Saturday, 23 July 2016

Link feast

Our editor's pick of the 10 best psychology and neuroscience links from the last week or so:

The Psychological Tricks Behind Pokemon Go's Success
Nintendo's latest video game has become an overnight sensation. What’s the appeal?

Split Second Responses?
At The Psychologist magazine, Peter Squires, Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton, considers the research on police and guns, and calls for more psychological enquiry.

Mystery of What Sleep Does to Our Brains May Finally Be Solved
It's the brain's equivalent of housekeeping.

The Mystery of Urban Psychosis
Why are paranoia and schizophrenia more common in cities?

The Scientific Reality of the Addictive Personality – Insights From Cocaine-addicted Rats
Evidence from research labs tells us that it is indeed possible to produce rats with what appear to be ‘addictive personalities’ – something that was used in a recently published set of experiments by researchers from the University of Michigan.

Why Small Talk Is So Excruciating
To "talk well" in the social sense, to be adept at sending the correct social signals, is a different skill than "talking well" in the communicative sense.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Personality and Well-Being with Dr. Brian Little
Who am I? Am I just a product of nature and/or nurture? What does it mean to live a life of meaning and happiness? On this episode of The Psychology Podcast, Dr. Brian Little helps us explore these existentially significant questions.

Why You Don't Know Your Own Mind
It is assumed that your experience of your own consciousness clinches the assertion that you “know your own mind” in a way that no one else can. This is a mistake.

Human Brain Mapped in Unprecedented Detail
Nearly 100 previously unidentified brain areas revealed by examination of the cerebral cortex.

The Many Ways to Map the Brain
It takes both science and art to make sense of the organ’s complexities.

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

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Altruistic people have more sex

People who perform regular altruistic acts like giving
blood also tend to have more sex.
Viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology, altruism takes some explaining. In a dog eat dog world, it seems like a risky, indulgent habit. Yet we are only alive today because our distant ancestors were successful at reproducing – and the fact many of us have inherited their altruistic tendencies suggests that being altruistic gave them some kind of survival or reproductive advantage.

One idea is that altruism is advantageous because it is often reciprocated. Another is that altruism is a "costly signal" that tells potential sexual partners you would make a good mate – if you've the freedom to be charitable, this suggests you must be capable and resourceful. Supporting this "costly signal" account, plentiful past research has shown that signs of altruism increase both men's and women's attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Now an article in the British Journal of Psychology has followed through on this logic to find out whether more altruistic people aren't just more attractive, but actually have more sex. This is an important test because as Steven Arnocky and his colleagues explain, "... it is actual mating outcomes which ultimately contribute to the evolution of particular phenotypes". Stated differently, if the more altruistic of our forebears were not only perceived as more attractive, but also had more sex, this would help explain why many modern humans have inherited the inclination to be altruistic.

One of the best indicators we have of whether our more altruistic forebears were likely to have had more sex is to see if, today, more altruistic people continue to have more sex than less altruistic people. That's what Arnocky and his team aimed to discover through two studies involving young adult Canadians.

They first asked 192 unmarried women and 105 unmarried men to describe their own altruistic tendencies, such as whether they give money to charity, donate blood, help people across the street and so on. They also asked them questions about their sexual history and their desirability to the opposite sex.

Men and women who scored higher on altruism said they were more attractive to, and received more interest from the opposite sex. Men, but not women, who scored higher on altruism also tended to report having had more sexual partners in their lifetime, and also more casual sexual partners specifically. Focusing on just those participants in a current long-term relationship, the more altruistic men and women in this group reported having more sex in their relationship over the last 30 days.

Results from Study 1. Green dashed line=male participants; red=female. Figure from Arnocky et al, 2016
Of course this first study was limited by its reliance on participants' descriptions of their own altruism. Perhaps people who have more sex are simply inclined to brag more about being altruistic. To overcome this problem, a second study involving 335 undergrads featured a test of actual altruistic tendencies by giving participants the opportunity to donate to charity their potential $100 winnings for taking part in the study.

The participants also answered questions about their sexual history, and this time there were measures of their narcissism and their tendency to give socially desirable answers (this last scale essentially involved participants rating statements about themselves – e.g. "I never regret any decisions" – as true or not, and it was possible to tell from the answers if someone was painting an unrealistically positive image of themselves).

Even factoring out the narcissists and higher scorers on the social desirability scale, the second study found that actual altruistic tendencies correlated with having more sex. Among men only, this included having had more sexual partners in the past, and among men and women, having had more casual sex partners in their lifetime, and more sex partners in the past year.

The researchers said their findings add to past research on hunter-gatherer tribes that have shown men who hunt and who share more meat among non-relatives also tend to have more sex. The new results also converge with past evidence suggesting that altruistic men and women are seen as more desirable.

"The present study provides the first empirical evidence that altruism may tangibly benefit mating in humans living in Western industrialised society,"  the researchers said,  "and that sex differences might exist with respect to the utility of altruism for mating, whereby it is a more effective signal for men than for women."

One big caveat, acknowledged by the researchers – these results are correlational so it's not clear which way the causal juices are flowing. An alternative interpretation of the results is that having more sex and sexual partners encourages people to feel generous towards others and be more altruistic. We'll have to await longitudinal research that charts people's sexual habits and altruism over time to settle this question, though the idea that altruism leads to more sex is certainly consistent with the past evidence suggesting altruistic behaviour causes increases in a person's desirability.


Arnocky, S., Piché, T., Albert, G., Ouellette, D., & Barclay, P. (2016). Altruism predicts mating success in humans British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12208

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

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Thursday, 21 July 2016

You're more likely to be (unintentionally) plagiarised by someone who is the same sex as you

Look at some of the most high-profile plagiarism scandals, such as Joe Biden's supposed borrowing from Neil Kinnock, novelist Kaavya Viswanathan's "unintentional" plagiarism of Megan McCafferty and Meg Cabot, science writer Jonah Lehrer's lifting words from this blog, and this week, Melania Trump's echoing of phrases used previously by Michelle Obama (though a speech-writer has taken the blame for this).

Notice a pattern?

In each case, the alleged plagiarists copied others of the same sex. This is anecdotal of course and there are exceptions to the rule – for instance Viswanathan is also alleged to have copied from Salman Rushdie. And yet, maybe there is a psychological phenomenon at work here, especially in instances of unintentional plagiarism – known technically as cryptomnesia – where the plagiarist believes at a conscious level that their words are original, not remembering their true provenance.

For a new study in the journal Memory, Timothy Hollins and his colleagues asked dozens of participants to attend the psych lab and, in pairs, to generate words fitting different subject categories such as Articles of Clothing, Fruit, or Four-Footed Animals. Crucially, some participants did this in same-sex pairs and others in opposite-sex pairs. A week later the participants were recalled to the lab where some of them had to recall just the ideas they'd produced, some had to recall just their partner's ideas, while others attempted to recall both their own and their partner's ideas at the same time under two separate lists.

When asked to recall just their own ideas, or just their partner's, participants were more likely to make errors when their partner was the same sex as them – that is, mistakenly claiming their partner's ideas as their own, or more commonly, their own ideas as their partner's. Presumably having a partner of the same sex made it easier to confuse in memory whose ideas were whose. However, this effect of partner similarity was not present for those participants who were asked to recall separate lists of their own and their partner's ideas at the same time, showing that the confusing effect of partner similarity on memory was surmountable when given a more explicit prompt to make the distinction.

In further, similar experiments with more participants, the researchers looked to see what effect it made at the recall stage whether a participant's partner was present or not. This time, the results showed that participants were more likely to mistakenly recall their partner's memories as their own when their partner was absent, but again only when asked to recall just their own memories, not when asked to list separately their own and their partner's memories. Presumably the presence of a partner made it easier (and more important) to remember whose ideas were whose, although this memory aid had no noticeable benefit when participants were prompted more explicitly to distinguish idea ownership through making separate lists.

Admittedly, these interesting studies are far removed from plagiarism in the real world. As the researchers themselves noted: "Real world interactions, unlike our experiments, rarely involve people taking turns to generate solutions in the knowledge that their memory will be tested later. Additionally, our participants may not have been particularly motivated to claim ownership of generation of a category member in the way that they may care about the genesis of an original scientific idea, a business idea, or a creative output."

Nonetheless, the findings highlight an important, basic memory phenomenon that may play out in the real world – it seems we probably are more likely to confuse our ideas with those of another person when we and they are more similar.

Helpfully, there is also a real-world lesson here in the further finding that partner similarity made no difference to memory mistakes when participants were asked to explicitly recall both their own and partner's ideas at the same time.

As the researchers explained: "When we attempt to reconstruct our memories of past conversations, or of conferences we have attended, the best way to avoid social influences on our source errors is to try to simultaneously recall the contributions from both partners, rather than trying to recall just one source. However, in so doing, we should be aware that we are likely to be attributing our ideas to them than claiming their ideas as our own. But then, as children we are taught that giving is better than receiving."


Hollins, T., Lange, N., Dennis, I., & Longmore, C. (2016). Social influences on unconscious plagiarism and anti-plagiarism Memory, 24 (7), 884-902 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1059857

--further reading--
By what age do children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?

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

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

There's a simple trick to reduce your mind wandering while studying

It happens to all of us – we're meant to be focused on the page in the book, but our mind is turned inwards thinking about other stuff (Must remember to charge my phone, What time did I say I'd meet Sarah?) Thankfully a new study in Memory and Cognition identifies a straightforward way to reduce how much your mind wanders off topic when you're studying. You just need to ensure the materials you're learning are in your sweet spot – not too easy and not too difficult.

For one experiment, Judy Xu and Janet Metcalfe tested the ability of 26 students to translate 179 different English words into Spanish. For any that the students got wrong, they were asked to say whether they were close to learning the word or miles off. Based on this, the researchers created a tailor-made list of word pairs for each participant – some already mastered, some unknown but not far off being learned (psychologists call this the "region of proximal learning"), and finally some difficult word pairs that were far from being learned.

Next, the students spent time studying the easy, medium and difficult word pairs, and periodically they were given an onscreen prompt that asked them whether they were on-task or mind wandering (which they admitted to doing on about one third of the prompts). Finally, the students were tested on the word pairs they'd just studied. As the researchers predicted, the students mind wandered more while studying more difficult word pairs, compared with medium difficulty, and there was a trend for them to mind wander more during study of easy word pairs. Moreover, the final test showed that the students showed superior learning of word pairs for which they'd been on-task rather than mind wandering during the study phase.

A final experiment showed how these effects vary with a person's mastery of the material. Dozens more students were tested twice on easy, medium and difficult English-Spanish word pairs after two successive sessions of study. Poorer performers on the tests showed greater mind wandering when studying the more difficult pairs, while the stronger performers mind wandered more while studying the easier items.

The researchers said their findings suggest there is a "delicate balance" to be struck to find the right level of learning difficulty to reduce mind wandering (and so increase learning), and that the sweet spot depends on the difficulty of the materials and the expertise of the learner. You could try doing some basic self-testing alone or with a friend to try to find study material that's in your sweet spot. Concluding, the researchers said: "Our results suggest that students may sometimes mind wander not because of an inherent lack of motivation or an inability to learn, but rather because the difficulty of the to-be-learned materials is inappropriate."


Xu, J., & Metcalfe, J. (2016). Studying in the region of proximal learning reduces mind wandering Memory & Cognition, 44 (5), 681-695 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-016-0589-8

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

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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

If you do everything you can to avoid plot spoilers, you're probably a thinker

It's a vexing First World Problem – how to avoid people giving away, on Twitter or at the water cooler, the events of the latest Game of Thrones episode before you've caught it. Psychologists are beginning to study this modern scourge, albeit in the context of written stories rather than TV shows, but so far their findings have been contradictory – one study suggested that spoiled stories were actually more enjoyable (possibly because they're easier to process), while a later investigation found the precise opposite. Now a research team led by Judith Rosenbaum has entered the fray with a study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture that suggests one reason for the contradictory results is that the effects of spoilers depend on how much a person likes to engage their brain, and how much they enjoy emotional stimulation.

In psychological jargon these traits are known as "need for cognition" and "need for affect", respectively. The former is measured through disagreement with statements like "I only think as hard as I have to" and the latter via agreement with statements such as "Emotions help people get along in life".

Figure from Rosenbaum et al 2016
The researchers first presented over 350 students, mostly African Americans at a university in Southeastern USA, with several previews of classic short stories, some of which contained plot spoilers and some that didn't, and then asked them to say which of the stories they'd like to read. The students also completed measures of their need for cognition and affect, and the critical finding was that those who scored low on "need for cognition" tended to say they would prefer to read the full versions of stories that were previewed with plot spoilers. "When choosing between stories, low need for cognition individuals appear to have found spoiled stories as potentially more comprehensible and more in keeping with their preferred level of cognitive processing", the researchers said.

Next, the students read some classic short stories (such as Two Were Left and Death of a Clerk) in full, some of which had been "spoiled" by a preview, and some not, and then rated their enjoyment of the stories. This time, "need for cognition" was unrelated to enjoyment, but "need for affect" was, in that people with a greater desire for emotional stimulation got more pleasure from unspoiled stories, as did the students who read fiction more frequently.

One positive way to look at these findings is that encountering a spoiler may not ruin your enjoyment as much as you think it will (if you're a deep thinker), but probably will be a downer if you're the kind of person who likes emotional surprises. Alternatively, perhaps this study is just too far removed from reality to offer much insight – after all, as the researchers acknowledge, they didn't look at TV shows or movies (where plot spoilers are arguably more common), nor did they consider important variables such as genre (spoilers are presumably much more of an issue for horror and suspense) or story/show length.

--Who’s Afraid of Spoilers: Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment

--further reading--
A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Emphasising that science involves collaboration and helping others increases its appeal as a career

Scientific work is unfairly perceived by many people as a solitary, even lonely enterprise, concerned with abstracted goals rather than helping others. While some scientific work calls for a quiet room (at the least, noise-cancelling headphones), the reality is that the enterprise as a whole involves plenty of communal aspects, from collaboration and discussions to teaching and mentoring. In new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers from the University of Miami have explored whether, by emphasising its communal goals, science could be made a more attractive career choice, especially to women who are underrepresented in the field.

In a first study, Emily Clark’s team asked a gender-balanced sample of 165 students to read a description of a fictional scientist’s day-to-day activities. For half the participants, the scientist’s tasks were described as being tackled solo (“he looks up relevant past research to consult about the procedure”) whereas other participants read a description modified to emphasise communal behaviours (“he meets some of his lab group in the lab and consults with them about the procedures”).

In a survey that followed, male and female participants exposed to scientific communal behaviours were more likely to agree that entry-level science roles “fulfil goals such as intimacy, working with people, and helping others in general” – showing that the manipulation worked – and these participants expressed more positivity about the idea of pursuing a scientific career themselves. This was true to the same extent whether the scientist was presented as a woman or a man – a surprising result given that people usually see women as having more communal interests, so you'd think a female scientist performing communal activities would have had an additive effect.

However, a second study suggested that science’s communal credentials can be boosted when female scientists are depicted as having stereotypically female interests outside of their lab work. Here, 156 student participants rated their personal interest in communal goals like intimacy and helping others, before reading a description of one of two female scientists. The two characterisations were identical in their work activities but differed in the hobbies they pursued in their free time: one enjoyed more gendered activities like yoga and knitting, the other gender-neutral ones like photography and running.

A subset of participants who read about the more explicitly gendered scientist gave higher ratings of science as communal, and rated science more positively. These were the participants who had said they cared strongly about communal goals – they apparently "read" the characterisation more closely, and made more of the implications.

What does this research mean for what science institutions should do? Firstly, that to frame science as communal, women role models are more of an asset when allowed to be seen as women. This isn’t to advocate that women scientists should feel a burden to act more stereotypically (which would put them in a double bind, given recent findings), but that marketers and communicators should accept that a more three-dimensional account of women scientists is likely to make more of an impact than a nominal use of the occasional female face on a website or a scattering of feminine names throughout some literature. Secondly, that a very straightforward way to send the message about science’s communal nature is simply to demonstrate it in action, ensuring that the interactive experience of scientists – no matter their gender – is visible and accessible.


Clark, E., Fuesting, M., & Diekman, A. (2016). Enhancing interest in science: exemplars as cues to communal affordances of science Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12392

--further reading--
Hey girls: Science helps people!
Social, creative - that's physics!
Encourage students into science by targeting their parents

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

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Monday, 18 July 2016

Songs like "Angel of Death" protect heavy metal fans from existential angst

Heavy metal band Black Label Society on stage Brazil, via Flickr/Focka
Listening to songs about death and dressing yourself in t-shirts featuring skulls and demons might seem like a strange way to combat existential angst. Nonetheless, a new study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture shows that listening to heavy metal helps fans of the genre deal with their own mortality. This is likely because to fans, heavy metal represents so much more than a genre, it embodies a way of life and a sense of identity. The results support and extend what's known as Terror Management Theory – the idea that we instinctively deal with existential angst by thinking about what has meaning to us in the world and reinforcing our self-esteem.

Julia Kneer and Diana Rieger first measured the salience to 30 heavy metal fans of their "cultural world view" – they did this by asking them to rate words, including those pertaining to heavy metal, as fast as possible, as either positive or negative using keyboard keys. On this test, fast responding to heavy metal words is taken as a sign that the heavy metal culture is salient in a participant's mind.

Next, all the participants spent five minutes writing about their own death. Then half of them listened to one of two well-known heavy metal songs (Paranoid or Angel of Death), while the other half listened to three minutes of an audio book unrelated to heavy metal (Don's story from Fusselfieber). Finally, all the participants repeated the test of the salience of their cultural world view.

Those heavy metal fans who'd written about their own death and then listened to an audio book showed a subsequent increase in the salience of their cultural world view – this is consistent with Terror Management Theory because it suggests these fans dealt with the existential angst caused by the writing task by turning their minds to thoughts of heavy metal culture. Crucially, this increase in cultural world view salience was not seen among the fans who'd had the chance to listen to a heavy metal song. The researchers said it's as if listening to the song was itself enough of a protection against existential angst – there was no need for them to engage any further psychological defences.

Maybe listening to heavy metal would have this effect on anyone? Not so. A second experiment was similar but this time heavy metal fans and non-fans wrote about their own death and then listened to heavy metal or an audio book. Instead of salience of cultural world view, for this experiment the researchers used a similar test to look for signs the participants were attempting to reinforce their self-esteem (as revealed by extra fast responses to positive statements about the self), which is another known psychological defence against existential threat.

Non-fans of metal who listened to heavy metal or an audio book, and fans who listened to an audio book, all responded to writing about their mortality by showing signs of subconsciously boosting their self esteem, again consistent with Terror Management Theory. But once more, there was no sign of this defence mechanism among the fans who had the chance, after writing about their mortality, to listen to a heavy metal song. This suggests that it is specifically heavy metal fans who are protected from existential angst by listening to heavy metal.

We need more research to understand why heavy metal fans gain this protection from their favoured music – for example, would anyone who listens to their own preferred music get the same existential benefit, or is it only the fans of musical genres that are associated with powerful subcultures who likely gain in this way?

The results add to previous research into popular culture that's shown particularly meaningful movies can also provide a buffer against existential angst. The researchers said the findings "reveal metal music as [another] type of media content that helps to overcome fear of death. Fans of metal music are reminded of this part of their social identity when listening to metal music, which leads to an increased identification with their salient heavy metal in-group".

The new research also speaks to another possibility, that through being constantly surrounded by reminders of death – via heavy metal lyrics and iconography – metal fans are somehow immunised against existential angst. In fact, because metal fans who didn't get to listen to a metal track responded to mortality reminders in a typical way, through increasing the salience of their world view or boosting their self esteem, this suggests that while they do gain existential comfort from listening to their music, they are not immune to fears of dying.


Kneer, J., & Rieger, D. (2016). The memory remains: How heavy metal fans buffer against the fear of death. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5 (3), 258-272 DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000072

--further reading--
The scaremongers were wrong: Metalheads from the 80s are thriving

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

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Friday, 15 July 2016

Does target shooting make teenagers aggressive?

When the dust settles on the tragedy of the latest mass shooting, gun clubs usually see a spike in their memberships as people look to arm and defend themselves. At the same time, many others argue for greater gun controls, and from their perspective, recreational target shooting is very much part of the problem, not the answer.

Anecdotally, this is borne out by the many killers who often turn out to have been target shooters. Indeed, in Germany after the teenage perpetrators of two spree atrocities, or their parents – in Erfurt in 2002 and in Winnenden in 2009 – were found to be shooting club members, the German Shooting Sport and Archery Federation decided to sponsor psychological research into the question of whether shooting club members are more aggressive than normal, and whether target shooting makes people more aggressive. Some of the initial findings have now been published in the journal Aggressive Behaviour and while the results are not conclusive, they do suggest there is reason to worry about the psychological effects of gun club membership.

The initial study involved 45 teenage target shooters (average age 13 years; they'd been a member of their clubs for about a year) completing measures of their aggression three times every six months over the course of the research. For example, they rated their agreement with statements like "I would rather hit somebody than be a coward", and they took another test to reveal how readily they associated self-related words with words pertaining to violence and aggression – this supposedly providing an implicit or non-conscious measure of the aggressiveness of their self concept. They also answered questions about their emotional regulation abilities – for example, whether they deal with emotional problems by seeking help or through anger or aggression.

Although there was no control group – the research sponsors didn't want to spread negative publicity among non-shooters – the aggression questionnaires used in the study have previously been throughly tested by psychologists on the general public, thus giving an idea of a "normal" level of aggression. The results showed that the teen shooting club members were significantly above average in their self-rated aggressive tendencies, and that this rose through the course of the study, so that by the end, they averaged a level of aggression higher than 84 per cent of the general population (in contrast, results on the implicit test suggested they associated their self concept more strongly with peace than aggression, but without a control group it's difficult to interpret this finding. The teenage shooters also scored highly for maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, especially anger.

A second study involved teenage shooting club members and teenage basketball players spending around 40 minutes on target practice – four rounds of ten shots, either firing a gun at a target or throwing a ball at a basket, respectively. Before and after the training they all completed what's known as a "Lexical Decision Task". This involves looking at strings of letters and deciding if they're real words or not. In this case, the researchers were particularly interested to how quick the participants were to recognise words pertaining to aggression and anxiety – greater speed at recognising words with these connotations after the training would be taken as a sign that aggression and anxiety had become more salient in the participants' minds. The results were clear – for the shooting club members, but not the basketball players, training specifically increased the salience of aggressive and anxiety-related concepts.

The researchers cautioned that their results to not show there is a causal link between shooting club membership and acts of aggression – after all, they did not take any measures of actual aggressive behavior. Nonetheless, they said that the German Shooting Federation (and other shooting federations) "should feel strongly encouraged to counteract aggressive tendencies of their members based on the present results".


Erle, T., Barth, N., Kälke, F., Duttler, G., Lange, H., Petko, A., & Topolinski, S. (2016). Are target-shooters more aggressive than the general population? Aggressive Behavior DOI: 10.1002/ab.21657

--further reading--
Are shooting club members more aggressive than most?

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

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

Facial expressions of intense joy and pain are indistinguishable

Eyes shut tight, face contorted into a grimace. Are they ecstatic or anguished? Ignorant of the context, it can be hard to tell. Recent research that involved participants looking at images of the facial expressions of professional tennis players supported this intuition – participants naive to the context were unable to tell the difference between the winners and losers.

From a scientific perspective, the problem with the tennis study is that the findings might have been affected by the players' physical exertion or their awareness of being on public display. To test the similarity of facial expressions of joy and pain more robustly, a new study in the journal Emotion has used videos taken from a much wider range of contexts.

Sofia Wenzler and her colleagues began by finding online videos of the ecstatic relatives of soldiers who'd just made a surprise return home. For comparison they found videos of witnesses caught up in real life terror attacks who were expressing intense negative emotion (none were actually harmed themselves).

Example stimuli taken from Wenzler et al 2016.
1=positive 2=negative. 
The researchers took stills of the moment of peak emotional facial expression from the joyful and negative videos and presented them to 28 undergrad students. Naive to the context of the facial expressions, the students' task was to rate them from 1 "most negative" to 9 "most positive". On average, they rated the intense joy and intense anguish facial expressions negatively and to a similar extent. In other words, the students couldn't tell the difference between the facial displays of intense pleasure and pain.

A second experiment involving children's facial expressions produced largely similar results. This time, for the negative emotional displays, the researchers took stills from pranks shown on the Jimmy Kimmel late-night TV show, such as when children woke to discover their parents had eaten all their sweets earned through trick-or-treating. For children's facial expressions of intense joy, the researchers found online videos of children receiving surprise treats, such as tickets to see their favourite pop star in concert.

Again, students naive to the context looked at and rated still images of the children's facial expressions and again they rated intense joy negatively, although in this case not as negatively as intense pain (this might be because the contexts used in this experiment were not as momentous as those used in the first experiment that featured adults).

The findings from the two experiments contradict mainstream psychological theories of emotion, which predict that facial expressions of emotion should be most distinguishable at the opposite ends of the positive/negative spectrum. One explanation for this contradiction considered by the researchers is that in moments of extreme joy, people are actually experiencing negative emotion, for example through the evocation of negative memories. Another is that extreme joy prompts the expression of negative emotion as a way to restore emotional equilibrium. However, Wenzler and her team find both these possibilities unconvincing – for one thing, the equilibrium account predicts incorrectly that negative emotion should manifest in facial expressions of joy.

A matter on which the researchers remain silent is why, from an evolutionary perspective, humans have developed a tendency to express intense joy in a way that is perceived as indistinguishable from intense pain. This is pure speculation, but perhaps it is because for our ancestors, intense joy, like pain, was typically a moment of vulnerability, and it was adaptive for its facial expression to signal a need for support and protection.


Wenzler, S., Levine, S., van Dick, R., Oertel-Knöchel, V., & Aviezer, H. (2016). Beyond Pleasure and Pain: Facial Expression Ambiguity in Adults and Children During Intense Situations. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000185

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

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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Psychologists still don't know how the brain deals with blinks

If you were sat in a dark room and the lights flickered off every few seconds, you'd definitely notice. Yet when your blinks make the world go momentarily dark – and bear in mind most of us perform around 12 to 15 of these every minute – you are mostly oblivious. It certainly doesn't feel like someone is flicking the lights on and off. How can this be?

A new study in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance has tested two possibilities – one is that after each blink your brain "backdates" the visual world by the duration of the blink (just as it does for saccadic eye movements, giving rise to the stopped clock illusion); the other is that it "fills in" the blanks created by blinks using a kind of perceptual memory of the visual scene. Neither explanation was supported by the findings, which means that the illusion of visual continuity that we experience through our blinks remains a mystery.

One experiment involved students making several judgments about how long a letter 'A' was presented on a computer screen (the actual durations were between 200ms to 1600ms; 1000ms equals 1 second). Sometimes the 'A' appeared at the beginning or end of a voluntary eye blink, other times it appeared during a period when the participant did not blink. If we backdate visual events that occur during blinks, then the 'A's that appeared at the beginning or end of a blink should have been backdated to the onset of the blink, giving the illusion that they'd been presented longer than they actually had, as compared with 'A's that appeared when there was no blink. In fact, the researchers found no evidence that the students overestimated the duration of 'A's that appeared during blinks.

Figure one from Irwin and Robinson 2016
Another experiment involved students making a voluntary blink while a letter 'A' was already onscreen and making a judgment of how long the 'A' was visible, and also making judgments about the duration of other 'A's that were onscreen during non-blink periods. If backdating or perceptual "filling in" occurs during blinks, then the students should have judged the time onscreen of an 'A' of a given duration as the same whether they blinked during its appearance or they didn't. But this isn't want the researchers found – rather, the students consistently underestimated the duration of 'A's if they blinked during their appearance.

We do know from past research that the brain to some extent shuts down visual processing during blinks – a study from the 80s shone a light up through people's mouths and found their ability to detect changes in its brightness was reduced during blinks, even though the blinks obviously didn't impede the light source. But what the new research shows is still unclear is how the brain weaves the loss of visual input during blinks into a seamless perceptual experience.

Summing up, the University of Illinois researchers David Irwin and Maria Robinson said the brain seems to ignore the perceptual consequences of blinks, but they're not sure how this is done. "Having ruled out the temporal antedating and perceptual maintenance hypotheses," they said, "the question still remains: Why does the visual world appear continuous across eye blinks?".


Irwin, D., & Robinson, M. (2016). Perceiving a Continuous Visual World Across Voluntary Eye Blinks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance DOI: 10.1037/xhp0000267

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

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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

When staff absenteeism seems catching, it could be the team culture that's sick

When the morning alarm carves us out of our slumber, restoring the previous night’s raspy throat and foggy head, we have a decision to make: get up and go, or call in sick. What happens next is influenced by workplace norms about whether absence is commonplace or exceptional, a current pulling us towards the office or letting us settle back into bed. But new research in Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processing from a Dutch-Canadian team, led by Lieke ten Brummelhuis, suggests this isn’t automatic: we’re more likely to fight against the tide when we care about our team, and when we know our absence will cost them.

The researchers asked 299 participants recruited online – American adults with an average of 20 years job experience and who worked in a team of three or more members – to imagine either that over the last three months someone had been absent from their team almost every week, although the understaffing had finally ended, or that their full team had been present throughout that period. Next they were to imagine that they were feeling a little out of sorts, although not actually ill, and were considering calling in sick to their workplace. The participants’ simply had to say whether they would choose to call in sick. Finally, they completed a survey about their attitude toward their real-life team.

As expected, participants asked to imagine high absence in their team were more likely to decide to call in sick, but still a majority did not. Ten Brummelhuis’ team looked at the 19 per cent who did take a sickie, finding that they considered their relationship with their real-life team to be more transactional in nature – for instance by affirming statements like “I watch very carefully what I get from my team, relative to what I contribute.” Meanwhile, the 81 per cent who chose not to call in sick were significantly more likely to sign off on statements like “My relationship with my team members is based on mutual trust.” This fits with the researchers’ thesis, based on social exchange theory, that although absence typically begets absence, this may be neutralised when the team has developed a trusting relationship rather than a tit-for-tat attitude to hassles.

The researchers next looked to deepen their understanding using actual worker absenteeism rates from a three-month period. They recruited hundreds of participants from Dutch companies in industries including health, facilities and commercial services, comprising 97 teams with an average of 8 members. Again, a given team member was more likely to take more sick days when their co-worker absence was greater. But this association was weaker in more cohesive, tight-knit teams, supplementing the finding from the online experiment. In addition, participants were less influenced by high rates of others’ absence when work within their team was highly interconnected and interdependent – when your day is made very difficult by the absence of a team-mate, you’re more aware of that cost and less prepared to inflict it on others without good reason.

Absence costs around 200 billion annually in the US economy, so understanding the factors that contribute to inessential absence matters to organisations. Tackling an absence culture where employees "repay co-workers" absence by calling in sick  means looking at the nature of work performed by a team, to amplify and clarify its interconnected nature. And it means supporting high-quality relations within a team, in which a hard week in an understaffed office isn’t earning a credit to spend later, but a matter of duty, because someone you care about needs that recovery time.


ten Brummelhuis, L., Johns, G., Lyons, B., & ter Hoeven, C. (2016). Why and when do employees imitate the absenteeism of co-workers? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 134, 16-30 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.001

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

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