their fascinating research for The Atlantic.

The 'No-Tech' School Where Screens Are Off Limits – Even At Home
Pupils at London Acorn School are banned from using smartphones and computers and watching TV at all times, including during holidays. Sally Weale visits the school for The Guardian.

Why Music?
A whole host of programmes on the psychology of music, from BBC Radio 3 and the Wellcome Trust.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 2 October 2015

How jurors can be misled by emotional testimony and gruesome photos

As a juror in a criminal trial, you are meant to make a judgment of the defendant's guilt or innocence based on the evidence and arguments presented before you. In many trials, however, alongside the facts of the case, material and statements are allowed that don't in themselves speak to the culpability of the defendant. In a murder trial, for instance, a parent may take the stand and describe how their life has been destroyed by the loss of their child (the victim in the case). Similarly, the prosecution may present disturbing crime scene photographs of the victim, which don't say anything about the defendant's culpability, but do exert an emotional effect in the courtroom.

Writing in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, Kayo Matsuo and Yuji Itoh at Keio University in Japan describe how they tested the effects of these kinds of evidence on the decision making of 127 students (89 women) who were asked to play the role of juror in a fictional case. The students listened to a man read out a transcript of a murder trial, in which a homeless man stood accused of murdering a young female student so that he would be sent to jail and no longer be homeless. Factually speaking the prosecution's case was weak, and while the defendant had confessed to the crime, he later recanted and pleaded innocence.

Among the students who heard a version of the trial transcript that featured no emotional testimony from the victim's father, nor any photos of the victim's body, 46 per cent of them said they thought the homeless man was guilty. Other students heard a version that did contain testimony from the victim's father, in which he expressed his grief, described how kind and bright his daughter was, and how much anger he felt toward the defendant. Although logically this testimony did not provide evidence of the defendant's guilt, 71 per cent of the students who heard the father's words said they thought the defendant was guilty, and this rose to 79 per cent if they were also shown photographs of the victim's fatally wounded body.

The effect of the father's emotional testimony appeared to be explained at least in part by the negative emotions it aroused in the students, such as anger and disgust. Among the students who rendered a guilty verdict those who heard the father's emotional testimony also tended to support a harsher sentence for the defendant – 33 per cent said he should receive the death penalty compared with just 16 per cent of those who did not hear the father's testimony. It's worth bearing in mind that the father's emotional testimony was read out to students by the narrator in a neutral voice – the psychological effects of this kind of testimony would likely be far greater in a real-life trial situation.

The researchers said their results showed that "emotional information upsets jurors and disturbs their legal decisions". They concluded that "in order to avoid false convictions and ensure a better trial system, psychological studies conducted in legal settings should explore the function of emotional evidence as well as the role of emotions."


Matsuo, K., & Itoh, Y. (2015). Effects of Emotional Testimony and Gruesome Photographs on Mock Jurors' Decisions and Negative Emotions Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 1-17 DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2015.1032954

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

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Thursday, 1 October 2015

Toddlers have an instinct for fairness and generosity

Anecdotally, anyone who's spent time around toddlers knows that they mostly don't like sharing their toys. Together with research showing that toddlers, like adults, get pretty attached to their things and are reluctant to give them up, this has led to a popular belief that toddlers are selfish by nature.

But a team of developmental psychologists led by Julia Ulber has published new evidence in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that paints a more heart-warming picture. These psychologists point out that most past research has focused on how much toddlers share things that are already theirs. The new study looks instead at how much they share new things that previously no one owned. In such scenarios, toddlers frequently show admirable generosity and fairness.

There were two main experiments. The first involved 48 pairs of 18-month-old or 24-month-old toddlers sitting together at table, in the middle of which was a small container containing four marbles. If the toddlers took a marble and placed it in a nearby jingle box, it made a fun noise. The point of the set-up (repeated four times for each toddler pairing) was to see how the pairs of toddlers would divvy up the marbles between them.

Most of the time (44 per cent) the toddlers divided the marbles up fairly, 37 per cent of the time unequally (i.e. one child took 3 marbles), and 19 per cent of the time one child took all the marbles. This all took place pretty calmly, with marble steals happening only rarely. Overall, the experiment "rarely left one peer empty-handed," the researchers said, "and thus [the results] do not match the picture of the selfish toddler."

In a follow-up experiment with 128 pairs of two-year-olds, the set-up was more complex and this time, unlike the first experiment, none of the toddlers knew each other. Again, the children sat at opposite sides of a table with marbles on offer, but this time they had to pull a board sticking out of their side of the table to get the marbles to roll down into a reachable tray (marbles could again be used to make a jingle box play music). When the apparatus was designed so that there was one shared tray between the two toddlers, the toddlers shared the marbles equally about half the time. And this rose to 60 per cent if they'd had to collaborate by pulling the boards together to release the marbles.

In another variation of the set-up – possibly the most illuminating – the children had separate trays, and sometimes the researchers made it so that one child received three marbles in their tray and the other child just one. On about one third of these occasions, the results were delightful – the "lucky child" with three marbles gave up one of their marbles to their partner, willingly and unprompted. "This is the youngest age ever observed at which young children make sacrifices in order to equalise resources," the researchers said.

These acts of fairness were greater when the marbles were colour-coded so that two marbles matched the colour of one child's jingle box (located behind them) and the other two matched the other child's.  This colour-coding effect on generosity might be due to the children interpreting the colours as a sign of ownership (i.e. the idea being that this or that marble belongs to the other child because it matches their jingle box), or the colours might simply have helped the children, with their limited numerical skills, to identify a fair split in the numbers of marbles.

The researchers said their results showed that "young children are not selfish, but instead rather generous" when they're sharing resources among themselves, and that more research is needed to establish "in more detail the prosocial or other motives that influence the way in which young children divide resources."


Ulber, J., Hamann, K., & Tomasello, M. (2015). How 18- and 24-month-old peers divide resources among themselves Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 140, 228-244 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2015.07.009

--further reading--
Comparing children's sharing tendencies across diverse human societies
How to increase altruism in toddlers
Most acts of aggression by toddlers are unprovoked

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

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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

They deny it, but the middle classes have a subconscious positive bias toward the rich

"Eat the rich, it’s all that they’re good for" is a refrain familiar to my growing-up-in-the-90s ears. To many people today, the upper classes remain fair game for criticism, whether derided as Ivy-League elites, tax-dodging CEOs, or the undeserving gentry. But although many of us may claim to hold negative views about the wealthy, a new study published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations says our implicit preferences tell a different story. A story we might call "Confessions of a secret rich-lover" …

Across the experiments we’re about to discuss, the participants – US adults recruited online mainly from the middle class – explicitly disclaimed holding those higher on the economic ladder in high esteem. For instance, they were more likely to agree with items like “I don’t like rich people very much” than to similar items referring to the middle class. Middle class beats the rich, on the surface. But what lies beneath?

To find out, Yale researchers Suzanne Horwitz and John Dovidio had participants complete a version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has been used by psychologists in the past to reveal people’s race-, age-, and sex-based biases, and more recently negative attitudes to the poor. In this test, participants have to use just two computer keyboard keys to categorise words flashed on-screen. The standard categories are "good" words (e.g. wonderful, excellent) and "bad" (e.g. horrible, nasty), and the participants’ task is to respond as fast as possible, pressing the key for the good category when they see what they consider a good word and the key denoting the bad category when they see a bad word.

Specific to this study, other words in the same test had to be classed as fitting a rich category (e.g. high income, upper class, rich) or middle class category (e.g. average income, middle class, typical), using the same two keys that were also used for categorising good and bad words. Crucially, when categorising a word as rich or good required use of the same key, faster participant performance (vs. when the rich and bad categories were paired with the same key) would suggest that participants subconsciously considered being rich as a good thing rather than a bad thing. And indeed, across the four experiments, participants showed such a positive bias toward the rich, which was larger than the bias they showed towards their own group of the middle class.

In one experiment, participants completed two IATs, one as described and another pitting attitudes toward the middle class against those toward the poor. Horowitz and Dovidio wondered whether favouring the rich and disliking the poor were intertwined attitudes or independent – as is the case in attitudes towards weight, where pro-thinness is distinct from anti-fatness. Analysis showed that IAT anti-poor scores didn’t predict IAT pro-rich scores – and in fact, explicit attitudes to rich and poor were also independent, suggesting these attitudes are also distinct – in other words, just because a person was subconsciously or overtly pro-rich, it didn’t follow that they would also be subconsciously or overtly anti-poor (or vice versa).

A final experiment suggested that, given the right conditions, our implicit feelings toward the rich predict how we judge various social situations. Another 78 middle-class participants read a vignette in which two risk-taking drivers collide – a wealthy one in a Jag roadster, the other, middle class in an old Toyota – and then they rated each driver independently on how blameworthy, careless and bad they were. Explicit attitudes weren’t related to their judgments, but IAT performance was – those participants with a larger pro-rich bias on the IAT were softer towards the Jag driver. Given debate about whether implicit attitudes are effective in predicting wider consequences, this finding is important, although we should note the vignette was carefully designed not to trigger stereotype-related explicit attitudes that might swamp the effect; we might expect a different pattern for other situations, such as a rich person coldly ignoring a request for help.

Why do middle-class people harbour deep-seated positive regard for the rich? Unlike with other non-majority groups, the wealthy benefit from historically positive representations. Lay this alongside the popular idea of meritocracy – you get what you deserve – and it’s clear how implicit esteem for the rich might drip-drip in. Furthermore, many people, especially in the US, are incentivised against hardening their hearts to the rich – due to the hope that one day, they’ll be living next door to them.


Horwitz, S., & Dovidio, J. (2015). The rich--love them or hate them? Divergent implicit and explicit attitudes toward the wealthy Group Processes & Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430215596075

--further reading--
Students motivated by wealth are just as likely as others to help in an emergency
The downside of being good-looking AND wealthy
Seeing others as less than human

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

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Monday, 28 September 2015

New genetic evidence suggests face recognition is a very special human skill

Example stimuli from Shakeshift and Plomin, 2015.
A new twin study, published today in PNAS, of the genetic influences on face recognition ability, supports the idea that face recognition is a special skill that's evolved quite separately from other aspects of human cognition. In short, face recognition seems to be influenced by genes that are mostly different from the genes that influence general intelligence and other forms of visual expertise.

The background to this is that, for some time, psychologists studying the genetics of mental abilities have noticed a clear pattern: people's abilities in one domain, such as reading, typically correlate with their abilities in other domains, such as numeracy. This seems to be because a person's domain-specific abilities are strongly associated with their overall general intelligence and the same genes that underlie this basic mental fitness are also exerting an influence on various specific skills.

Nicholas Shakeshaft and Robert Plomin were interested to see if this same pattern would apply to people's face recognition abilities. Would they too correlate with general intelligence and share the same or similar genetic influences?

The researchers recruited 2,149 participants, including 375 pairs of identical twins who share the same genes, and 549 non-identical twins, who share roughly half the same genes, just like typical siblings (overall the sample was 58 per cent female with an average age of 19.5 years). The participants completed a test of their face processing skills, including memorising unfamiliar faces, and also tests of their ability to memorise cars, and their general intelligence, in terms of their vocabulary size and their ability to solve abstract problems.

Comparing the similarities in performance on these different tests between identical and non-identical twin pairs allowed the researchers to estimate how much the different skills on test were influenced by the same or different genes.

All the abilities – face recognition, car recognition and general mental ability – showed evidence of strong heritability (being influenced by genetic inheritance), with 61 per cent, 56 per cent, and 48 per cent of performance variability in the current sample being explained by genes, respectively.

Crucially, performance on face recognition was only moderately correlated with car recognition ability (r = .29 where 1 would be a perfect correlation) and modestly correlated with general mental ability (r = .15), and only 10 per cent of the genetic influence on face recognition ability was the same as the genetic influence on general mental ability (and likewise, only 10 per cent of the genetic influence on face memory was shared with the genes affecting memory for cars).

Essentially, this means that most of the genetic influences on face recognition ability are distinct from the genetic influences on general mental ability or on car recognition ability. Shakeshaft and Plomin said this "striking finding" supports the notion that there is something special about human facial recognition ability. These results add to others that have suggested face recognition is a special mental ability – for instance, some have argued that faces alone trigger brain activity in the so-called "fusiform face area" (although this claim has been challenged); and unlike our ability to recognise other objects or patterns, our ability to recognise faces is particularly impaired when faces are inverted, consistent with the idea that we use a distinctive "holistic" processing style for faces.

The story is complicated somewhat by the researchers' unexpected finding that recognition ability for cars was also linked with distinct genetic influences that mostly did not overlap with the genetic influences on general mental ability. Perhaps, the researchers surmised, the tests of general mental ability used here (a vocab test and the well-used Raven's Progressive Matrices) did not adequately tap the full range of what we might consider general mental abilities. Whatever the reason, it remains the case that this new research suggests that face recognition ability is influenced by a set of genetic influences that are largely distinct from those implicated in a similar form of visual recognition (for cars) and implicated in vocab ability and abstract reasoning. Based on this, the researchers concluded they'd shown for the first time that "the genetic influences on face recognition are almost entirely unique."


Nicholas G. Shakeshaft, & Robert Plomin (2015). Genetic specificity of face recognition PNAS

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

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Extraverts are surprisingly good at mind-bending puzzles

The solitary inventor, buried away in garage or shed, is the classic depiction of introvert as born problem-solver. But new research, published recently in Psychological Studies, suggests that it’s extraverted people who perform better at classical tests of problem-solving, thanks to their tendency to be motivated in ways that are helpful for achieving.

Vidya Athota at the University of Notre Dame, Australia and Richard Roberts at the Center for Innovative Assessments in New York ran computerised sessions of the Tower of Hanoi test (see a model below), in which participants disassemble a tapering tower of disks threaded onto a pole, in order to eventually reassemble them into a new tower on another pole. To do this, they make use of a third, spare pole to help fulfil the task rule that in forming the new tower you must only lay new discs onto larger ones.

Image: Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason/ Wikipedia
The 195 student participants tried to solve as many rounds of this that they could in three minutes, and also completed questionnaires on personality and personal values, specifically pleasure-oriented and service-oriented approaches to the world (essentially measuring how much they prioritised having fun in life versus concern for the welfare of others).

Athota and Roberts found the more extraverted participants solved more Towers of Hanoi, but only because they tended to be more interested in pursuing pleasure in the form of sensual gratification and especially stimulation and excitement. When these two values were accounted for, extraversion in itself didn’t provide extra predictive power.

At first blush, stimulation and sensual gratification sound like drives that would lead people away from cracking codes and straight onto a rollercoaster, no seatbelt required, thanks. But cognitive work that promises a satisfying payoff is facilitated by a higher appetite for rewards, which seems to be what we’re seeing here, with participants marshalling their focus and mental resources to beat the tower as often as possible.

By revealing why extraverts tackle certain tasks better, this study helps us figure out when they may not. Being strongly attracted to pleasure is associated with extraversion, but the promised thrill of success won’t be prominent in every creative challenge – problem solving is often about more than tackling circumscribed puzzles – so we shouldn’t expect extraverts to excel on all challenges. That said, when we look at this issue from other angles – such as the types of people who make more creative scientists – extraverts also defy expectations, tending to be among the most creative. Just as the notion that extraverts always make better salespeople is mistaken, we should be aware that think-work is not the sole domain of the introvert, but will suit different personality types better according to the specific characteristics of task, incentives, and social environment.


Athota, V., & Roberts, R. (2015). How Extraversion + Leads to Problem-Solving Ability Psychological Studies, 60 (3), 332-338 DOI: 10.1007/s12646-015-0329-3

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

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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Link feast

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

Out of this world
A special feature from The Psychologist magazine on aliens and space travel, including an interview with Douglas Vakoch, clinical psychologist and Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

The World's Most Brain Twisting Puzzles – In Pictures
Your brain may appear like a 1.4kg lump of soft tofu but test yourself on what it can (and can’t) do with Clive Gifford’s mind baffling puzzles, spatial intelligence games and illusions from his new book Brain Twisters.

The Company You Keep
Hallucinated voices can be helpful life guides, muses of creativity, and powerful agents for healing the fractured self, writes Shruti Ravindran at Aeon.

A Strange Study Involving the ‘White-Man Effect’ in Sierra Leone
Jesse Singal reports for New York magazine's Science of Us.

“Spectacular Ability in a Sea of Disability”: The Psychology of Savantism
The latest episode of The Psychology Podcast, presented by Scott Barry Kaufman and featuring guest Darold Treffert, the scientific advisor on the film Rain Man.

Making Government Logical
Cass Sunstein writing for the New York Times welcomes the Obama administration's instruction to federal agencies that they must incorporate behavioural science into the way they do things.

#Interfacetheory: Our Species-specific Desktop
The Psychonomic Society hosted a debate this week on the nature of perception.

Paraplegic Man Walks With Own Legs Again
American man, 26, completes 3.5-metre course thanks to computer system that reroutes signals from his brain to electrodes on his knees, reports Ian Sample for the Guardian.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis
David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment, by psychologist Alison Gopnik for The Atlantic.

More Doubts Over The Oxytocin And Trust Theory
From Neuroskeptic: "The claim that the hormone oxytocin promotes trust in humans has drawn a lot of attention. But today, a group of researchers reported that they’ve been unable to reproduce their own findings concerning that effect."
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 25 September 2015

Life is better for people who believe willpower is unlimited

While psychologists continue to debate whether or not willpower is a finite resource, a related strand of research is exploring the implications for the rest of us depending on whether we personally believe willpower is unlimited. For instance, there's research showing that people who think willpower is unlimited tend to recover better from tasks that require self-control than those who think willpower is finite, akin to the fuel in a car.

Now a new study, just published in the Journal of Personality, has looked at the broader implications of people's beliefs about willpower. Katharina Bernecker and her colleagues report that people who see willpower as unlimited tend to be happier with life, and this is at least in part because they're better able to cope when life gets more demanding.

The researchers began by surveying 258 people (average age 39; 163 women) participating in internet forums about stress and burnout. Those who said they believed willpower is unlimited (they agreed with statements like "Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after a strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it") tended to score higher on satisfaction with life and positive moods.

Of course you could interpret these initial results as simply showing that happier people tend to believe that willpower is unlimited, rather than the willpower beliefs influence happiness. To shed more light on this, the researchers conducted two more investigations with hundreds of university students, surveying their willpower beliefs and life satisfaction at the start of a university year, and then again six months later, just before exam time.

Not only were beliefs in unlimited willpower associated with more life satisfaction and better moods at the start of the year, but also with more sustained positive well-being as the exam period approached. That is, students who initially endorsed the idea that willpower is finite tended to suffer sharper drops in happiness and mood as exam time drew near, as compared with their peers who said they believed willpower is limitless. Conversely, earlier well-being was not related to later beliefs about willpower, suggesting it's the willpower beliefs affecting happiness, not the other way around.

Although students who described themselves as having less self-control were more likely to believe that willpower is limited, the link between willpower beliefs and later happiness held even after using statistics to control for the influence of the students' self-reported levels of self-control. The link between believing willpower is unlimited and greater well-being also held after controlling for the students' levels of optimism and pessimism, and their "self-efficacy", which is a measure of how confident they are generally in their own capabilities.

Looking at diaries that some of the students kept during the study, it seems that at least part of the benefit of believing that willpower is limitless came from the fact that students holding this belief were better able to step up their efforts to work towards their personal goals as exam time drew near, and they felt they made more progress towards their goals. In contrast, the students who believed willpower was finite started to struggle to meet their personal goals as university life became more demanding.

These results need to be replicated and other explanations ruled out. For instance, it's possible some other psychological factor or factors, not measured here, were affecting both willpower beliefs and happiness. However, if the results do hold, they suggest that the significance of the beliefs we hold about willpower could be far-reaching, affecting how we respond to challenging times, and therefore influencing our happiness in general. And if so, this raises the tantalising possibility of whether people can deliberately and permanently (not just over the short term) alter their beliefs about willpower in favourable, beneficial ways.


Bernecker, K., Herrmann, M., Brandstätter, V., & Job, V. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict subjective well-being Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12225

--further reading--
10 ways to boost your willpower
the first detailed study of daily temptation and resistance

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

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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Put more effort into a project and you'll become more passionate about it

The entrepreneur is one of the archetypes of our age, defined above all – if countless commencement speeches and hagiographies are anything to go by – by the passion they hold for their business, allowing them to devote so much to it. New research by Michael Gielnik and colleagues published in the Academy of Management Journal suggests this common belief has things backwards: in fact entrepreneurs get passionate because they get stuck in.

The first study spent eight weeks surveying 54 German entrepreneurs during the pre-launch period of their budding business opportunity. They answered questions like “In the last week, how much effort did you put into venture tasks beyond what was immediately required?” and rated their agreement with statements like “In the last week, establishing a new company excited me”. Their answers were used to generate ratings of effort and passion. The researchers found that for each entrepreneur, fluctuation in these two ratings could be explained by one relationship: the previous week’s effort influenced this week’s passion, such that more effort led to more passion.

Another study looked at this more systematically, asking 136 students to develop a business idea by answering questions about likely competitors, customers, and the conditions and trends of the market. In the primary condition, participants could choose between twelve possible business ideas or even put forward one of their own. The key question was whether their entrepreneurial passion would be higher following the task than it was prior to it. The experiment established that it was, but only under certain conditions.

Firstly, in a variation in which participants were only given 30 minutes to spend on the task, and told it was an unimportant pilot study (as opposed to being given an hour and told that their efforts would make a real difference), their subsequent appetite for founding a business was unaffected. This suggests investing minimal effort is not enough to boost passion. Secondly, half of the participants received feedback that their analysis was superficial and that they hadn’t advanced the readiness of this business idea. For these participants, it didn’t matter how much effort they invested, their passion didn’t tip upwards. Making an effort without seeing any impact is also not enough to boost passion.

One more factor: in another variant of the study, participants weren’t given free reign to select their entrepreneurial goal, but were handed one to work on. In this case, their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.

Although there are undoubtedly character traits that lead some people to find passion more readily, it doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It requires an engagement with the world, an engagement this study suggests has a particular structure. Free choice, results, and genuine effort: the three ingredients that passion needs.


Gielnik, M., Spitzmuller, M., Schmitt, A., Klemann, D., & Frese, M. (2014). "I Put in Effort, Therefore I Am Passionate": Investigating the Path from Effort to Passion in Entrepreneurship Academy of Management Journal, 58 (4), 1012-1031 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0727

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

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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The comforting power of comedy is due to more than just distraction

By guest blogger David Robson

When screenwriter Nora Ephron's mother was on her deathbed, she had one instruction: "Take notes". For the family of writers and raconteurs, no event was too painful to be burned in the crucible of their wit. "Everything," Ephron Senior said, "is copy". Nora Ephron applied the philosophy religiously with the semi-autobiographical novel and film Heartburn, documenting her husband's cruel affair with "a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb".

As she explained later: "When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke."

Clearly, it worked for Ephron - with Heartburn, she laughed her way from the divorce lawyers to Hollywood, becoming one of the world’s most successful comedy writers. But how about the rest of us? Recently, Lisa Kugler and Christof Kuhbandner at the University of Regensburg in Germany decided to test whether humour really does offer a valuable form of emotional regulation. They were particularly concerned with the possibility that jokes simply work as a distraction, making you think about something other than your hurt feelings. While that may help in the short term, it could impair your memory, so that you no longer remember exactly why you were upset. That would be a rather counter-productive way to manage our feelings: we all need to learn from our mistakes if we are to protect ourselves from further heartbreak.

If, on the other hand, the value of comedy comes from "reappraisal" – turning yourself from the victim into the hero, as Ephron claimed – then the memory should not be weakened, since you are still paying attention to the details. If so, humour should be a particularly effective way of helping you to flourish after upset.

To disentangle these two possibilities, Kugler and Kuhbandner opted to perform a carefully controlled lab study, to compare the effects of humour with a form of "rational appraisal" – a technique in which you try to detach yourself from an event and look at it logically, while distancing yourself from the emotional pain it brings.

Sixty-three undergraduates looked at a set of negative emotionally charged pictures, some of which were accompanied by a sentence that was either a straight, "rational" appraisal, or a joke. For instance, next to a scary picture of a snake bearing its mouth, the subjects either saw a straight, factual sentence explaining that this snake couldn't bite because it didn't have any teeth, or a funny quip about the snake's glare: "When eggs are sold out in her favourite supermarket, Henrietta can get very angry". Other negative images included a wounded child, a bomb, a hurricane, and a crying soldier, among others, all with either an accompanying factual and reassuring explanation or a joke.

The students rated how negative or positive they found each image, and whether they felt emotionally aroused by it or not, and then, a few minutes later, they had to note down details of as many of the pictures as they could remember. As a further test of the students' memory, Kugler also showed them another set of images, which included some of the previous pictures, and the students had to report whether or not they recognised the images.

As Ephron might have predicted, the students seeing the humorous stimuli found the negative images considerably less upsetting, even compared to those viewing the rational facts that helped put the pictures in a less disconcerting perspective: clearly, laughter does soothe distress. What's more, humour did not seem to impair memory any more than rational reappraisal: in fact, viewing the humorous comments even made the students slightly quicker to recognise the negative images later on. In other words, it didn’t seem that the jokes were distracting participants from the details of the images themselves and the value instead came from reinterpreting their content in a less negative light.

From these findings, you could conclude that humour really is the best medicine when it comes to heartache, even more than sober detachment and re-interpretation. But we should be a little reluctant to read too much into the experiment, with its rather restricted set-up. Viewing slightly upsetting pictures is a far cry from discovering a spouse's betrayal! What's more, the rational reappraisal process in the study was more passive than in real life: it's far easier, but perhaps less effective, to read a pithy picture caption, compared to finding a sober way to re-evaluate our real-life tribulations.

On the other hand, this study could have underestimated the power of humour. Participants completed the tasks alone, but laughter is most often a social activity. As Sophie Scott at University College London and others have found, we are far more likely to laugh when we're with other people, particularly people we like. It's likely that hearing others laugh could itself be cathartic and help to heal our wounds.

More realistic research is clearly needed to build on this lab study. Still, the findings are certainly consistent with the idea that, if nothing else, laughter may be the chink of light that reminds us even the darkest days will end eventually. As Ephron put it: "My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next." And that's enough to bring anyone comfort, the next time we face tragedy (or simply slip on a banana skin).


Kugler L, & Kuhbandner C (2015). That's not funny! - But it should be: effects of humorous emotion regulation on emotional experience and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 6 PMID: 26379608

--further reading--
Locating the "sweet spot" when jokes about tragedy are seen as funny
Psychologist magazine special issue on humour and laughter

Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. David is BBC Future’s feature writer.

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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Young children don't categorise mixed-race people the same way adults do

When it comes to race, people increasingly self-identify as belonging to several categories rather than one, reflecting our intermingled world – for example, some sources suggest one in ten British children now grow up in mixed-race households. Yet we still like putting people in neat taxonomies, and to understand this tendency, Steven Roberts and Susan Gelman at the University of Michigan looked at how adults and children approach racial categorisation. Their studies, published recently in Child Development, show that people’s age and own racial background influence how they make sense of mixed race, suggesting these judgments are shaped by a mixture of culture and perception.

Around 400 US participants, who self-identified as either black or white, viewed a series of photos of the faces of black, white and mixed-race girls (pre-testing had confirmed that most people identified the girls as belonging to the racial categories that the researchers intended). The task was to match each photo to one of three comparison characters: a black girl, a white girl, or an unseen mystery girl behind a curtain. Part of the instruction was: “Your job is to tell me if each girl that I show you is the same kind as one of these three girls.”

The first study involved white participants – adults, and children as young as four – and they had little difficulty assigning photos of black or white girls to the appropriate comparison categories. However, they were less ready to consign mixed-race girls to the third option, often using the black category instead, and rarely the white. That is, following previous research, white people saw blackness in models with features and skin tone that owed to a mixed parentage.

In another condition, photographs of the girls’ faces were accompanied by photos of their parents: for example, in the case of the mixed-race girls, one black adult and one white adult. With this information, adults and children aged ten years or older assigned mixed-race girls to the third category with more confidence, but still resorted frequently to the black category and shunned the white one. That this bias persists in the presence of parentage information suggests something at work beyond "looking black"; it suggests many white people (at least in the US) assume that having a black parent means you can’t be white. As the researchers Roberts and Gelman note, this parallels the principle of "hypodescent" found in many pre-emancipation American states, which tended towards awarding mixed descent people a lower social category, found at its most extreme in the "one-drop" (of black blood) rule.

White children younger than ten showed a different pattern when parentage info was provided. Unlike adults, they didn’t start using the third category more – they remained reluctant to assign girls a mystery status when more concrete alternatives were visible. Instead, they allowed the parentage information to steer them towards a white categorisation as frequently as a black one, rejecting hypodescent.

The second study with black participants paralleled the first in fundamental ways: parentage information encouraged participants to choose the third mystery option for the mixed-race girls, and adults were reluctant to see mixed-race girls as white under any circumstances. But crucially, black children saw mixed-race children interchangeably as white or black (i.e. they rejected hypodescent) and this was true whether they were given the girls’ parentage information or not. In fact, and unpredicted by the researchers, the parentage information tipped the youngest black children, between four and six, into hyperdescent: preferring to see mixed-race children as white.

This difference in the black children's responses compared with the white children's suggests the white children’s categorising bias may owe to the rareness of black and mixed-race people in their environment, such that any facial features they notice that deviate from the white norm tend to be salient to them. Black children are more exposed to whiteness, so don’t follow the same pattern. This suggestion is supported by demographic data which showed that the more the white children mixed with other white children, the stronger their bias for categorising mixed-race girls as black, and there was a complementary pattern among the black children (more time spent with other black kids was associated with categorising mixed-race girls as black).

To sum up this complex study, increasing maturity encourages the use of less clear-cut categories, but also opens the door to a hypodescent mindset, which in the case of black participants may have a distinctive motivation – Roberts and Gelman suggest it as a form of solidarity that includes mixed-race individuals within the broader black tent. Meanwhile, black children, and younger white children (the latter needing a bit of a nudge in terms of receiving information about a person’s parental heritage) are more even-handed in judging racial identity. It suggests exposure to a range of people makes us less likely to place other people in fixed racial categories, and that children’s assumptions about what makes someone "black" tend to solidify once they reach double digits in age.


Roberts, S., & Gelman, S. (2015). Do Children See in Black and White? Children's and Adults' Categorizations of Multiracial Individuals Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12410

--further reading--
The age when children begin attempting to appear racially colour-blind

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

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