Monday, 27 April 2015

You can change your personality at will

Surveys show that most of us wish our personalities were different. Change is certainly possible: people's personalities evolve as they get older (for example, most of us become more friendly but less open-minded), and there's research showing more immediate influences on personality, such as our current mood (we're less extravert when we're sad). And yet, before now, no one has studied whether people can simply choose to change their personality at will.

Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley asked 135 undergrads to complete on-line tests and surveys about their different personality traits and about how they'd like their personality to change. Over the next 16 weeks, the students re-took the personality test each week. The key finding was that students who said they wanted to change a particular trait (such as being more extravert) tended to display more change in that trait, in the desired direction, than other students.

To assist their personality change, half the participants were also prompted each week to list three ways they might achieve the change they were after. This actually back-fired – students given these prompts showed less of the personality changes they desired than other students, probably because the intervention was so vague (for example, students in this condition proposed vague strategies like "be more sociable").

A follow-up study with 151 more students was similar, but this time, alongside the personality tests, they were also asked each week whether they'd performed various behaviours that are relevant to different personality traits. This makes the findings more convincing – for instance, it's easier to remember if you hugged someone today, than to remember how talkative you've been. Again, Hudson and Fraley found that participants' personalities tended to change in line with their wishes for how they'd like to change, and so did their behaviours.

In this follow-up, half the students were also given a different kind prompt to help them change – each week they were coached to describe specific steps to facilitate personality change (e.g. telephone and invite a named friend to lunch, to increase extraversion), and they were asked to create so-called "implementation intentions" that take the form "if I'm in situation X, then I will do Y". This coaching was successful in increasing desired personality change.

The changes to personality observed in both parts of this study were very modest, but they were statistically significant, and they support the principle of wilful personality change. "Collectively, these findings indicate that, at the very least, people's personality traits and daily behaviour tend to change in ways that align with their goals for change," the researchers said.

Deeper analysis suggested this change was achieved through a reciprocal, unfolding process: goals led to changes in behaviour, which led to changes in self-concept, which prompted more behaviour change. Moreover, as participants' personalities changed in desired directions, their stated goals for change dropped away, consistent with the idea that they really had changed as they'd hoped.

It's surprising that the question of volitional personality change hasn't been investigated systematically before. That makes these new results novel and exciting, but far more research is needed. The most serious limitation of the new evidence is the dependence on students' own self-reports of their personalities. Of course, observer reports also have problems (who knows your personality best: you or your friends and family?), but in an ideal world the study would have included both, and even direct tests of behaviour in different situations. It's also not clear how long the observed changes will last, nor whether participants' desires really caused the changes. Were some unknown factors (peer pressure?) behind both the participants' stated desires for personality change and the changes that occurred? These issues noted, the researchers said their work suggests that "individuals who desire to change their personality traits can, in fact, do so ..."


  ResearchBlogging.orgHudson, N., & Fraley, R. (2015). Volitional Personality Trait Change: Can People Choose to Change Their Personality Traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000021

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

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Link Feast

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

The Man Who Couldn't Stop Giving
What a Brazilian man's pathological generosity says about the biological roots of philanthropy

What Can We Learn From Reading Online Reviews?
An analysis of millions of Amazon reviews reveals an intriguing relationship between the star ratings people give and the emotionality of the words that they write.

The Psychology (and Philosophy) of ‘No Regrets’
A clinical psychologist argues that Nietzsche is better than any pop self-health book.

The Strangest Sounds in the World
As these weird audio illusions show, people have radically different opinions about what reaches their ears, says David Robson.

Is Screen Time Really Bad For Young People?
The latest episode in the new run of BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind

The Marketing of a Myth
BMJ editorial on the myth that depression is caused by low serotonin levels

Back to the Ballot Box
Ella Rhodes meets researchers in psychology and politics in search of answers to voter apathy.

How Will the Apple Watch Change Good Manners?
"One strange thing about the Apple Watch ... is that it relies on its users engaging in a behavior that has long been viewed as rude or impatient: checking one’s watch in a social setting."

The Strange Afterlife of Einstein's Brain
Einstein's death 60 years ago was just the start of a strange journey for the most prized part of his anatomy, his brain.

These 10 Questions Can Mean Life Behind Bars
A short checklist called the Static-99 weighs facts about a sex offender’s past in order to predict the likelihood of future crimes. Many legal and scientific experts worry that the way the test is often used ... is critically flawed.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 24 April 2015

References to alcohol in UK pop music are on the increase

"My wine is good to me, it helps me pass the time. And my good old buddy whiskey keeps me warmer than the sunshine," Aloe Blacc – I need a dollar, 2011.

Psychologists have documented a striking increase in references to alcohol and heavy drinking in the lyrics of UK chart music. They warn this could mean that attempts to control the direct advertising of alcohol to young people will be in vain, as pop music is effectively spreading a positive message on the drinks companies' behalf.

Katherine Hardcastle and her colleagues analysed all songs (611 in total) that reached a top 10 UK chart position in the years 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. The proportion of songs that referenced alcohol in their lyrics was 5.8, 2.1, 8.1 and 18.5 per cent, respectively across these years.

The researchers also looked to see whether the references to alcohol and drinking carried negative, neutral or positive connotations. References were mixed in 1981; all positive in '91 (though this was the year with the lowest number of alcohol references); more negative and neutral than positive in 2001; while in 2011, the positive and neutral references (22 songs) far outnumbered the negative references (4).
From Hardcastle et al. 2015
Why are alcohol references on the increase in the British pop charts? Hardcastle and her co-authors think it has to do with the influence of US acts. Alcohol references are even more prevalent in the USA chart (23.7 per cent of songs in 2008) and songs by US acts in the UK chart contained more alcohol references than songs by British acts. References to booze and drinking were highest in Urban music (R&B, hip-hop and rap) – a genre largely originating in the US. "Today's urban music scene is dominated by US artists such as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys," the researcher said, "with many artists from the UK music scene attempting to emulate the sounds and styles of their American counterparts."

This study cannot answer the question of whether mentions of alcohol (especially positive ones) in pop music encourages more alcohol abuse among young listeners. However, the researchers argue there is reason to think it might. They point to the influence of non-conscious priming (ideas can influence our behaviour without us realising it) and past research showing that people drink more when in a bar that's playing music with alcohol-related lyrics. Moreover, teenagers' beliefs about what's "normal" drinking behaviour will likely be influenced by what they hear from the singers they admire.

"A greater understanding of the impacts of alcohol-related popular music is urgently needed," the researchers concluded.


Hardcastle, K., Hughes, K., Sharples, O., & Bellis, M. (2015). Trends in alcohol portrayal in popular music: A longitudinal analysis of the UK charts Psychology of Music, 43 (3), 321-332 DOI: 10.1177/0305735613500701

--further reading--
Pop music is getting sadder

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

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Men and boys with older sisters are less competitive

One of the longest-debated and most studied issues in psychology is whether and how our personalities are affected by our birth order and the sex of our siblings. A problem with much previous research is that it's depended on people self-reporting their own personality, or on siblings or parents providing the personality ratings. These ratings are prone to subjectivity and skewed by people's expectations about how, say, a younger sibling ought to behave.

A new study focused on one particular finding from this literature: the idea that men with older sisters are less competitive. To get round the subjectiveness of previous research, Hiroko Okudaira and her colleagues invited participants (135 high school students in an initial experiment; 232 university students in a follow-up) to complete a maze challenge or maths test under a so-called piece-rate payment system (they accrue modest points for each correct answer) then under a tournament system (a larger reward is available, but only if they beat the other people randomly assigned to their group). Crucially, in a later trial, the participants got to choose which system they would prefer to perform under: piece-rate or tournament.

In the first experiment involving mazes and high-school students, the boys more often chose to enter a tournament system than girls (61 per cent vs. 23.4 per cent, respectively). But focusing only on those boys with an older sister, their rate of entry into the tournament option was much lower than other boys, at just 38 per cent. In the second experiment with uni students and maths problems, men again showed more competitiveness than women, but men with an older sister were 21 per cent less likely to enter the tournament option than other men.

The researchers found that these results held even after controlling for the influence of other potentially complicating traits such as risk-aversion and over-confidence. They did this by giving participants the chance to convert an earlier piece-rate trial into a tournament trial. Making this choice would reveal something about a person's risk-taking aversion, their confidence and so on, without involving competitiveness (because there was no prospect of actually performing again).

Why should boys and men with older sisters be less competitive? There are at least two complementary explanations: one has to do with "role assimilation", which describes the way people absorb some of the gender-stereotypical traits of their siblings. The other has to do with birth-order: later borns are often found to be less competitive than first borns (evolutionarily speaking, first borns are under more pressure to meet parental expectations and must then compete to defend their stakes against younger rivals).

An intriguing detail is that while having an older sister reduced the competitiveness of most boys and men, this did not hold true for those who also had an older brother or younger sister, presumably because of counter-acting influences of these siblings and effects of birth-order. Meanwhile, women with an older sister were more competitive, leading them to behave more like an average man than an average woman, in terms of their preference for competition. The researchers speculated this is because having an older sister, with shared interests and needs, increases female competition and conflict in the family.


Okudaira, H., Kinari, Y., Mizutani, N., Ohtake, F., & Kawaguchi, A. (2015). Older sisters and younger brothers: The impact of siblings on preference for competition Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 81-89 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.02.037

--further reading--
The taste for competition peaks at age 50
Born to lead

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

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Psychologists study burglars' expertise

Their actions are criminal and they cause untold misery, but repeat burglars are skilled at what they do and in that sense they are experts. By studying this expertise we can learn to better secure our properties against the threat of theft, and detectives can learn to spot the signature trail of an experienced robber.

Most previous research in this area has relied on interviews with burglars about their strategies: a limited approach. A new study is more compelling. Claire Nee and her team recruited six former repeat burglars (each had committed hundreds of burglaries) and watched via video camera as they entered and robbed a carefully prepared residential house.

The burglars, all male, were fitted with a head-mounted camera. They all stole into the house via the rear of the property whereas six male postgrads, tested for comparison, all entered via the front. The burglars spent proportionately more time in rooms that contained more valuable items. Half of them began upstairs and worked their way down whereas the students all started their room searches downstairs.

The burglars took fewer items, but they targeted those that were more valuable. In fact, the average haul of the burglars was nearly £1000 more than the haul obtained by the students. There was also a lot more variation in the movements and strategies of the students than the burglars, which shows how the latter were operating in an optimised, less random fashion. The students also tended to miss valuable items such as designer bags containing cash and phones, and the leather jackets in the hallway.
"All in all, the much narrower distribution of response from burglars on almost all measures within this environment ... supported the idea of a more discriminate, systematic and practised approach to the tasks at hand," the researchers said. 
Similar results were obtained when the burglars and students performed the same test on computer through a virtual reality mock-up of the same house (mouse clicks were used to navigate and "steal" items). Nee and her team said this was important because it is obviously much easier to conduct research using a simulated house than to gain permission to use a real residential home. If such an approach proves to be valid with larger samples, they said "a range of simulated environments can be created and used to study a wide range of offending behaviour with both incarcerated and active offenders."


Nee, C., White, M., Woolford, K., Pascu, T., Barker, L., & Wainwright, L. (2015). New methods for examining expertise in burglars in natural and simulated environments: preliminary findings Psychology, Crime & Law, 21 (5), 507-513 DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.989849

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

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Optimism and pessimism are separate systems influenced by different genes

"... the optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose,” Kahlil Gibran.
Optimists enjoy better health, more success, more happiness, and longer lives, than pessimists. No surprise, then, that psychologists are taking an increasing interest in our outlook on life. An unresolved issue is whether optimism and pessimism are two ends of the same spectrum, or if they're separate. If the traits are separate, then in principle, some people could be highly optimistic and pessimistic – to borrow the poet Gibran's analogy, they would be keenly aware of both the rose and its thorns.

Timothy Bates at the University of Edinburgh has turned to behavioural genetics to help settle this question. He's analysed data on optimism and pessimism gathered from hundreds of pairs of identical and non-identical twins. These were participants from a US survey and their average age was 54. The twins rated their agreement with various statements as a way to reveal their optimism and pessimism such as "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best" and "I rarely count on good things happening to me." They also completed a measure of the "Big Five" personality traits: extraversion, neuroticism etc.

The reasoning behind twin studies like this is that if optimism and pessimism are highly heritable (i.e. influenced by inherited genetic factors), then these traits should correlate more highly between pairs of identical twins, who share all their genes, than between non-identical twins, who share approximately half their genes. And if optimism was found to be more heritable than pessimism, or vice versa, this would indicate different genetic influences on optimism and pessimism.

Another insight from twin studies is to disentangle the relative influence of shared and unique environmental factors – these are the aspects of a twin's upbringing that they share with their sibling, such as parenting style, and those that are unique, such as the friends they keep.

Bates' analysis indicates that optimism and pessimism are subject to shared genetic influences (with each other, and with other personality traits), but also to independent genetic influences, thus supporting the notion that optimism and pessimism are distinct traits, not simply two sides of the same coin.

"Optimism and pessimism are at least partially biologically distinct, resulting in two distinct psychological tendencies," Bates said. He added that this dovetails with neuroscience evidence that's indicated there are separate neural systems underlying optimism and pessimism.

The new findings also suggested there is a "substantial" influence of upbringing on optimism and pessimism (i.e. increasing one and lowering the other, and/or vice versa). This raises the intriguing possibility that optimism might to be some extent a malleable trait that can be encouraged through a child's upbringing.


Bates, T. (2015). The glass is half full half empty: A population-representative twin study testing if optimism and pessimism are distinct systems The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1015155

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

Monday, 20 April 2015

Autistic children's sensory experiences, in their own words

Children diagnosed with autism often have distinctive sensory experiences, such as being ultra sensitive to noise, or finding enjoyment in repeated, unusual sensory stimulation. However, much of what we know about these experiences comes from the testimony of parents, researchers and clinicians. Now Anne Kirby and her colleagues have published the first report of autistic children's sensory experiences, based on these children's own accounts. As the authors say, "children's voices are still rarely heard or taken seriously in the academic arena," so this is an innovative approach.

Twelve autistic children aged 4 to 13 were interviewed in their homes. The children's autism varied in severity, but they were all capable of conducting verbal interviews. The researchers used a range of techniques to facilitate the interviews, such as playing family video clips of the children to prompt discussion of specific episodes. Kirby and her team said their first important finding was to demonstrate the feasibility of interviewing young children with autism.

Careful analysis of the transcripts from the interviews revealed three key themes. The first of these – "normalising" – showed how the children considered many of their experiences to be just like other people's, as if rejecting the notion that there was something distinct or odd about their behaviour, and also showing a certain self-consciousness (contrary to existing research that suggests self-consciousness is impaired in autism).
Interviewer: What about things you don't like to touch or feel on your skin?
Child: Um, sharp stuff.
I: Sharp stuff? (smiles) Yeah, exactly.
C: Um, like most people do
I: Yeah
C: Um (pause), hot stuff.
I: Yep.
C: Like, burning hot, like pizza that just came out of the oven.
I: Do you have a favourite thing that you like to eat?
C: Uh, pizza.
I: Yeah? When it's not too hot, right?
C: Right. That's what most people say.
The children also expressed satisfaction at learning to cope with problematic sensory sensitivity – such as a dislike of brushing hair. "What's different about having your hair brushed now?" the interviewer asked. "That I look beautiful," the thirteen-year-old replied. The children appeared motivated to adapt to their sensitivities, so as to participate in normal daily activities. The researchers said this is contrary to past findings that suggest people with autism don't want to be "neurotypical" (perhaps such feelings can emerge later).

Another theme was the methods the children used to recount their experiences, including using anecdotes, demonstrating (e.g. by imitating the noise of the car engine, or mimicking a disgust reaction), by repeating their own inner speech from particular experiences, and, in the case of two children, by using similes. On that last point, one child likened eating spinach to eating grass, another likened loud voices to a lion's roar. "The use of simile as a storytelling method seemed to suggest a sort of perspective-taking that is not expected in children with autism" the researchers said.

The final theme concerned the way the children frequently talked about their sensory experiences in terms of their responses to various situations and stimuli. For example, the children spoke of their strategies, such as covering their ears, watching fireworks through a window, and watching sport on TV rather than in the arena. They also told the interviewers about their uncontrollable physical reactions, such as the pain of loud noises or teeth brushing. When he hears loud music, one little boy said: "it feels like my heart is beating, and um, my, uh, my whole body's shaking. Mmm and uh, and my eyes, uh, they start to blink a lot." The children's reactions were often tied to their fear of particular situations or objects, such as inflated balloons.  It feels like "the unknown is gonna come," said another child.

The study has obvious limitations, such as the small sample and lack of a comparison group, so we can't know for sure that children without autism wouldn't come up with similar answers. However, the research provides a rare insight into autistic children's own perspective on their sensory worlds. "Through exploration of how children share about their experiences, we can come to better understand those experiences," the researchers said, ultimately helping "how we study, assess, and address sensory features that impact daily functioning among children with autism."


Kirby, A., Dickie, V., & Baranek, G. (2015). Sensory experiences of children with autism spectrum disorder: In their own words Autism, 19 (3), 316-326 DOI: 10.1177/1362361314520756

--further reading--
Autism - myth and reality (Psychologist magazine feature article)

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