Saturday, 13 February 2016

Link feast

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

How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired (long-form article)
An in-depth investigation by Jesse Singal at New York's Science of Us uncovers the truth about the seemingly scandalous dismissal of a gender dysphoria researcher in Canada.

What Is Reality? (radio show)
The neuroscientists David Eagleman and Sophie Scott were among the guests on a recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Can Change Your Brain Structure In Just a Few Weeks (news)
After nine weeks of CBT, socially anxious patients showed reductions in volume and activity in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional process, reports The Spectator.

What Does a Psychologist Think of Kanye West's Twitter Feed? (gossip)
The BBC cuts through to the waffle to the most important issues of the day.

We Asked People To Tell Us Their Biggest Regrets — But What They All Had In Common Was Heartbreaking (video)
For one day a blackboard stood in the middle of New York City asking passersby to write down their biggest regrets.

People Are Animals, Too (essay)
The human brain is special. Just not that special. To understand animal minds, and our own place in the living world, we should remove ourselves from centre stage, argues Peter Aldhous at Mosaic.

New Frontiers of Family (magazine article)
At The Psychologist, Naomi Moller and Victoria Clarke explore embryo donation and voluntary childlessness, ahead of their British Psychological Society seminar series.

Feeling Sleepy? You Might Be at Risk of Falsely Confessing To a Crime You Did Not Commit (blog post)
Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues discuss their new finding for The Conversation.

Why Contemplating Death Changes How You Think (research overview)
Reading this article could temporarily change your politics, biases and decision-making. Why? The very idea of death changes our thoughts in profound ways, writes Jonathan Jong at BBC Future.

Why You'll Never Buy the Perfect Ring, and Other Valentine's Day Stories (podcast)
The latest instalment of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedanta (and check out our own Valentine's podcast from last year).

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

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Friday, 12 February 2016

The personalty differences between students studying different academic subjects

Psych students tend to score highly in neuroticism and openness to experience
When I was at university it seemed fairly obvious that students studying the same academic subject often had similar personalities. The geography students were far more interested in partying than studying, the English lit undergrads always so nice and friendly, while my fellow psych students seemed quirkier and more eccentric than others. Of course these are highly subjective over-generalisations on my part, probably revealing more about my prejudices than anything else. However, in a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences, Anna Vedel at Aarhus University in Denmark has reviewed all the published evidence on how personality varies with students' choice of academic subject and she reports that there are consistent differences across subjects.

Vedel searched numerous academic databases looking for relevant studies and found 12 that involved personality tests conducted on 13,389 students. Most of the studies were conducted in North American and Europe and the average age of the participating students varied from 18 to 26 years.  All but three of the studies found that students' personalities differed according to their university subject (and one of the three that didn't find this result probably had too small a sample to detect differences). In statistical terms, the effect size of these personality differences by subject was medium (and large for the trait of openness).

Among the main findings: Psychology students, and those studying arts and humanities subjects, tended to score higher on neuroticism (emotional instability). Economics, politics and medicine students tended to score higher on extraversion than arts, humanities and sciences students. Law, business and economics scored lower on agreeableness, particularly in comparison with medicine, psych, science, arts and humanities students. Psych, humanities and arts students tended to score higher on openness to experience than others. And arts and humanities scored lower on conscientiousness than most.

There are some important flaws in the existing literature, most notably that many of the studies measured students' personalities after they had been enrolled on their courses for some time, thus making it tricky to know if people's personalities shape the subjects they choose, or if their experience studying a subject shapes their personality. However, Vedel notes that those studies that tested students soon after enrolment found results that were similar to the other studies that involved later measurements, which is consistent with the idea that personality influences the subjects that young people choose, rather than the other way around.

Vedel hopes that this line of research might one day be used to help guide students into making optimal decisions about what subject to study at university. However, she acknowledges that it remains to be seen if this will be possible because there is, as yet, little evidence on whether specific personality profiles are beneficial to students studying specific subjects. Another possibility, she writes, is that lecturers might be able to take note of the typical personality profile of students studying their subject and then adapt their teaching approach in a way that engages these kinds of students (though note, there is little evidence for students having different "learning styles").


Vedel, A. (2016). Big Five personality group differences across academic majors: A systematic review Personality and Individual Differences, 92, 1-10 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.12.011

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

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Thursday, 11 February 2016

Psychologists have looked into the importance of the pre-interview chitchat

Those first informal minutes really do matter
As a fan of fair job assessment, I’m bugged by the freeform chatter that kicks off most interviews – it allows influential first impressions to be formed in a yak about the traffic or some other trivial topic that has nothing to with the job. It’s true that interview structures have become more standardised over the years, but a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests these developments aren’t enough to counter the effect of early rapport. The research also addresses the heart of my concern: do first impressions actually provide important information, or simply introduce unfair bias?

Bryan Swider at Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues analysed the outcomes of mock interviews involving 163 accountancy students, who were rated by interviewers on their answers to 12 standardised questions. However, before the formal questioning period, the interviews began with a few minutes of rapport building, after which the interviewers noted down their first impressions. Did these preliminaries influence the overall interview scores?

They did. The overall scores given by the interviewers differed from those given by a separate set of expert reviewers, who were given video access only to the main Q&A phase, and whose ratings were therefore uncontaminated by informal first impressions. The discrepancy between this expert baseline and the interviewer scores was partly explained by taking interviewer first impression ratings into account – those students who made a good initial impression tended to receive more favourable scores from the interviewers for their answers to the formal questions, especially the first few, with the effect tailing off as the interview gathered pace.

What explains the influence of those first impressions? The expert raters also produced an "image score" for each interviewee based on their physical appearance, voice, and body language. Participants who scored higher for image were especially likely to receive inflated scores from the interviewers, suggesting that at least one of the influences of those first impressions was to do with good image management: suave candidates make better impressions.

But this wasn’t the whole story – something non-image related was also going on.
Past work by Swider and one of his co-authors, Murray Barrick, shows that positive first impressions are associated with candidate verbal skill and extraversion, two features that may be legitimately useful to the job. Consistent with this, in the current study the interviewers’ first impression scores correlated with the expert raters’ overall scores (which remember were based purely on the formal Q&A part of the interviews), suggesting that the early rapport gave a genuine preview into how the candidates would fare with the meat of the interview. All in all, the influence of interview first impressions may be partly unfair and superficial, but also communicate information that’s genuinely informative.

If we want to reduce the impact of first impressions, the authors suggest buffering the main part of the interview from the rapport phase with a few un-scored questions that soak up the effect. Explicitly rating the first impressions on criteria that can be tied back to the job (eloquence, flexibility) also makes things fairer. Beyond that, the researchers argue it is difficult to do away altogether with early chitchat – it’s expected by both parties and also a good way to ease candidates in to what is a stressful social situation. And looking at the mixed nature of first impressions – and recognising there is more to be understood – I wonder if it’s better after all to make peace with informal interview chat rather than trying to fight it.


Swider, B., Barrick, M., & Harris, T. (2016). Initial Impressions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Influence Structured Interview Outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000077

--further reading--
Do interviewers really make a hiring decision in the first four minutes?
The psychology of first impressions, digested.
Interview decisions are influenced by initial rapport

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

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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Researchers have analysed the somniloquies of the world's most prolific sleep talker

Album artwork for Dion McGregor Dreams Again
The "most extensive sleep talker ever recorded", according to a new article in Imagination, Cognition and Personality, is the late American songwriter Dion McGregor. McGregor's unusual sleeping behaviour – one commentator said he "sounds as if he were channeling Truman Capote on acid: flirtatious, slushy, disconnected from reality ..." – first became public in the 1960s when McGregor shared a New York apartment with a posse of other artists and creative types. His song-writing partner and flat-mate, Mike Barr, became so fascinated by McGregor's extensive somniloquies – most were over 100 words long – that he made more than 500 recordings of them, and they were released as a CD and book: The Dream World of Dion McGregor. Now a team of sleep experts led by Deirdre Barrett at Harvard Medical School have analysed 294 of these recordings to see how their content compares with typical dreams.

The researchers coded McGregor's somniloquies for content using an established scale that is used for analysing dreams, and which includes checklists for characters, aggression, friendliness, sexual interaction, success, misfortune and good fortune. Then they used another scale that's for coding the bizarreness of dreams, including elements of discontinuity (sudden changes in time and place or identity), incongruity (contradictions, such as saying a building has only one entrance, and then saying the building was entered a different way), and uncertainty and vagueness.

Compared with average dream scores on the scales, McGregor was more active in his somniloquies than most dreamers, while his sleep talk contained less aggression, less friendliness and less sex than usual dreams, fewer negative emotions, good fortune and success, but much more self-negativity and more female characters than is typical for men. His sleep talking was also less bizarre than the average dream, with fewer plot incongruities and contradictions.

The researchers provide this example to show a typical element in McGregor's somniloquies, which while fantastical is not confused in plot or thought (unlike much typical dream content):
Oh, that doesn’t complete my collection at all! No! Oh no! Well let’s see, I have a dodo, and a rock, and a phoenix . . . oh dear! A pterodactyl, yes, the unicorn, the griffin, dear, oh yes, well a mermaid doesn’t count, she’s out in the pool! No . . . well, if she ever gets out I’m gonna mate her with the centaur! Yes! What do you think?! Certainly! Well, I don’t know. What do you think? Well, if you don’t mate them you know they’ll die off! (Tzadik Records, 1999, “The Collection”)
Album artwork for Dreaming Like Mad
With Dion McGregor
Other examples of content from McGregor's sleep talking include him going door to door asking women if they have their favourite dress on, a roll call of people entering a hot air balloon for a moon trip (which ends after an encounter with sharp-beaked storks) and playing a game of "food roulette" with "a Lazy Susan of poisoned eclairs".

The researchers think there are two explanations for the differences between McGregor's somniloquies and typical dream content. One is that much sleep talking does not occur during dreams, and in fact people's brain waves during sleep talking are distinct from those usually seen during dreaming, featuring fewer waves in the alpha frequency range, which they explained could be a sign of more frontal brain activity. The researchers further describe this as "an unusual state midway between waking and sleeping" (backing this up, there is a McGregor interview in which he says a sleep researcher recorded his brain activity during sleep talking and found a mix of sleep and waking brain wave patterns).

The other reason for the distinct content of McGregor's somniloquies, the researchers believe, is simply to do with his personal characteristics: he was they say a quirky character with a self-deprecating sense of humour, he was likely homosexual, and he had an obsession with actresses (this last point could help explain the preponderance of female characters in his dreams). This perspective is consistent with the "continuity hypothesis" of dream content – the idea that "our actions and thoughts in everyday life also determine what we will dream about".

Surprisingly little is known about the psychology and neuroscience of sleep talking and so this case study provides an intriguing addition to the literature. "Of course Dion McGregor is only one subject, so we can not generalise," the researchers said, adding: "It would be interesting in future research to gather REM sleep-talking reports from a large sample of subjects to see if these differences from dream reports and continuities with waking traits consistently characterise talking from REM sleep." For his part, McGregor was much more interested in his waking creative works (he sold songs to Barbara Streisand, among others) than his sleep talking: "it's like being famous for wetting your bed," he said.


Barrett, D., Grayson, M., Oh, A., & Sogolow, Z. (2015). A Content Analysis of Dion McGregor's Sleep-Talking Episodes Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 35 (1), 72-83 DOI: 10.1177/0276236615574495

--further reading--
This guy turned surreal sleep talking into a cult album
Here's a really simple trick that could help you enjoy more lucid dreams
Does dreaming of exam failure affect your real-life chances of success?
Older people have more black and white dreams

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

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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

New research challenges the idea that women have more elaborate autobiographical memories than men 

The longest autobiographical narratives were produced by men talking to women 
Prior research has found that women elaborate more than men when talking about their autobiographical memories, going into more detailmentioning more emotions and providing more interpretation. One problem with this research, though, is that it hasn't paid much attention to who is listening or whether the memories are spoken or written.

This is unfortunate because findings like these can fuel overly simplistic gender-based assumptions – in this case, the idea that women have more elaborate and emotional autobiographical memories than men. A new study in the journal Memory reminds us, in the words of Robyn Fivush, that "autobiographical memory is not something we have but something we do in interaction". Specifically, the new research finds that the way people recall their memories depends on who is listening. In fact, when the listening researcher was a woman, the male participants provided more long-winded descriptions of their memories than the female participants.

Azriel Grysman and Amelia Denney at Hamilton College, New York recruited 178 student participants (average age 19; 101 women) and asked them to describe "an episode in your life that was stressful to you", with further guidance that it must be a single event lasting no longer than a day, and that they should "try to imagine the event in as much detail as possible" before beginning their description, for which "there is no correct or incorrect length". Crucially, half the students performed this exercise alone in the psych lab with a female researcher, and half alone with a male researcher. Also, half described their memory out loud (they were told the researcher would simply nod periodically), while the others were instructed to type their memories into a computer.

The researchers coded the length and content of all the memories which were about things like academic stress, arguments, injuries and the death of pets. Contrary to prior research, the longest autobiographical memories were those produced by male participants speaking to a female researcher. The actual content of men's memories didn't vary according to gender of the listener, nor whether they were writing or speaking. By contrast, the female participants' memories contained fewer mentions of internal states (people's emotions and feelings) when speaking or writing with a male researcher,  and they provided fewer opinions when verbally describing their memories as compared with typing them (regardless of the gender of the listener).

We need to be aware that the results could be different if older and non-student participants were tested, and also if the memory prompt were different. There was also a confound in the study, in that the two male researchers who took turns to accompany the (predominantly White) participants were White, whereas the three female researchers were Asian-American and non-White Hispanic, although the researchers couldn't find any evidence that one or more of the researchers was having an influence on the results.

"The findings reported here emphasise the importance of context in autobiographical memory report," the researchers concluded. "The implications of these findings are that autobiographical memories include the constantly interacting influences of person, audience, and the experimental or conversational context."


Grysman, A., & Denney, A. (2016). Gender, experimenter gender and medium of report influence the content of autobiographical memory report Memory, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1133829

--further reading--
Some perfectly healthy people can't remember their own lives
Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail
Repression redux? It is possible to deliberately forget details from our past

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

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Monday, 8 February 2016

How the home crowd affects football referees' decisions

One of the most thorough investigations into referee bias has found that they tend to award harsher foul punishments to the away team. The new results, published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, suggest that experienced referees are just as prone to this bias as their less experienced colleagues.

Andrés Picazo-Tadeo and his team analysed data from 2,651 matches played in the First Division of La Liga, the Spanish Football League between the 2002/3 and 2009/10 seasons, inclusive. Unlike previous research, they were careful to consider the referees' foul decisions separately from the awarding of penalty cards (given as punishment for serious fouls). It's been shown before that referees tend to award more free kicks and cards in favour of the home team, but this is not strong evidence for a home team bias because it's possible that away teams simply tend to commit more fouls. The new research specifically looks not just at the distribution of referees' foul decisions between home and away teams, but it also examines separately how harshly referees punish any fouls.

In fact, the research uncovered no difference in the number of fouls that referees attributed to home and away teams. But after a foul, referees tended to punish away teams more harshly with more yellow and red cards, and this was especially the case when the home crowd was larger. The presence of a running track between the pitch and the crowd made no difference, and as mentioned, neither did referee experience. The basic result complements a recent lab study that also found that simulated crowd noise influenced referees to punish fouls more severely.

Picazo-Tadeo and his colleagues speculate that perhaps referees' initial foul decisions are made relatively automatically, in the heat of unfolding play, thus making them immune to social pressure from the home crowd. In contrast, after play has halted, the referee has time to decide on the severity of the infringement and here the noise of the crowd may sway their thinking – indeed, they may even, without realising they are doing it, use the noise of the crowd as a cue for the seriousness of the foul. This would inevitably bias their decisions against the away team because of the noisy protests of the larger home crowd whenever one of their players was the victim of a foul.

An important caveat is that although the study took account of the number of fouls made by each team, the researchers don't have any objective measure (beyond the referees' card decisions) of the actual seriousness of the fouls committed. It's possible that away teams tend to commit more serious fouls than home teams, which if true would undermine the results.

Notwithstanding this possibility, the researchers said their results suggest that local supporters can influence referee decisions after a foul has been called. "One recommendation for supporters is that they should exert more social pressure in the moments immediately after a referee indicates that the away team has committed a foul," they said. Meanwhile, they recommended that referee training incorporate lessons on how to ignore irrelevant cues, such as crowd noise.


Picazo-Tadeo, A., González-Gómez, F., & Guardiola, J. (2016). Does the crowd matter in refereeing decisions? Evidence from Spanish soccer International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2015.1126852

--further reading--
Football fouls more likely to be given when play heads left
Race and foul judgments in football - it's not black and white

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

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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Link feast

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

Why We Should Talk to The Humans
Transcript of an inspiring talk by Dan Gilbert on why it is important for psychologists to engage with the public.

How to Have a Good Day (video)
In this recent talk at the RSA in London, Caroline Webb (author of the new book How to Have a Good Day) shows us how to use findings from behavioural economics, psychology, and neuroscience to transform our approach to everyday working life.

Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce
A new finding I covered for New York's Science of Us casts an old one in a very different, more free-will-friendly light.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts (new podcast)
Susan Cain, bestselling author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" hosts this new ten-part weekly series on parenting and teaching introverted children.

We Need to Rewrite the Textbook on How to Teach Teachers
At his Neurobonkers blog Simon Oxenham has the low down on a new report that "describes a vast and severe failure of teacher-training courses and the textbooks that accompany them to convey evidence-based practices; while delivering unsupported anecdotal evidence and well-debunked myths in spades".

Neuro-hit or Neuro-myth?
A new resource from the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Innovations In Mental Health (audio)
From Fitbits that monitor the sleep patterns of patients with schizophrenia to apps that help you manage your mood, tech is increasingly being seen as a viable alternative to traditional health and wellbeing techniques. Is it too good to be true, asks the latest edition of The Guardian's Tech Weekly podcast, presented by Nathalie Nahai.

What Little Babies See That You No Longer Can
Before developing perceptual constancy, three- to four-month-old babies have a striking ability to see image differences that are invisible to adults," writes  Susana Martinez-Conde at Scientific American. They lose this superior skill around the age of five months.

A Simple Way To Break A Bad Habit (video)
Newly released TED talk by Judson Brewer.

The Wonder and Fragility of Our Internal Lives
The Psychologist previews the new States of Mind Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

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

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Friday, 5 February 2016

Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test

There's a simple and fun way to test a toddler's self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it.

This is called the "mirror self-recognition test" (it's used to test self-awareness in animals too) and by age two most kids "pass" the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased. Using a more physical and social self-awareness test, Josephine Ross at the University of Dundee and her colleagues actually find more precocious performance in a non-Western (Zambian) group of toddlers.

The researchers tested 33 mother-child pairs in Ikelenge, Zambia (a rural culture that emphasises the important of interdependence); 31 in Dundee, Scotland (a typical Western culture that emphasises independence and autonomy); and 22 in Istanbul, Turkey (a mixed culture that emphasises both autonomy and interdependence). The children were all aged between 15 and 18 months.

The researchers first filmed the mothers and their children playing and looked for differences in their parenting style: whether it was more "distal" involving more talk and less physical contact, which is typical of Western cultures, or more "proximal", with more physical contact, which is more typical of non-Western interdependent cultures. During play, the mothers put a red sticker on their child's head. Then the children were given the mirror self-recognition test. The Scottish children showed the highest pass rate (47 per cent) followed by the Turkish children (41 per cent) and the Zambian children (15 per cent), consistent with past research.

Next, the researchers used a different test of self-awareness that actually originates in the writings of the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. The children were asked to push a toy trolley toward their mother while they were standing on a mat that was attached to the bottom of the trolley. To succeed they must realise that their body is holding down the mat and step off it to push the trolley.

Whereas the mirror test is about recognising that the self has a distinct visual identity (a concept consistent with Western notions of an independent, autonomous self), the trolley test is more about realising that the self is a physical object like other objects. There is also a more social, collaborative element to the test because it involves pushing the trolley towards another person. The researchers reasoned that children raised in a more interdependent culture would excel at the task and that's exactly what they found. Fifty per cent of the Zambian children passed the test, compared with 57 per cent of the Turkish and 23 per cent of the Scottish.

The measures of parenting style that the researchers looked at did not explain much of the cultural variance in performance, but they said that might be because they looked at the wrong things, such as eye contact and physical proximity and future research will need to explore other factors, such as mothers' attitudes towards teaching their children interdependence versus autonomy.

The Zambian children were less familiar with mirrors than the other children, but they were given the chance to explore one before the self-awareness test, and anyway, past research has shown that performance on the test is not related to mirror experience. The Zambian children were also more precocious walkers than the other children, which you might think would explain their superior performance (compared with the Scottish kids) on the trolley test, but in fact performance on the trolley test was not related to walking ability. In short, the researchers favour the idea that the cultural differences on the two tests are due to the distinct perspectives on the self that are encouraged in the different cultures, rather than to familiarity with the test equipment or simple physical skill.

"Whatever the explanation for the cultural difference," the researchers said, "this study highlights the necessity of recognising that the measurement of self-awareness is inextricably bound with the context of our development. More care needs to be taken in measuring self-awareness if valid cross-cultural comparisons are to be made."


Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12387

--further reading--
Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test
Study uncovers dramatic cross-cultural differences in babies' sitting ability

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

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

People who prioritise time over money are happier

A lot of has been written about how focusing too much on materialistic ambitions, at the expense of relationships and experiences, can leave us miserable and unfulfilled. In a new paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, a team of psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada argue that there's another important distinction to be made – between how much we prioritise time versus money. Those who favour time tend to be happier, possibly because this frees them to enjoy pleasurable and meaningful activities, although this has yet to be established.

The researchers led by Ashley Whillans first devised a quick and simple way to measure this difference in people. They asked just over 100 students to say whether they prioritised having more time or having more money, and to help them appreciate the distinction the researchers presented them with vignettes of two people – one who prioritises time:
Tina (male names were used for male participants) values her time more than her money. She is willing to sacrifice her money to have more time. For example, Tina would rather work fewer hours and make less money, than work more hours and make more money. 
And one who prioritises money:
Maggie values her money more than her time. She is willing to sacrifice her time to have more money. For example, Maggie would rather work more hours and make more money, than work fewer hours and have more time.
The students answered this question twice, three months apart and their two choices were highly consistent, which supports the idea that people's prioritisation of time versus money is a stable trait.

In several further studies involving thousands more students and adult members of the general public in Canada and the US, Whillans and her colleagues showed that people's answer to this one simple question correlated with their choices over various fictional scenarios, such as: whether they wanted to apply for a hypothetical higher salary/longer hours job or a lower salary/shorter hours alternative; whether they'd prefer a more expensive apartment with a shorter commute, or a cheaper alternative (to save money) and make a longer commute; and whether they actually chose a smaller cash reward for taking part in the study, versus a larger value reward token toward a time-saving service (such as a cleaner).

What's more, across the studies, people who said they prioritised time tended to report being happier. This was true based on various ways of measuring happiness and wellbeing, and the association held even after holding constant many other factors, such as people's salary, education, hours of work and age and gender. The researchers also measured people's materialism and the association between happiness and favouring time over money remained after taking this into account.

The researchers said that this relationship between prioritising time and being happier was "small but robust" – about half the size of the impact on happiness of things like being married and having more wealth. In an example of exemplary scholarship, the researchers make clear every factor they measured, every participant who was excluded and why, and the recruitment stopping rule for each study (i.e. how it was decided when to stop recruiting more participants). And perhaps most important, all their data is freely accessible via the Open Science initiative.

As so often, it's worth remembering that this data was only recorded at a single point in the lives of the participants, so it's not yet been established that having more a time-centric orientation versus money-centric actually causes greater happiness – as the researchers acknowledge, it's possible that being happier allows people to see the value in saving time to do fun things. As well as longitudinal research (that follows people's priorities and happiness over time), future studies could also establish how people's time vs. money priorities change in response to important life events such as having children or retirement (the current data suggest that older people tend to favour time), and whether it's possible to deliberately change one's orientation.

"Although causality cannot be inferred," the researchers concluded, "these data point to the possibility that valuing time over money is a stable preference that may provide one path to greater happiness."


Whillans, A., Weidman, A., & Dunn, E. (2016). Valuing Time Over Money Is Associated With Greater Happiness Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550615623842

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

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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Parenthood seems to have an opposite effect on how men and women perceive babies' emotions

In our part of the world, a growing proportion of fathers are rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in early child care. This has prompted increased interest from psychologists in any similarities or differences in the way that mothers and fathers interact with their children. One finding is that fathers tend to engage in more physical play, whereas mothers spend more time playing with toys and interacting socially. A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology takes a fresh approach, asking whether mothers and fathers perceive babies' emotional expressions differently. The results, while tentative, suggest that parenthood may lead women to become more sensitive to babies' emotions, while men actually become less sensitive.

Christine Parsons at the University of Oxford and her colleagues asked 110 women and men to look at and rate 50 images of 10 babies expressing strongly positive and negative emotions, muted positive and negative emotions, or exhibiting a neutral expression. There were 29 mothers (average age 29), 26 fathers (average age 28), and 29 women who weren't mothers (average age 26), and 26 men who weren't fathers (average age 28). The parents all had infants aged less than 18 months. The participants rated the babies' emotions by using a vertical sliding scale from "very positive" to "very negative".

Men and women who weren't parents didn't differ in the way that they rated the babies' emotions. In contrast, among the parents, mothers tended to rate the babies' positive emotions more positively and their strongest negative emotions more negatively, compared with the fathers. Moreover, mothers tended to give more extreme ratings to the babies' emotions than women who weren't mothers, whereas fathers showed a tendency to rate the babies' emotions as less intense than men who weren't fathers.

Taken together, the researchers said this suggests that parenthood affects women's and men's perceptions of infant emotions differently: "It may be that motherhood increases women's perception of the intensity of emotion in infant faces, whereas fatherhood decreases men's perception," they said. These results are preliminary and there's a need now for longitudinal research that follows the same participants over time; the current study also doesn't speak to why this gender difference emerges after parenthood. However, the researchers speculated that "If mothers and fathers [really do] perceive the same infant emotional expressions in different ways, this may contribute to the sex differences in interaction styles that are frequently observed."


Parsons, C., Young, K., Jegindoe Elmholdt, E., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. (2016). Interpreting infant emotional expressions: parenthood has differential effects on men and women The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2016.1141967

--further reading--
Men are as motivated by cute baby faces as women
How becoming a father changes your brain
10 surprising things babies can do

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

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