Friday, 29 May 2015

Why it's a mistake to seek control of your life through solitude

Many seek freedom in solitude, but new
research suggests feelings of control
come from social belonging. 
The true story of Christopher McCandless, dramatised in the 2007 film Into the Wild, is a search for radical independence that culminates in McCandless’ solitary existence in the wilds of Alaska. It speaks to a powerful belief: to feel you control your life, stand alone. But new research suggests otherwise: to feel control, stand together.

If committing to a group feels like surrendering control, reasoned Katharine Greenaway and her collaborators, we might expect some impact on wellbeing, as humans and animals alike thrive from autonomy and are distressed when they lose it. But group membership is robustly associated with life satisfaction, and while other researchers have sought to explain this as owing to social support or boosts to self-esteem, Greenaway’s team suspected that identifying with a group actually makes people feel more in control. After all, personal control means more than not being interfered with, it includes the capacity to do what matters. Greenaway’s team predicted that merely identifying as part of a group may make people feel more capable.

To test this, they collected data shortly after the 2012 US election, asking 129 American adults who they voted for, how strongly they identified with that candidate’s party and how much control they felt they had over their own lives. After Obama’s victory, Obama voters who had a stronger bond with his Democratic party felt more in control of their lives. Little surprise perhaps: their man had won. But voters with a strong Republican identity also experienced a post-election increase in their sense of personal control. Although the Republicans had a case to feel disempowered, simply being in bed with something bigger made them feel more capable than voters with a weaker collective identity.

Another much larger study looked at how 62,000 people across 47 countries identified with their local community, national group, or as part of the human race. Whichever level the researchers looked at, feeling part of a group was associated with feeling more personal control, and this effect was associated with higher levels of wellbeing.

Finally, an experiment involving 300 American adults showed that momentary manipulations of how we feel towards a larger group influences feelings of personal control and wellbeing. Half the participants were led to connect with their national identity by asking them to assess statements about America that were either positive and reasonable (therefore easy to endorse) or negative and unreasonable. These participants went on to report significantly greater feelings of personal control and greater life satisfaction in that moment. They also reported lower depression in the past week suggesting either that the effect can time-travel, or that their view of the past was coloured by a rush of national pride.

The notion of individualism is actually a fairly recent development for humanity, an exquisitely social species that owes its success to our capacity to collaborate and coordinate actions (this may even be the reason we developed conscious awareness). This new research suggests our group identities are a continued source of our sense of agency and control. A life alone on the Alaskan tundra may offer many things, but we can find our own forms of freedom right here among the people we know.


Greenaway, K., Haslam, S., Cruwys, T., Branscombe, N., Ysseldyk, R., & Heldreth, C. (2015). From “We” to “Me”: Group Identification Enhances Perceived Personal Control With Consequences for Health and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000019

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

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Our jumpiness at nighttime is not just because it's dark

When something goes bump in the night, most of us are little jumpier than we would be in the day. But is that just because it's dark, or is it more to do with our bodies and brains switching to a vigilant nocturnal mode?

Yadan Li and her colleagues have attempted to disentangle the influences of darkness and nighttime. They recruited 120 young women to complete a computer task in a windowless cubicle, which involved them looking at neutral pictures (e.g. nature scenes), scary pictures (e.g. spiders; a person being attacked), and listening to scary sounds (e.g. screams) and neutral sounds (e.g. bird song).

The women were split into four groups: some of them completed the task in the day-time with bright lights on; some in the day-time in darkness; others at night-time with a dim light on; and others at night-time in complete darkness (although presumably the computer screen created some light).

The women who completed the task at nighttime said they found the scary pictures and sounds more scary (than the women tested in the day-time), and this was true regardless of whether they were tested in darkness or light. Moreover, their extra jumpiness was confirmed by recordings taken of their heart-rate and perspiration.

In contrast, the time of testing made no difference to the women's responses to the neutral pictures and sounds. Also, the lighting levels, whether in the day-time or at nighttime, made no difference to the women's reactions to the neutral or scary stimuli.

In other words, the findings appear to suggest that we're more sensitive to threats at nighttime because it's the night, not because it's dark. This raises the possibility that biological factors associated with our circadian rhythm affect our fear-sensitivity, although it's plausible that cultural factors are involved, in that we've learned to be more vigilant at night.

The day-time testing took place at 8.00am and the nighttime testing at 8.00pm (in February, so it was dark outside) – it remains to be seen whether and how the findings might vary at different times of day and night. We also don't know if the same findings would apply to male participants, or participants from different cultures or stages of life (the study was conducted in China where the authors are based, and the student participants had an average age of 22 years).

Li and her colleagues hope their findings will inspire other researchers to explore this topic. "[T]his study is merely a first step in understanding the underlying mechanisms involved in fear-related information processing and has implications for the underlying psychopathology of relevant phobias and anxiety disorders [such as nighttime panic attacks]," they said.


Li, Y., Ma, W., Kang, Q., Qiao, L., Tang, D., Qiu, J., Zhang, Q., & Li, H. (2015). Night or darkness, which intensifies the feeling of fear? International Journal of Psychophysiology DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.04.021

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

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Help me out – but hands off! How idea territoriality harms creative team work

If you want quality feedback on your creative ideas, don't be too possessive about them
Patents, citations, and copyright all indicate how much it matters to people that they can claim an idea as their own. But new research suggests that staking a claim during the early stages of idea development can be counterproductive, as it cools the enthusiasm others have for making it better.

Graham Brown and Markus Baer asked their participants – 230 students at a Singaporean university – to provide feedback on a proposal on how to best promote a restaurant. Under one “hands off” condition, the covering letter for the proposal mentioned that “although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours.” Participants who read this provided significantly less creative input, giving mundane and straightforward comments compared to those who hadn’t  read such a statement. They also gained less pleasure out of the feedback activity; it seemed as if they simply disengaged when they didn’t feel they could have any ownership or role in the direction of the idea.

In a second experiment with American students, Brown and Baer found that the effect was particularly strong when the participants asked to give feedback were also primed to think of themselves as independent people (they were told they stood out from others and how this is beneficial). When you feel independent-minded you want to make your own unique impact on the world, not be a cog in a larger wheel.

In contrast, priming participants to feel interdependent by describing how and why they fit in to society led to the opposite effect: they made better contributions in the ‘hands-off’ condition. An interdependent mindset prefers accord over dissent, making critical feedback an uncomfortable act, and the authors speculate that this discomfort is less when it’s apparent that any collaboration is going to be transient.

That is a sliver of good news, but this isn’t a desirable trade-off. Independent minded people are more disposed to provide challenging ideas that stand out from the norm, which means we want to encourage these people to get stuck in. If we are truly committed to the success of our vision, we may need to let it fly free in its infancy, and trust that credit will come to those who do the heavy lifting of helping ideas become reality.


Brown G, & Baer M (2015). Protecting the Turf: The Effect of Territorial Marking on Others' Creativity. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 25938721

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

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Happy people have more children

Lots of research, much of it contradictory, has looked into whether having children brings happiness. There are studies showing marital satisfaction plummets after the kids arrive, but there's other evidence that the bundles of joy really do bring ... joy. A new study turns all this on its head and asks whether being happier makes it more likely that people will have children.

Jinhyung Kim and Joshua Hicks first analysed data collected from 559 US lawyers. In 1984, the law men and women rated their life satisfaction and reported whether they had any children, and then in 1990 they were contacted again and said how many kids they now had. Lawyers who were happier in 1984 had more children in 1990, even after accounting for their income, age, gender and number of children when they were first contacted.

Of course lawyers are not entirely like the rest of us, so a more valid follow-up study was needed. This time the researchers analysed data collected from nearly 5000 people across the US in 1995-96 and then again between 2004 and 2006. Once more the data showed that people who reported more happiness at the first time point tended to have more children at the second time point.

This second survey also had the advantage that it looked at different forms of happiness. Life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and more purpose and meaning in life were all independently associated with having more children, even after accounting for other factors like income, age and gender.

Kim and Hicks said: "The current studies suggest that children may not only serve as a source of happiness, but happiness itself is linked to future reproduction." The routes by which happiness might encourage procreation remain unknown and are likely manifold and complex. Speculating about the role of hedonic happiness specifically, the researchers said: "... people in a positive affective state may use the feeling as information that they are currently satisfied, motivating them to explore new opportunities such as childrearing."

It's also likely that relationship status plays a big part in the link between happiness and having more children. Happier people are more likely to form new, and sustain existing, relationships, which obviously makes it easier to have kids. Indeed, in the second survey, the statistical link between past happiness and future children disappeared once relationship status at the second time point was taken into account.

Another detail: the relationship between past happiness and later number of children was weaker for people who already had at least one child. The researchers wondered if this is because "... realistic issues associated with parenting override the effect of cognitive well-being and optimism on the willingness to have additional children."

It's important to note that we are talking about subtle associations here. For instance, in the second survey, life satisfaction at the first time point only explained 0.001 per cent of the variance in number of children at the second time point. This might sound derisory, but remember this was after taking into account other powerful factors such as income. The researchers said the small effect sizes are to be expected "considering the number of variables that influence the probability of having a child." But to be sure, they added: "... clearly happiness does not account for all of the variance associated with parenthood."


Kim, J., & Hicks, J. (2015). Happiness begets children? Evidence for a bi-directional link between well-being and number of children The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-8 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1025420

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

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Link feast

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

The Last Day of Her Life
When psychology professor Sandy Bem found out she had Alzheimer’s, she resolved that before the disease stole her mind, she would kill herself. The question was, when?

Girls With Toys
This is what real scientists look like.

A Really Important Political Science Study About Gay Marriage Used Faked Data
New York Mag's Science of Us site reports on the retraction of a high-profile study that suggested a short chat with a gay person increased people's support for gay marriage.

What Can “Lived Experience” Teach Neuroscientists?
Neuroskeptic reports on a paper that says neuroscientists who research mental health problems ought to listen to the views of people who have experienced those conditions.

The Philosopher Who Studies The Experience of Coffee
David Robson at BBC Future meets philosopher David Berman who claims that coffee and tea drinkers are fundamentally different people.

Hacking the Brain
How we might make ourselves smarter in the future.

The Male Suicides: How Social Perfectionism Kills
In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female. Will Storr asks why.

Theorising the Drone
What does the rise of the drone mean for justice, for the ethics of heroism, for psychology? Most important of all, who is dying and why?

Against Wunderkinds
How late bloomers are leading the revolt against the cult of literary prodigy

Do Babies Express Emotions In The Same Way Adults Do?
Short answer: Eventually, yes.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 22 May 2015

You can now test whether someone is a "Maven"

Malcolm Gladwell’s influential book The Tipping Point popularised the notion that ideas, products and movements owe popular success to opinion leaders: people who are highly connected via weak ties to others, persuasive in character, and an expert or "Maven" in the field in question. The Maven is the friend you go to when you want to buy a new laptop, but don’t know where to start, or consult when you’ve been feeling sluggish and wondering if your diet has something to do with it.

Identifying Mavens is a holy grail for people interested in influence, leading researchers Franklin Boster and Michael Kotowski to develop a "Maven scale". They’ve now published a paper that presents validation studies suggesting people can accurately self-identify as Mavens, and that the scale operates over different fields of expertise.

The first study used a political version of the scale, asking questions such as “When I know something about political issues, I feel it is important to share that information with others” (see footnote* for more examples).

One hundred and thirty-one students completed the scale, together with a measure of their political activities such as voting, volunteering and donating, and a test of political knowledge. High scorers on the Mavens scale were more politically active and more knowledgeable about politics: they walked the walk, as well as talking the talk.

However, another key aspect of mavenhood is that others see them as knowledgeable, and seek their advice. Is this true? A second study using a health expertise version of the scale surveyed the professional staff of a high school. In addition, each participant had to evaluate the other 33 participants on two items: a Yes or No to “this person comes to me for information on health and healthy lifestyle issues” and a rating of the degree to which “This person is a good source of information on health and healthy lifestyle issues.”

If self-identified health Mavens are what they claim, they should have more petitioners and those petitioners should have faith in them. Again, the data confirmed this: health Mavens provide trusted advice to their network.

A well-developed scale of mavenhood will benefit corporations looking to get their new, superior product in front of the right people to create a runaway success. But identifying and targeting Mavens is equally relevant for institutions looking to get bold new political ideas the attention they deserve, or to disseminate new and important health behaviours amongst the population. In their conclusion, the authors say that people “wishing to promote behavior change…may find these scales effective” so if that describes you, get in touch with them.


Boster, F., Carpenter, C., & Kotowksi, M. (2015). Validation studies of the maven scale Social Influence, 10 (2), 85-96 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2014.939224

*The scale is presented in full – in the political variant – in the Appendix of the paper. It includes "connector" items, "persuader items", and subject specific items. If you're a Maven you'd be expected to strongly agree with the following example items as well as other items not shown here:

  • The people I know often know each other because of me (connector item)
  • More often than not, I am able to convince others of my position during an argument (persuader item)
  • If someone asked me about a political issue that I was unsure of, I would know how to help them find the answer (political maven item)
  • People often seek me out for answers when they have questions about a political issue (political maven item)

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

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Women are better than men at remembering to remember

Prospective memory is the term psychologists use for when we have to remember to do something in the future – like stopping for milk on the way home from work. It requires not just remembering what to do, but remembering to remember at the right time.

There's actually some past research that suggested women, on average, are more prone to forgetting future tasks than men. But crucially, this research was subjective. Women admitted more memory failures of this kind than men did, but of course that doesn't mean they really do forget more often.

Now a team led by Liana Palermo has conducted a carefully controlled objective test of prospective memory under laboratory conditions. Fifty men and fifty women (average age 25) were given various tasks to remember to complete, mostly over either two-minute or fifteen-minute time scales, although there was one task after 24 hours.

Averaged across all tasks and conditions, there were no gender differences in performance. But focusing on specific types of tasks, differences emerged. Women were better than men at remembering to perform future tasks that were tied to events rather than a specific delay (e.g. perform task x when I give you a card, as opposed to perform task x in two minutes). The women also tended to outperform men on future tasks that were physical in nature (e.g. writing their address on a post card), as opposed to verbal (e.g. remembering to ask a specific question).

It's possible the female advantage for some aspects of prospective memory is merely a side-effect of women's other cognitive advantages. For example, women tend to have superior verbal skills than men, and the instructions in this study were delivered verbally. However, the researchers don't think this is likely because in that case you'd expect women to outperform men on all forms of prospective memory, and especially on future verbal tasks.

This was a small sample and, being lab-based, the study lacked realism, so more research is certainly needed. But the finding does tie in with other research conducted on the internet that also found a female advantage for prospective memory, and with existing evidence that women have an advantage for episodic memory (that is, remembering things that have happened to them in the past). Regarding the prior research that found women admit to more prospective memory failures, this new study raises the possibility that women are simply better at detecting their own forgetfulness.

Assuming this female advantage is replicated in further studies, why should women be better than men at remembering to remember? Here Palermo and her team are left to speculate: they suggest there could be a biological explanation, such as the known sex-linked differences in the hippocampus (a brain area involved in memory). They also propose a possible socio-cultural explanation, which may well resonate with some of our readers:
"...[T]he fact that in addition to work responsibilities, women also have more responsibilities at home. ... As a consequence of this social role, in daily life women might perform tasks involving prospective memory/planning skills more than men, thus enhancing their performance in remembering to remember."

Palermo, L., Cinelli, M., Piccardi, L., Ciurli, P., Incoccia, C., Zompanti, L., & Guariglia, C. (2015). Women outperform men in remembering to remember The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1023734

--further reading--
Women really are better than men at processing faces
Women have a superior memory for faces
Women's true maths skills unlocked by pretending to be someone else

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