Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Are extraverts or introverts more cooperative? It depends on the situation

Our achievements as a species owe a debt to our willingness to cooperate. But we all vary in how we solve the social dilemma – whether in any given situation we choose to favour self-interest or cooperation. This issue has long fascinated researchers, who delight in testing people’s choices in hypothetical setups involving prisoners’ loyalty to each other or the sharing of community resources. But these setups have struggled to give us a clear picture of how personality tips people one way or another: for example, are extraverts more cooperative by instinct than introverts?

A new paper published in Philosophical Transactions B suggests that we need to use the right frame: the context surrounding a dilemma affects how it’s tackled by different personality types. Extraverts act more exploitatively in social dilemmas than introverts, the research shows, but only when they think they can get away with it.

The 177 undergraduate participants tackled a setup called the Public Goods Game, where they had to decide whether to hang onto their tokens or put them into a public pot, where they would swell in value before being shared between the game’s four players, collaborating over a computer network. If everyone invests, each player is better off, but such collaboration is not guaranteed so a token in the hand is still arguably worth more to a player than his or her share of the future public pot. Extra realism came from the fact that each player’s end-of-game tally of tokens was converted into real money once the study was over.

Kari Britt Schroeder and her colleagues found that over ten rounds of this game, extraverts were more likely to hold back tokens for themselves. But then the researchers shifted the rules so that now following each of the next ten rounds participants got to see how everyone else had invested during that round, and they also had the chance to assign other players negative tokens, which cost the giver one token but taxed the recipient three. In this punishment stage, extraverts were more generous than introverts, tending to put more of their tokens into the public pot.

The researchers expected to find these effects of personality on cooperation. Extraversion is known to make gaining rewards more appealing, creating a temptation to free-ride even though it may not be morally "right". But when the possibility of punishments kicks in, free-riding loses its appeal, and extraverts see more reward in banding together. Or perhaps the disincentive is the loss of social standing implied by being fined by others, as extraverts are particularly keen on positive attention. Regardless of the cause, the experiment shows that the larger context totally reconfigures the effect personality has on cooperation.

Clearly the same goes for real life. Most social dilemmas don’t take place in a vacuum; they require a context, often an institution armed with more or less power to discipline anti-social behaviour. You can’t be punished for selfish behaviour in the park, but you can be at work – unless, maybe, your father is the boss. So researching social dilemmas with more consideration of this institutional weight will hopefully be the key to a better understanding of who in a given context is likely to be more prone to selfish temptation ... and perhaps help us figure out a way forward through the social dilemmas that the 21st century poses to us.


Schroeder, K., Nettle, D., & McElreath, R. (2015). Interactions between personality and institutions in cooperative behaviour in humans Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370 (1683) DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0011

--further reading--
How can we increase altruism towards future generations?
In search of the super-humane (those who identify with all of humanity)
How the threat of violence can make us nice to each other

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

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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Embrace your bad moods and they may not take such a toll on you

"Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people" from Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last
Generally speaking, being in a bad mood isn't just no fun, it also isn't good for you – people who feel negative emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness a lot of the time tend to have poorer social lives and suffer worse physical health in the long run, suggesting that dark moods take a toll. But a new study published in Emotion shows how this isn't a uniform truth. Bad moods don't have an adverse effect on everyone to the same degree. The crucial difference seems to be how much people see that there can be value, meaning and even satisfaction in bad moods – those who appreciate this tend to suffer fewer ill effects from the supposedly darker sides of their psyche.

Gloria Luong and her colleagues interviewed 365 German participants (aged 14 to 88) about their attitudes to negative and positive emotions, and about their mental and physical health (physical health was measured subjectively by self-report and also objectively by a grip strength test). The researchers also monitored the participants' mood states over a three-week period using smart phones. Six times a day during nine days in a 3-week period, the participants were prompted by the phones to indicate how good or bad they were feeling at that time (the participants gave ratings of how much they were feeling various positive and negative mood states, such as their joy and enthusiasm and their anger and disappointment, among others, and the researchers took averages of these to calculate their overall amount of positive or negative mood).

Just as the researchers predicted, the links between people's frequency of bad moods and negative outcomes (in terms of mental and physical health) varied depending on the attitudes they held toward negative emotion. Those participants who had negative attitudes toward bad moods tended to pay a price: the more negative moods they experienced, the poorer their mental and physical health, both in the moment and longer term (for example, based on their number of health complaints). However, among the participants who had a more positive attitude toward bad moods, these links were mostly reduced, or in some cases even absent completely.

There are different ways to interpret these results: for example, perhaps not suffering from the ill effects of bad moods helps people not to have such a negative view of bad moods. But Luong and her team favour a different account. They think recognising the value and meaning of negative moods and emotions probably helps prevent those dark mood states from taking such an adverse toll, possibly by "dampening the magnitude and/or duration of the concomitant physiological arousal and psychological distress associated with negative affect [affect is another word for emotion]." Future research will need to test this and other explanations.

It's worth noting, there were some exceptions to the protective effect of valuing negative moods. For example, even among participants who held negative moods in a positive light, the more negative moods they felt, the lower their life satisfaction tended to be. The researchers speculate this may be because when making such a sweeping judgment about their lives, people use an internal gauge of their mood levels as one way to reach an answer, even if, on reflection, they recognise the value and meaning of those negative moods.

Another caveat is that this research was conducted exclusively in Germany. Past research has already revealed cultural differences that are relevant to this topic – for example, German people are less motivated to avoid negative emotions than Americans, and some cultures are actually fearful of too much happiness – so we need more research to see if the current findings apply in other cultural contexts.

These notes of caution aside, the research raises the empowering possibility that negative feelings needn't always take such a toll, not if we can learn to see the value and meaning they may have (for example, recognising that anger can sometimes be empowering, that sadness can be poignant and bring us closer to one another, and so on). If this effect can be replicated in future research, it may pave the way for mental health interventions based on this principle of seeing the positive side of bad moods.


Luong, G., Wrzus, C., Wagner, G., & Riediger, M. (2015). When Bad Moods May Not Be So Bad: Valuing Negative Affect Is Associated With Weakened Affect–Health Links. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000132

--further reading--
Other people may experience more misery than you realise
What's the difference between a happy life and a meaningful one?
How happiness campaigns could end up making us sadder
Why do people like listening to sad music when they're feeling down?
Why do we sometimes like getting sad together?
The unexpected benefits of anxiety

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

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Monday, 23 November 2015

On some issues, liberals are more dogmatic than conservatives

In the liberal worldview, conservatives are notoriously narrow-minded – and for years we’ve had the science to prove it. Meta-analyses published in 2003 and 2010 of dozens of studies using different measures revealed a consensus on "the rigidity of the right" – that is, people who hold more right-wing views tend to be more close-minded. Case closed? Or should we be open to other perspectives, such as the one offered in a new article published recently in Political Psychology. Produced by a research team lead by Lucian Conway of the University of Montana, it shows how classic measures of close-mindedness may be bedevilled by topic bias. When the subject matter is switched out, it’s the left who’re locked-in.

The study reports on two measures of close-mindedness, the first being dogmatism: taking simplistic, inflexible viewpoints. Researchers usually measure dogmatism using a well-established scale developed by social psychologist Milton Rokeach in 1960, but Conway’s team scrutinised this scale and noted that the wording of its items is coloured by opinion and ideologically charged topics. They suspected that this makes the scale prone to being distorted by people’s attitudes on particular matters, rather providing a fair measure of their dogmatism on a more abstract level.

To get round this, the researchers asked 475 undergraduates to complete either the original Rokeach scale, or one of two amended versions with items that repeatedly and explicitly referenced religion or the environment. To take one example, an item from the Rokeach scale asks people to say whether they agree that “a group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for long” (agreeing would be taken as a sign of dogmatism) whereas in the amended versions the reference to a group became specifically a “religious group” or “environmental group” (and this kind of religious or environmental context was applied consistently through the two alternative versions of the dogmatism scale).

Higher scorers on dogmatism on the original Rokeach tended to have more conservative worldviews, replicating the well-known effect that right-wingers tend to be more fixed in their views. The same was true with the religious version, with very similar correlations. But crucially, for the environmental version, the correlation actually went in the reverse direction: liberals were more dogmatic than conservatives. In other words, it’s not necessarily the case that conservatives are uniformly more stubborn minded than liberals, rather it depends on the topic at hand.

The researchers also investigated people’s tendency to put forward complex arguments, specifically their willingness to give legitimacy to opposing viewpoints. While we may think liberals are the ones more likely to weigh up many points of view, perhaps to a woolly-thinking fault, this data showed the same pattern: whether we favour nuance depends on the topic we’re looking at. Two large studies (involving over 2000 students) asked people to write a short essay on one of a variety of topics, with the essays then rated by trained coders. The researchers found that while conservative students were more one-sided than their more liberal peers on some issues – censorship or the question of whether "people should find out if they are sexually suited before marriage" – they were actually more nuanced than them on others, such as smoking, or whether the death penalty should be abolished.

The researchers also turned their eye to a face-off that would seem to epitomise "qualification vs. Manichean" thinking styles: the US Presidential Candidates Debates between John Kerry and George W Bush that took place in 2004. Yet analysis of paragraphs sampled from the three debates suggested the speakers were similarly complex in their arguments. By digging into the topics discussed, the same pattern arises again: on certain topics – Iraq, abortion, education – Kerry was more nuanced. But on others, such as stem cells or affirmative action, Bush was.

Liberals reading this may well feel that Kerry, or the liberal students above, were correct to be absolute on the topics they were, because there is no room for debate on these issues. But that’s the point: conservatives feel the same about their domains. The question is whether we can therefore make claims about generalised narrow-mindedness. Now, we ought to recognise that there are measures unaddressed by this study that contribute to the evidence for rigidity of the right, such as their reportedly higher need for closure and dislike of highly complex or ambiguous art. But regardless of whether such arguments are also prone to the current content critique, or immune to it, we should pause before making unilateral, simplistic claims about the unilateral simplicity of conservatives.


Conway, L., Gornick, L., Houck, S., Anderson, C., Stockert, J., Sessoms, D., & McCue, K. (2015). Are Conservatives Really More Simple-Minded than Liberals? The Domain Specificity of Complex Thinking Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12304

--further reading--
Think less and become more conservative
Why conservatives are happier than liberals
Comparing Obama's and Romney's speech styles and the way their audiences react
Feeling like you're an expert can make you closed-minded

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

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Link feast

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

The Five-point Plan to Help Paris Survivors Recover From Attacks
New Scientist speaks to UCL psychologist Chris Brewin.

The Problem With the Argument That People ‘Ignored’ Terrorism in Beirut, But Not in Paris
It's human nature not to, and not worth shaming people over, writes Jesse Singal at New York's Science of Us.

Bad Thoughts Can’t Make You Sick, That’s Just Magical Thinking
So argues Angela Kennedy on the new Opinion page at the recently relaunched Aeon magazine.

Is Serotonin The Happy Brain Chemical, and Do Depressed People Just Have Too Little of It? 
This is the debut post from Oxford University neuroscience grad student Sofia Deleniv on her new blog The Neurosphere.

Championing Responsible Antibiotic Use
Ella Rhodes at The Psychologist reports on a role for psychology and psychologists in tackling a major societal issue.

The Virtue of Contradicting Ourselves
We don’t just loathe inconsistencies in others; we hate them in ourselves, too. But why?" asks Adam Grant in this New York Times op-ed. "What makes contradictions so revolting — and should they be?"

Brain Scans Can Help Explain Why Self-Affirmation Works
Simply reflecting on what's important to you seems to bolster your psychological defenses, according to this new study that I covered for New York's Science of Us.

Can You Think Yourself Into A Different Person?
We used to believe our brains couldn’t be changed. Now we believe they can – if we want it enough. But is that true? Will Storr at Mosaic wades through the facts and fiction.

The Observer Corps
As the "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies" (BRAIN) initiative gets going in earnest, the Economist asks What is the way best to study the brain? Big labs or small?

Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Attractive? (audio)
From the latest Guardian Science Weekly podcast: Should we distrust our own ability to reason? Why is debunking conspiracy theories such a risky business? And is David Icke a force for good?
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 20 November 2015

In search of the optimum level of trust between human and machine

A computer screen at the NASA flight control room is used to
remotely pilot a Proteus aircraft during flight demonstrations of
collision avoidance systems. April 3, 2003 in Mojave, California.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
By guest blogger Craig Aaen-Stockdale

We live in a world where volatile industrial processes, military actions and our morning commute are increasingly controlled by automated systems. The arrival of the autonomous vehicle on our roads, drones in our skies and unmanned vessels at sea throws into sharp relief the challenges faced in collaboration between human and machine.

It might seem counter-intuitive, ridiculous even, to discuss matters of trust between human and machine; but a relationship of trust between people and the automated systems they use is often a critical factor in making these systems safe and efficient. Trusting that an automated system can handle the more hum-drum aspects of its assignment with a minimum of human interference frees up its operators for tasks that are more deserving of their attention that might require more human skills such as problem-solving, improvisation and ingenuity. But trust is a delicate balance. Trusting an automated system too much, perhaps adopting a hands-off approach, can lead to delays, inefficiencies and risk of damage or injury when there is no goal-directed supervision of its behaviour or if the environment in which it is operating changes. Not trusting an automated system enough, on the other hand, by constantly tweaking its assignment parameters or continuously monitoring it, takes the operator’s attention away from tasks that require human intervention and can even render the idea of automating the system redundant.

Trust, or the lack of it, between human and machine can also impact much simpler systems than the automated vehicles of the future. For example, in a control room, multiple telecommunication functions – radio, telephone, e-mail, emergency telephone and public announcement system – can now easily be integrated into single touch-screen devices. However, many older operators do not trust that these devices will function correctly in an emergency situation and prefer to have hard-wired back-ups available, leading to unnecessary expense, project management time and, ultimately, a cluttered control room environment – which brings with it yet more ergonomic problems.

In a new paper published in Human Factors, researchers at MIT have investigated what sorts of characteristics make someone a good operator of unmanned vehicles, and how operators can be encouraged to trust the automated systems that are under their influence, leaving them to take care of the mundane aspects of an operation. Specifically, Andrew Clare and his colleagues tested how easily operators can be primed through simple verbal prompts to have just the right level of trust in the machines with which they are, for want of a better word, collaborating. "Collaboration" is a more appropriate term to use here than "controlling", "commanding" or "operating". The vessels are making many of the decisions themselves based on algorithms that optimise their respective workload, schedules and tasks. The human operator sets the high-level goals for the team of vessels, but does not control any one vessel directly.

Forty-eight participants were recruited from the local university population and the researchers gave them the task of controlling a simulated team of autonomous vehicles searching an area for hostile forces and targeting them for weapons deployment. The task was a computer-based simulation, based on existing software for controlling multiple autonomous vehicles. The algorithms that controlled the "vehicles" were written to be deliberately imperfect, thereby requiring some intervention by the participant to optimise their performance. While being trained in the use of the interface, participants in the positively- or negatively-primed groups were given a short passage to read which consisted of actual quotes from participants in a previous experiment. For the positively-primed participants, the quotes reflected positive naturalistic impressions of the software, for example, “The system is easy to use and intuitive to work with.” For the negatively-primed participants, the quotes reflected dissatisfaction with the system, for example, “I did not always understand decisions made by the automated scheduler.” The third group received no priming passage during training.
The control interface used in the task. Image from Clare et al, 2015.
A participant’s performance was quantified via various metrics such as the amount of area covered, the percentage of targets found, the percentage of hostile targets correctly destroyed and the percentage of non-hostile targets incorrectly destroyed. Trust in the automated system was measured by questionnaire after the experiment and online subjective assessments of current perceived performance trust in the automated system and expectations of performance were taken throughout the experiment via a scale that popped-up on-screen at regular intervals.

There were a wide range of trust levels amongst the participants, and as you’d expect, positive-priming lead to higher ratings of trust, while negative-priming lead to lower ratings of trust. However, across all subjects, there were no significant differences in performance between the different priming groups. Upon picking apart their subject pool, Clare and colleagues discovered that priming was, however, significantly affecting the performance of participants who were regular or experienced players of computer games.

It has long been known that experienced gamers suffer from "automation bias" or a tendency to over-trust automation. In the initial stages of this experiment, gamers who had been positively primed, or had not been primed at all, trusted the (deliberately sub-optimal) algorithms too much. Trust has substantial inertia, even when we are talking about trust in non-conscious machines: many small errors will be "forgiven" whilst a single significant error – a "betrayal" if you will – poisons the relationship immediately and trust has to be rebuilt over a long period of time. The initial over-confidence in the automated system displayed by the positively-primed or non-primed gamers took considerable time to unlearn, which lead to higher subjective ratings of trust in the system, but ultimately worse performance. Gamers who had been negatively primed, on the other hand, began with a much more sceptical view of the system (closer to that of the non-gamers) and as a result of this scepticism of the system, they took more action to correct the behaviour of their search teams. In other words, negative priming improved gamers’ performance, in that it recalibrated their level of trust in the automated systems to more appropriate levels.

The findings of this and similar studies can be used for developing both recruitment strategies and training programs for supervisors of autonomous vehicles. Based on their experiences with technology, some recruits will benefit from prompting to be more or less trustful of automated systems. Identification of recruits who might be too trusting or distrustful of automation, combined with introduction of appropriate priming into their training could act to reduce the amount of training time, and exposure to an automated system’s actual performance that is required to build an effective human-machine team.

Automated systems will never be perfect, and it is likely that they will remain under human supervision for some time, if not permanently. However, unmanned vehicles and their human operators can make a powerful – and safe – team if we can strike a balance between blind faith in technology and our more Luddite instincts. We merely have to find the Goldilocks Zone for our interaction with technology: not too trusting, not too distrustful, but just right.


Clare, A., Cummings, M., & Repenning, N. (2015). Influencing Trust for Human-Automation Collaborative Scheduling of Multiple Unmanned Vehicles Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 57 (7), 1208-1218 DOI: 10.1177/0018720815587803

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by Craig Aaen-Stockdale, Principal Consultant / Technical Lead, Human Factors & Ergonomics at Lloyd’s Register Consulting in Oslo, Norway. Previously Aaen-Stockdale has worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University in Montreal, and at Bradford School of Optometry & Vision Science. In 2012 he was a visiting research fellow at Buskerud University College in Kongsberg, Norway.

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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Why do people find some nonsense words like "finglam" funnier than others like "sersice"

Calm down, it's not that funny! 
When you're trying to understand a complex phenomenon, a sensible approach is to pare things back as far as possible. For a new study, published recently in the Journal of Memory and Language, psychologists have applied that very principle to test a popular theory of humour.

The theory states that, fundamentally, we are most often amused when we are surprised by, and then resolve, an apparent incongruity: a word that didn't mean what we originally thought, say, or a person not being who we first expected and so on (also known as expectancy violation). It can be difficult to test this theory because in real life jokes and funny situations so many other factors come into play (such as cultural knowledge or people's reputations), layered atop this fundamental mechanism. To test the theory in its purest terms, Chris Westbury and his colleagues have explored the possibility that some nonsense words are inherently funnier than others at least in part because they are simply just less expected.

The researchers first established that some nonsense words are consistently rated as funnier than others. To do this, they used a computer programme to generate thousands of random nonsense words and then asked nearly a thousand students to rate them for funniness. To make sure the nonsense words were viable and pronounceable, the programme was computed to make sure that every three letters in each nonsense word actually appeared in a real English word. Any words that sounded the same as actual real words (but spelt differently) were removed.

The first key finding was that there was a significant amount of consistency in the students' ratings – that is, some nonsense words were consistently rated as funny (such as blablesoc), while others were consistently rated as unfunny (such as exthe). This was true even after all the rude-sounding nonsense words were removed, an important step since the researchers didn't want implied meanings to contaminate the results. Among the rude-sounding words were whong, dongl, focky, and clunt, which consistently attracted the highest humour ratings before being removed.

Next, to specifically test the theory that humour is often based on resolved incongruities, the researchers created a new list of nonsense words and calculated the entropy of each – this essentially means quantifying how unlikely each word was; that is, how far removed it is from being a real word. The researchers predicted that the less entropy in a nonsense word (i.e. the less "wordy" it was), the funnier it would be, because it would more strongly challenge people's expectation for what counts as a real word. Among the lowest entropy words used in the study included subvick, quingel, and probble, while among the highest entropy words were tatinse, retsits and tessina (rude-sounding words were again removed).

Two experiments supported the researchers' predictions: when comparing the humorousness of pairs of nonsense words, 56 participants consistently gave higher funniness ratings to the lower entropy word, and also when simply rating the nonsense words for their humour value, lower entropy words tended to receive higher ratings. The researchers said these results are entirely in line with the expectation violation theory: "Nonwords [are sometimes] funny because they violate our expectations of what a word is," they said. As to why we find unexpected events, including nonsense words, funny, perhaps even chuckling a little out loud, Westbury and his team said their findings can be interpreted in line with a recent evolutionary account of humour:

"... it has proven adaptive across evolutionary time for us to be structured in a way that makes us involuntarily let conspecifics [friends and family] know about anomalies that we have recognised are not at all dangerous, since anomalies are generally experienced as frightening."

The researchers added that as well as supporting the resolved incongruity theory of humour, their results also have some potential applied uses. For example, testing patients reactions to nonsense words could provided a very sensitive and subtle measure of their sense of humour, which can be impaired by brain damage or illness. "The effect may also have practical effects in product naming," they said. "If it can be shown that the computable funniness of a name is a relevant factor in consumer behaviour. We predict that consumers will strongly prefer (funny nonsense words) 'whook' or 'mamessa' to (unfunny nonsense words) 'turth' or 'suppect' for a new product name."


Westbury, C., Shaoul, C., Moroschan, G., & Ramscar, M. (2016). Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humor as entropy Journal of Memory and Language, 86, 141-156 DOI: 10.1016/j.jml.2015.09.001

--further reading--
How many psychologists does it take to explain a joke? Psychologist magazine feature.
Why it's apt - psycho-acoustically speaking - that Darth Vader wasn't called Barth Vaber

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

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What happens when you fall in love with someone who's aggressive?

Does experiencing aggression in a relationship make us more vigilant against it – or more forgiving? New research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when we want to keep our partner badly enough, we redefine the levels of aggression that we believe it is justifiable to endure.

Aggression can manifest in obvious violations such as controlling behaviours or physical violence, but also includes more common behaviours – denigrating a partner, or threatening to leave them. Drawing the line with these isn’t guided by societal absolute, but depends on individual discretion. Could that discretion be influenced by exposure to aggression?

Ximena Arriaga and her colleagues investigated this through research with students currently in a relationship. The students reported their experience of aggression in their own relationships, then responded to a list of specific aggressive behaviours, revealing in each case whether or not they would tolerate such behaviours. Examples on the list included a partner who “refused to talk about an issue with you” or “belittled you in front of others.”

Three separate studies involving more than a thousand participants showed that participants were more tolerant of aggressive behaviours if their current partner had already committed an act of aggression toward them. This can be explained in terms of the need to feel consistent and avoid dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is appropriate: if you’ve stayed in spite of what they’ve done, you'll find it harder to see similar acts as a basis for leaving in the future.

A further longitudinal study (that surveyed participants repeatedly over several weeks) showed that initial levels of commitment to one’s current partner was also an important factor that was associated with people being more tolerant of later acts of aggression. At the start of the study, many participants had yet to experience aggression from their partner, but some had a different story to tell by the time of the final data collection eight or ten weeks later. Did these twenty individuals who had newly experienced aggression become more accepting of aggressive behaviours? Only some did: those who were strongly committed to their relationship. If you want it to succeed badly enough, you justify. And a further study showed this tendency to be very focused on making this relationship work: highly committed people were no more likely to tolerate (hypothetical) aggression when it was described as being directed towards a stranger, but became forgiving when they had to imagine it directed at them from their current partner.

These findings suggest that, at least in this sample, tolerance of aggressive partners is driven more by the present relationship than past history. Another intriguing detail from the longitudinal study was that it found that the participants’ stated tolerance to aggression at the start of the study was no predictor of who experienced aggression by its end, meaning that it gives no evidence of tolerant people gravitating to (or attracting) aggressors. And across the studies, aggression history prior to the current relationship wasn’t associated with current tolerance levels, once other factors were taken into account. Rather, the main driver seems to be the motivation to make the current relationship work, and seem workable, even if that means redrawing the lines that a loved one is not supposed to cross.

Postscript. Across almost every study, gender came out as a significant factor: the male participants were more tolerant and more willing to stay in relationships that involved aggressions. This was unexpected, but may reflect a reluctance within men to define their partners as aggressors and themselves in some sense as victims, as seen in low reporting rates of domestic violence against men.


Arriaga, X., Capezza, N., & Daly, C. (2015). Personal Standards for Judging Aggression by a Relationship Partner: How Much Aggression Is Too Much? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000035

--further reading--
Men who are ashamed of their bodies are more prone to sexual aggression against women - US study
Why do some men insult their partners?

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

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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sports psychologists understand surprisingly little about "the yips"

Two-time Masters Champion Bernhard Langer
has battled the yips throughout his career. He told
the Telegraph
they are: "an involuntary and uncontrollable
movement of the muscles, resulting in a fast,
jerky, uncontrolled putting stroke. It is like a muscle
 spasm; you hold the putter this way or that way
 - it doesn't matter - and sometimes you can't take it back.
You freeze, you totally freeze - or you just jerk."
Image: Wikipedia
A golf champion prepares for the easiest of putts on the final green, only for his wrist to jerk suddenly, sending the ball wide of the mark. A darts player pulls back his arm for a winning throw, takes aim, but finds he can't let go. Incidences like this – in which highly skilled sports players find their fine motor control has gone awry – are incredibly common (some surveys find over 50 per cent of skilled golfers have experienced it). And yet a new review published in the International Review of Sports and Exercise Psychology makes it clear that psychologists really know surprisingly little about what causes "the yips" (also known as "dartitis" in darts) or how best to intervene to help.

Philip Clarke and his colleagues trawled the sports psychology literature for relevant English language articles published between 1989 and 2013. They identified 25 papers that involved study of the yips, which the authors define as "a psycho-neuromuscular impediment affecting the execution of fine motor skills during sporting performance." Together, these studies involved 876 sports people who experienced the yips and 1003 competitors without the condition. Most of the research is on golf players, but a minority of studies have involved other sports including running, cricket, tennis and shooting.

Research conducted on the yips to date falls into three main categories: psychological research, physiological studies and neurological studies. The psychological research has focused mainly on the role of anxiety, with mixed results. Competitors' subjective accounts of the yips suggest that anxiety is key, yet studies that have compared sufferers and non-sufferers have often failed to reveal any differences in their levels of state (i.e. in the moment) or trait anxiety. There are also mixed findings regarding the role of obsessional thoughts and perfectionism, with the evidence to date suggesting that self-consciousness (i.e. the feeling of being watched) might be most relevant.

Regarding physiological research, most studies have used electromyography to record athletes' muscular activity and there's some evidence here that people who experience the yips have higher than normal muscle activity in some situations, and in turn that this extra activation can affect technique and performance. Neurological research, nearly all of it based on case studies, has failed to find evidence of dystonia (pathological muscle spasms) or other neurological illness in yips sufferers.

Crossing these research categories are other studies that have looked at interventions, including but not limited to, the use of drugs that are usually used in the treatment of Parkinson's Disease, which proved effective; a form of alternative therapy known as the "emotional freedom technique", which also supposedly helped; and acupuncture (also apparently helpful). But crucially, this intervention research has all been based on case studies (that is the stories of one or two people, rather than properly controlled trials) – in other words, this is the kind of evidence that would carry little weight were it used to support treatments for more serious medical conditions.

Part of the reason there's so much inconsistency in the research on the causes of the yips, explain Clarke and his team, is that until recently nearly all studies failed to distinguish between sports players who experienced purely physical yips in the absence of any psychological aspect, and those who experience the converse – choking mentally, but without the physical jerks or other uncontrolled movements (referred to as type 1 and type 2 yips). Clarke's team say future research should also recognise a third group (type 3), who experience the physical element of the yips and the psychological element.

Another limitation of the research conducted on the yips to date is that it has all been exclusively cross-sectional in design, making it very difficult to establish whether, for example, stress and performance-anxiety causes the yips, or if instead, experiencing the yips prompts performance anxiety. Clarke and his colleagues conclude that we need more research into the yips, especially longitudinal in design and in sports besides golf. The yips – a topic which is attracting increased interest from sports psychologists and scientists, but which remains in "its infancy".


Clarke, P., Sheffield, D., & Akehurst, S. (2015). The yips in sport: A systematic review International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-29 DOI: 10.1080/1750984X.2015.1052088

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

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Monday, 16 November 2015

Being true to yourself may protect against the harmful effects of loneliness

A lot has been written about the downward spiral of loneliness. People who crave more social contact often develop behaviours and thinking styles that only serve to accentuate their isolation, such as turning to drink and becoming more sensitive to perceived slights and rejections. Less studied is the question of whether some people have personality traits that give them a buffer against these loneliness-related risks. A new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology finds a promising candidate that appears to fit this description – authenticity, or being true to yourself.

Jennifer Bryan and her colleagues surveyed 537 undergrads (average age 22; age range 18 to 60), nearly three quarters of whom were female. The students filled out questionnaires about how lonely they felt; their mood; any unpleasant physical symptoms they'd experienced in the last month; how much alcohol they typically drank on a daily basis and whether they had a drink problem; and finally their authenticity.

To get a sense of what the researchers really mean by "authenticity" let's look in more detail at that last questionnaire. It consisted of 45-items in four categories: Awareness, which means how much someone is motivated to understand themselves (points are awarded for agreement with statements like "For better or worse I am aware of who I truly am"); Behaviour, which measures how much the person actually acts in accordance with their values and beliefs; Related Orientations, which is about how open and honest the person is in their relationships; and finally, Unbiased Processing, which speaks to how much someone can accurately evaluate themselves without being misled by what other people say or do. The researchers averaged across these subscales to give their participants an overall authenticity score.

The main result is straightforward. Across the whole group of students, feeling more lonely tended to correlate with being feeling more depressed and anxious; having more physical symptoms and more drink problems. Sadly, this is consistent with prior research on the sequelae of loneliness. But here's the thing: among those students who scored more highly on authenticity, these associations were all reduced. That is, if you felt lonely but you also scored highly on authenticity, then your depression and anxiety tended to be lower, so too your drink problems and physical symptoms.

This is a cross-sectional study – it only involved taking measures at one point in time – so we need to interpret the results with caution (we also don't know if the same findings would apply to a different demographic group, such as elderly people). But one hopeful interpretation of these results is that being true to yourself provides a kind of protection against the usual negative effects of being lonely.

Why might this be? Bryan and her colleagues posit a couple of explanations: First, perhaps highly authentic people don't overanalyse their lonely feelings – they don't see their loneliness as some kind of indictment of their personality, it's just the way things currently are. Second, authentic people are likely less inclined to try to get out of their lonely situation by hanging out with people they don't want to be with, or doing stuff they don't want to do. Yes, this might increase their isolation at first, but it probably helps prevent them from growing more bitter and resorting to counter-productive coping mechanisms like drinking too much.

Of course there's a lot of speculation here. We need a replication of the finding with a more robust longitudinal research methodology (that follows people's changing feelings and traits over time), and to test other demographics. What's exciting though, is that if the effect proves to be real, then it hints at a useful way to help lonely people – simply encourage them to be true to themselves. "Such an intervention would be uniquely beneficial," the researchers said, "as it would not require effort from others (who need to interact with the lonely individual)."


Bryan, J., Baker, Z., & Tou, R. (2015). Prevent the blue, be true to you: Authenticity buffers the negative impact of loneliness on alcohol-related problems, physical symptoms, and depressive and anxiety symptoms Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315609090

--further reading--
Researchers say: Don't worry what other people think, going out on your own can be fun
A preliminary psychology of "keeping it real"
Hiding negative emotions may take more of a toll on your relationship than faking positive ones, especially if you're extravert
Your personality can invite loneliness, and loneliness can shape your personality
Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain's structure and function
Lonely people's brains work differently

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

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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Link feast

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

Be It Resolved That Humankind's Best Days Lie Ahead (video)
Steve Pinker and Matt Ridley argued in favour of the proposition at the latest Munk Debate in Toronto. Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton argued against.

Can Psychology Help Solve Long-running Conflicts?
This BBC News article (and related radio show) explores new ideas that psychologists are testing which could offer a way of tackling seemingly intractable disputes.

Intelligence In The Flesh
Where we used to say ‘The body has a brain’ it now seems more accurate to say simply ‘The body is a brain’ writes Guy Claxton at The Psychologist.

Neuropolitics, Where Campaigns Try to Read Your Mind
The use of neuromarketing techniques to help political campaigns is on the rise in many parts of the world, reports Kevin Randall for the New York Times.

What's the Best Way To Stay Motivated? (video)
This video from The Atlantic highlights the work of Dan Ariely, as well as Daniel Pink and Teresa Amabile​, to explain how progress and meaning influence our motivation to work.

Implanting and Erasing Memories: Life-Changing, or Taking Science Too Far?
At her Gaines on Brains blog, Jordan Gaines Lewis discusses the ethical implications of research in rats that's shown it's possible to implant false memories by using light to activate small clusters of neurons.

David Halpern on Nudge Theory (video)
In this video excerpt from his recent talk at the RSA, the director of the UK's Behavioural Insights Team provides a primer on the principles behind the idea of nudging people's behaviour.

The Science of Human Hehavior is Reshaping the US Government
Dave Nussbaum at Quartz reports on the work of the White House’s one-year-old Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

How Being Optimistic in Your Teens Comes Back to Haunt You in Your 30s
"Enjoy your youth, kids, because life is pretty much downhill from your 30th birthday. This is, essentially, the bummer of a finding from a big new study examining happiness across the lifespan," writes Melissa Dahl at New York's Science of Us.

Psychologists' Betting Market Hints at Most Reliable Research Findings
Markets beat opinion polls in predicting which studies will be replicated successfully, reports Erika Check Hayden at Nature.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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