Friday, 28 November 2014

A shocking result - people are more willing to hurt themselves than others for profit

You wait in a cubicle, electrodes strapped to your body. In a room nearby, a stranger is confronted with a series of decisions. They can choose a smaller cash reward and avoid an electric shock, or a larger sum that comes together with an unpleasant zap. The twist is that in half of the trials, the stranger knows the associated shock punishment is for them, but in the others they know it’s you who will suffer. You glance nervously at the electrodes.

It's a tough spot. Surely you will receive many shocks – after all why wouldn't the deciding stranger opt for more money when they know it poses no personal risk? As a psychology nerd, you grimly recall experiments showing we're more prepared to hurt others financially than ourselves. Then you cast your mind wider and recall more hopefully how empathy research suggests humans are highly motivated to prevent suffering in others. Maybe the stranger won't put you at more risk than they put themselves?

This is the scenario that was explored in research carried out at University College London by Molly Crockett and her colleagues. Across two experiments, the 80 participants who played the role of the decision-makers were in fact more careful with another person's pain than with their own. They were prepared to receive higher shocks for modest extra rewards, but rejected the same deals when the shocks were for another unknown person. Specifically, the participants needed about twice the financial return before they would raise the pain levels for a stranger.

One fact of note is that when a trial involved choosing shocks for another person, the participants took more time over their decision - and the more they slowed down, the more likely they chose the kinder option. This is surprising because previous research on generosity suggests that faster decisions lead to more altruistic actions. The current research complicates this account, suggesting that snap decisions may be more altruistic in positive situations, but less altruistic in negative ones. Essentially, the research calls for us to recognise that being “thoughtful” is also a component of altruism.

The empathy literature explains how witnessing others’ pain affects our own pain networks, so this would imply that we could treat it as seriously as our own. But these findings go further, to something Crockett likens to Adam Smith's notion of “moral sentiment”, where human beings are driven by a principled aversion to benefiting through the suffering of another. By contrast with the selfishness seen in economic trading games, this research shines a light on how the direct physical suffering of others triggers empathic responses that are altogether different from responses to other people's purely financial disadvantage - even though lack of money may result in suffering too. We respond most humanely - most humanly - to human conditions of need: tired eyes, thin limbs, a body in pain.
Crockett, M., Kurth-Nelson, Z., Siegel, J., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R. (2014). Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408988111

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

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Exposure to different forms of violence affects kids’ sleep differently

By guest blogger Jordan Gaines Lewis

If you need an accurate assessment of your emotional health, look no further than the quality of your sleep. Have an important test coming up? Giving a big talk to your company tomorrow morning? Chances are you’re not sleeping as well as you typically would.

While most kids have fewer of these worries than adults, some unfortunately have to deal with a different type of stressor—violence. Previous work has shown that kids exposed to violence report significant sleep disturbances compared to non-abused children. It’s thought that witnessing or experiencing a violent event causes increased vigilance due to the perception that one’s safety is at stake, resulting in disturbed sleep. Most of these studies, however, employed subjective (self-reported) sleep quality measures, which can be unreliable.

A study by Jim Spilbury and colleagues published last month in Sleep Medicine set out to clarify the association between violence and sleep quality in children by adopting both longitudinal and objective measures. The authors hypothesised that different forms of violence, such as being physically assaulted versus witnessing a homicide, would affect certain sleep characteristics differently.

The researchers recruited 46 children between the ages of 8 and 16 years from a community-based violence intervention program. Measures were taken at two time points: baseline (within 7 weeks of the violent incident) and after a 3-month follow-up.

At each time point, participants wore an actigraph for one week—a wristwatch-like device that uses movement to determine when individuals are asleep. Five measures of sleep disturbance were extracted from the actigraph: bedtime, sleep duration, sleep efficiency (percentage of time actually asleep while in bed), the amount of time awake at night after initial sleep onset, and sleep duration variability over the week.

Participants also completed two surveys: the Recent Exposure to Violence Scale (which assessed a range of violent events in the kids’ neighbourhood, school, and home over the past year), and a self-reported measure of lingering trauma after a stressful event.  A parent of each participant also reported on their child’s sleep quality.

The type of violence experienced by participants varied. Family violence was witnessed by 57 per cent of the children, community violence by 43 per cent, and 41 per cent had suffered physical assault themselves.

Two particular types of violence stood out to researchers in terms of their association with sleep disturbance. Controlling for relevant confounders (such as age, gender and family income), individuals who were physically assaulted had a shortened sleep duration (by 35 minutes on average), exhibited almost three times as much wake time after sleep onset, and 6 per cent lower sleep efficiency than kids who did not experience physical assault. These effects were also seen three months later at follow-up.

On the other hand, children who witnessed a homicide had twice as much wake time after sleep onset, greater night-to-night variability in sleep duration, and more self-reported sleep problems than kids who had not witnessed a homicide. These findings, however, did not persist at follow-up.

It’s not clear why different violent experiences are associated with different objectively- and subjectively-measured sleep outcomes. The researchers suggest that, perhaps, persistence of the sleep disturbance in those who were physically assaulted, as opposed to those who witnessed a homicide, reflects how the former may be perceived as more damaging to one’s personal sense of safety, resulting in greater vigilance and nighttime arousal.

Although this was only a pilot study, its implications for public health and awareness are extremely important. Significant research over the past decade suggests that disturbed sleep in children and adolescents is associated with elevated inflammation, increased prevalence of obesity, and behavioural problems, although the causal relationship between these variables and poor sleep quality is difficult to determine. Interestingly, the researchers found no relationship between parent-reported sleep quality and the participants’ actigraphy measures, suggesting that many parents may not be aware of their children’s sleep difficulties.

While addressing a child’s emotional needs after exposure to violence is clearly important, this study suggests that assessing physical health, such as objectively measuring sleep, is also necessary to assess one’s well-being. After all, disturbed sleep may tell a whole different story of which a parent—or a child, for that matter—may not even be aware.


Spilsbury, J., Babineau, D., Frame, J., Juhas, K., & Rork, K. (2014). Association between children's exposure to a violent event and objectively and subjectively measured sleep characteristics: a pilot longitudinal study Journal of Sleep Research, 23 (5), 585-594 DOI: 10.1111/jsr.12162

Post written by Jordan Gaines Lewis, a PhD student at Penn State College of Medicine studying sleep and obesity in adolescents. She blogs about neuroscience at Gaines, on Brains. Follow on Twitter @GainesOnBrains.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why sadness lasts longer than other emotions

Staying positive can feel like an uphill battle. No wonder: when Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen asked over 200 high-school students (average age 17) to reminisce about the duration of their recent emotional experiences, they found that sadness had an unfortunate habit of lingering, more so than any of the other 26 emotions studied, including joy, pride and relief.

Indeed, the average duration of the episodes of sadness recalled by the students was 120 hours. At the other extreme, the most fleeting emotion was shame, which tended to last, on average, just half an hour. Surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, irritation and relief also tended to be short-lived. Joy managed a disappointing average duration of 35 hours. Contrast that with hatred, which averaged 60 hours. Focusing on pairs of the emotions that we usually see as related, guilt was found to last much longer than shame, and anxiety lasted longer than fear.

To find out why some emotions last longer than others, the researchers also asked the students about the events that precipitated their emotional experiences, and how they dealt with each emotional episode once it had started. A clear pattern emerged. More short-lived emotions were usually, though not always, preceded by an event of lesser importance to the participant, as compared with longer-lasting emotions.

Longer-lasting emotions, including sadness, also tended to go hand in hand with rumination as the main response - that is, dwelling on one's feelings and the consequences of the event that triggered those feelings. Together, event importance and amount of rumination accounted for half the variability in the length of different emotional episodes. This is substantial, but of course it leaves plenty of room for other factors unexplored by this research.

The study has some clear shortcomings, including the reliance on a student sample and on participants recalling their past emotional experiences. However, Verduyn and Lavrijsen said theirs is the first ever study to examine the reasons why some emotions last longer than others.

The researchers finish their report with an interesting point - when brain-imaging studies attempt to document the neural correlates of different emotional experiences, they rarely consider the different durations of different emotions. "...[T]he difference in neural signature between emotions may not be a matter of which neural regions are involved," write Verduyn and Lavrijsen, "but when, and for how long neural regions become and remain active."


Verduyn, P., & Lavrijsen, S. (2014). Which emotions last longest and why: The role of event importance and rumination Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9445-y

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

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

When Korea imposed a limit on working hours, did it make people happier?

Across different professions, many people are familiar with the sense of having to deliver more with less, meaning clocking-off time falls later and later. One way to protect workers’ rights, and look after their wellbeing, is to introduce working hours restrictions. But a new paper by Korea University's Robert Rudolf investigates the impact of such a reform, and its conclusions are disappointing.

Beginning its roll-out in 2004, the (South) Korean Five Day Working Reform was intended to manage the nation's subservience to the office: employees there work some of the longest hours among the OECD countries - more than 50 per week on average.

Rudolf first investigated how working hours affect wellbeing within a dataset of roughly equal numbers of men and women, all married with children. This group is likely to experience conflict between home and work-life, and is a demographic targeted by the Reform. Over 50,000 data points were available, each representing a person in a given year between 2000 and 2008 – that is, either side of the introduction of the new government policy.

Overall, Rudolf found that workers disliked very high working hours: working longer was associated with less satisfaction with their job and with their life as a whole. (These and subsequent analyses control for income.) Nothing too surprising there. But a second analysis was restricted to changes in working hours that were the direct consequence of the Working Reform, and here things become more illuminating.

Looking at the effects of imposed reductions in working hours helps reduce the complicating influence of other factors - for example, if people choose to downsize their hours to make space for a highly fulfilling new hobby, this could give an inflated impression of the value of shorter hours. The new data showed that although employees, especially women, reported a preference for their decreased hours, there was (for both genders) no significant effect on job satisfaction, and no hint of an improvement in life satisfaction. Unasked for drops in hours did not make people happier.

Clearly, individuals electing to reduce their hours are likely to reap wellbeing benefits, whether their aim is to ease the burden on their home responsibilities or release time to recuperate from working stressors. But this study suggests enforced reductions  - in this case of about 10 per cent, an average of five hours - may not noticeably effect overall life satisfaction.

Why might this be? Rudolf points out previous evidence that in the short term, capping hours often just means employees have to get the same work done in a shorter time, which is likely to be stress-inducing. In other cases, the release of hours may have been insufficient to really impact home-life routines, as many working men and women were still clocking in between 40 to 50 hours. More radical solutions may be needed to qualitatively change our experience of work.

Rudolf, R. (2013). Work Shorter, Be Happier? Longitudinal Evidence from the Korean Five-Day Working Policy Journal of Happiness Studies, 15 (5), 1139-1163 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-013-9468-1

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

Monday, 24 November 2014

Happy people think they're good at empathising with the pain of others. They're wrong

Which of your friends - the happier, or the more melancholy - is better at spotting your excitement that Chris is attending your birthday, or that a B+ has left you disappointed?

Evidence suggests that more upbeat people consider themselves especially empathic, and it would be reasonable to believe them, given that they know more people on average, and tend to form deeper, more trusting relationships. The reality, however, is more complicated. New research led by Yale's Hillary Devlin suggests that cheerful people may think they’re high in empathy, but their confidence outstrips their ability.

Devlin assessed her 121 adult participants' level of trait positive affect - essentially their average happy mood from day to day - and asked them how strong they were at empathising. Happier participants believed they were better empathisers in general.

The researchers next studied videos of people giving a monologue about an autobiographical event. For each of the four videos (two positive events, two negative) participants rated, second-by-second, the level of negative or positive emotion they thought the speaker was currently feeling.

Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than the others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent.

There was one ray of sunshine for the positive participants: they were marginally more accurate in the two positive videos at spotting upward shifts in the speakers’ emotions, for example as their happiness intensified slightly. This raises the possibility that upbeat people may be more sensitive to shifts in emotion that match their own disposition. But more generally, their high confidence in their own empathy appears unfounded, and they may struggle to drop down into the headspace of someone feeling very low.

In psychology research, measures of empathy are often based on participants' assessments of themselves, so this new study suggests researchers need to be aware that such beliefs may not track reality. For the rest of us, it's useful to know that you don't need to be a Pollyanna to figure out how people are doing. Sometimes, it’s the Eeyores who are more understanding.


Devlin, H., Zaki, J., Ong, D., & Gruber, J. (2014). Not As Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion Is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance PLoS ONE, 9 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110470

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

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Link feast

Our pick of the best psychology and neuroscience links from the past week or so:

Down The Culinary Rabbit Hole
Over at The Psychologist magazine, Chef Heston Blumenthal describes his work with psychologists,  and there's an exclusive extract from The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, by Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman (free registration required).

The Best Optical Illusions to Bend Your Eyes and Blow Your Mind – In Pictures
Highlights from the book Eye Benders: The Science of Seeing and Believing, which was recently awarded the Royal Society Young People’s book prize.

What Makes a Terrorist Stop Being a Terrorist?
John Horgan for The Conversation discusses de-radicalisation.

Major Brain Pathway Rediscovered
Mo Costandi reports on new findings concerning a white-matter tract at the back of the brain.

The Self is Moral
"We tend to think that our memories determine our identity," argues Nina Strohminger at Aeon magazine, "but it’s moral character that really makes us who we are."

I Nearly Died. So What?
Meghan Daum at the New York Times draws on her own experiences to challenge the fashionable idea that crises always impart lessons and bring out the best in people.

Ivan Pavlov's Real Quest
A new biography argues that "much of what we thought we knew about Pavlov has been based on bad translations and basic misconceptions," says Michael Specter in the New Yorker.

The "Pink vs Blue" Gender Myth
Claudia Hammond at BBC Future explores whether girls really are born with a preference for pink.

BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind
The latest episode covers problem gambling, a new take on Milgram, plus the latest psychology research discussed by me (the Research Digest Editor).

Personhood Week
All week at her Only Human blog, Virginia Hughes has been exploring what it means to be a person, covering topics such as conception and death.

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

Friday, 21 November 2014

The 100 most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter

Updated for November 2014, here are the 100 most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter based on follower counts recorded over the last few weeks. If we've missed anyone (individuals, not organisations) who should be in the top 100, please let us know via comments and we'll add them in. This is an update to our February 2014 post. Check the comments to that earlier post for even more psychologists on Twitter than we were able to include here. We're aware there are issues with lists like this (for example, Twitter accounts vary in how many active followers they have), but we hope you find it useful nonetheless. BPS Twitter accounts are presented below, but not counted in the tally towards 100.

Andrew Mendonsa. Clinical psychologist. Followers: 393234
Sam Harris. Neuroscientist, author. Followers: 250966
Kiki Sanford. Neurophysiologist turned sci communicator. Followers: 174275
Steven Pinker. Evolutionary psychologist, author. Followers: 151984
Richard Wiseman. Psychologist, blogger and author. Followers: 135145
Laura Kauffman. Child psychologist. Followers: 106984
Dan Ariely. Behavioural Economist, author. Followers: 81949
Oliver Sacks. Neurologist and author. Followers: 80157
George Huba. Psychologist. Followers: 77181
Joe Guse. Comedian turned psychologist. Followers: 74914
Leah Klungness. Author and psychologist. Followers: 60591
Travis Langley. Social psychologist and author. Followers: 60043
Dolors Reig. Social psychologist (tweets in Spanish). Followers: 58700
Neuroskeptic. Blogger and neuroscientist. Followers: 47625

BPS Research Digest. The BPS Research Digest! Followers: 46828

Yankı Yazgan. Child psychiatrist/ psychology faculty. Followers: 40381
Melanie Greenberg. Clinical health psychologist. Followers: 38751
Anthony Risser. Neuropsychologist, blogger. Followers: 34450

The Psychologist magazine. Followers: 33234

Dylan William. Educational psychologist. Followers: 32928
Miguel Escotet. Psychologist. Followers: 31948

Marsha Lucas. Neuropsychologist. Followers: 31073
Richard Thaler. Behavioural economist. Followers: 30206
Vaughan Bell. Clinical neuropsychologist, blogger. Followers: 29263

BPS Official. Followers: 26746

Aleks Krotoski. Psychologist, tech journalist. Followers: 24255
Jo Hemmings. Celebrity psychologist. Followers: 23740
25th place Jeremy Dean. Psychology blogger. Followers: 23424
Shawn Achor. Positive psychologist. Followers: 23,330
Amy Cuddy. Social psychologist. Followers: 22837
Kelly McGonigal. Psychologist. Followers: 21733
Mo Costandi. Neuroscience writer, blogger. Followers: 21614
David Dobbs. Neuroscience writer. Followers: 21427
Noah Gray. Neuroscience editor. Followers: 20954

Bob Sutton. Organisational psychologist and author. Followers: 20879
David Eagleman. Neuroscientist, author. Followers: 205714
Dean Burnett. Neuroscientist and comedian. Followers: 18759
David Ballard. Work psychologist. Followers: 18459

Marilyn Price-Mitchell. Developmental Psychologist. Followers: 17652
Dan Gilbert. Psychologist. Followers: 17418
Paul Bloom. Psychologist. Followers: 16957
Sun Wolf. Social neuroscientist. Followers: 16517
Susan Whitbourne. Psychologist. Followers: 16511

Daniel Levitin. Psychologist, author. Followers: 16108
Dorothy Bishop. Developmental neuropsychologist. Followers: 15937

Pascal Wallisch. Neuroscientist. Followers: 15910
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. Cognitive neuroscientist. Followers: 15829
Scott Kaufman. Cognitive psychologist, author. Followers: 15675
Ciaran O'Keeffe. Parapsychologist. Followers: 15504
Melissa McCreery. Clinical Psychologist. Followers: 15394
Heidi GrantHalvorson. Social psychologist. Followers: 15277
Craig Malkin. Clinical psychologist. Followers: 15004

50th place Robert Cialdini. Social psychologist. Followers: 14980
Simon Baron-Cohen. Developmental psychologist. Followers: 14824
Jonathan Haidt. Psychologist. Followers: 14225
Uta Frith. Developmental neuropsychologist. Followers: 13529

Micah Allen. Cognitive neuroscientist. Followers: 12540
Christian Jarrett. Editor of the Research Digest. Followers: 12312

Andrea Letamendi. Clinical psychologist. Followers: 11809

Todd Kashdan. Psychologist. Followers: 11623
Lee Keyes. Psychologist. Followers: 11399
David Webb. Psychology tutor, blogger. Followers: 11369
Honey Langcaster-James. Psychologist and coach. Followers: 11285
Maria Konnikova. Neuroscience blogger and author. Followers: 11182
Petra Boynton. Psychologist, sex educator. Followers: 10960
Professor Bob. Psychologist. Followers: 10783

James Moore. Cognitive Neuroscientist. Followers: 10298
Tanya Byron. Clinical psychologist, TV presenter, columnist. Followers: 10287
Cary Cooper. Occupational psychologist. Followers: 10275
Pam Spurr. Agony aunt. Followers: 10170
Susan Weinschenk. Psychologist and author. Followers: 10010
David Rock. Work psychologist. Followers: 9995

Maia Szalavitz. Neuroscience journalist. Followers: 9968
Jay Watts. Clinical psychologist, Lacanian. Followers: 9341
Andrea Kuszewski. Robopsychologist. Followers: 9135

Bradley Voytek. Neuroscientist and self-professed geek. Followers: 9002
Timothy Lomauro. Clinical psychologist. Followers: 8996

75th place Stephan Guyenet. Neurobiologist. Followers: 8795
Jason Goldman. Developmental psychologist, science writer. Followers: 8749
Sophie Scott. Neuroscientist. Followers: 8722

Cheryl Arutt. Clinical and forensic psychologist. Followers: 8690
Margarita Holmes. Psychologist and sex therapist. Followers: 8689
Claudia Hammond. Radio presenter. Followers: 8430
Neuro Bonkers. Blogger. Followers: 8397
Todd Finnerty. Psychologist. Followers: 8066
Bruce Hood. Cognitive scientist. Followers: 7870

Steven Novella. Neurologist and sceptic. Followers: 7635
Graham Jones. Internet (cyber) psychologist. Followers: 7529

John Grohol. Founder of Psychcentral. Followers: 6814
Shelley Bonanno. Psychologist and psychotherapist. Followers: 6549
Jay Dadlani. Psychologist. Followers: 6361
Rory O'Connor. Health psychologist, suicide researcher. Followers: 6292

Jordan Gaines Lewis. Neuroscientist, blogger. Followers: 6247
Jesse Bering. Psychologist, blogger. Followers: 6239
Kevin Mitchell. Neurogeneticist. Followers: 6230
Kathleen Young. Clinical Psychologist. Followers: 5930

Gary Marcus. Psychologist, author and blogger. Followers: 5923
Hugo Spiers. Neuroscientist. Followers: 5817
Andy Field. Psychologist and stats whiz. Followers: 5737
Marco Iacoboni. Neuroscientist, mirror neuron expert. Followers: 5727
Earl Miller. Cognitive neuroscientist. Followers: 5661
Steven Brownlow. Clinical and forensic psychologist. Followers: 5574
100th place G. Tendayi Viki. Social psychologist. Followers: 5564

Thanks to Emma Smith at the BPS for updating the follower counts