Thursday, 2 October 2014

How does the psychology of ownership differ between Western and Eastern cultures?

Michael Jackson's glove sold for $350,000 at
a New York auction in 2009. In India,
celebrity possessions are not valued so highly. 
By guest blogger Bruce Hood.

Many of us are nostalgic for original, authentic experiences and prepared to pay for them. For example, not so long ago vinyl records were ubiquitous but nowadays they are considered collectibles, with some attracting a high price. Even with the most mundane record, there is still a tangible tactile experience to possessing these items that iTunes cannot re-create. It’s not just collectors. Most of us prefer to own and derive great pleasure from original items - a theme explored in Paul Bloom’s highly entertaining 2011 TED talk, “The Nature of Pleasure”.

The psychology of possessions reveals that many of us imbue important items with an integral property or essence that defines their true identity. The origin of such thinking can be traced to Plato’s notion of form, but it still operates today as the intuition that significant things are irreplaceable, even by identical duplicates that are physically indistinguishable from the original.

The concept of essentialism also helps explain our pre-occupation with our own stuff. This is the idea that every object is imbued with unique defining characteristics. One essentialist perspective is that our possessions represent who we are, and are even imbued by us in some way. Clearly some objects are entirely pragmatic and functional but others form part of an “extended self” (Belk, 1988; pdf). It may be our car, our clothes or the records we collect. A manifestation of the extended self is the endowment effect (pdf) whereby individuals value their personal possessions more than identical objects owned by others. However, the endowment effect and the extended self are not culturally universal. For example, a recent study (pdf) of the Tanzanian Hazda hunter-gather tribe revealed that they do not show the endowment effect, possibly because they have so few personal possessions.

Others want to emulate their heroes or make a connection with them in some tangible material form by owning their personal possessions. Essentialism explains why memorabilia collectors are not always motivated by financial rewards but rather with a passion to establish a tactile connection with the previous owners they admire. One plausible mechanism aligned with essentialism is positive contamination (pdf) – the notion that coming into direct contact with an item, such as a piece of clothing, can transfer some the previous owner’s essence.

We have been researching authenticity and essentialism in our lab using a duplication scenario. It's based on a conjuring trick that convinces pre-schoolers that we have a machine that can duplicate objects. In our first study (pdf), we showed that children with sentimental attachment to a teddy bear would not accept an apparent duplicate toy. They also thought that original cups and spoons owned by Queen Elizabeth II were more valuable than identical duplicates even though they reasoned that duplicated silver objects were physically equivalent to originals. In other words, they appreciated the additional value conferred to memorabilia by celebrity association.

In our most recent study conducted via the MTurk platform, we asked Western (mostly US) and Eastern (mostly Indian) adults to estimate the value of four types of collectible: a work of art, a celebrity sweater, a dinosaur bone and moon rock. We then told them about the machine that can create an identical duplicate and asked them to value the copy. In two studies of over 800 adults we found the same basic pattern. Overall, both cultures think originals are worth more than copies, but the two cultures diverge on the celebrity clothing. Unlike Westerners, the Eastern adults saw the duplicate as not significantly different from the original. These results support the hypothesis that individualistic cultures in the West place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons, which explains why the valuation of certain authentic items may vary cross-culturally.

It’s not that Eastern cultures like India do not have celebrities – they are fanatical about their Bollywood stars – but the desire to collect celebrity possessions may not be such a cultural tradition in collectivist societies. Eastern cultures also exhibit essentialist contagion in their rituals and concerns about moral contamination (the caste system being the notable example) but essentialist concerns are primarily heightened for negative contamination as opposed to positive transfer, which is what is believed to be operating in celebrity clothing.

It is not clear how the desire for authenticity and essentialism will change as cultural differences increasingly disappear in a digitizing world of accessible duplication and downloads, but I expect that desire for originality will always be at the core of human psychology as a component of self-identity. We are the only species that really seems to care about originals.


Apicella, C., Azevedo, E., Fowler, J., & Christakis, N. (2014). Evolutionary Origins of the Endowment Effect: Evidence from Hunter-Gatherers SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2255650

Gjersoe, N., Newman, G., Chituc, V., & Hood, B. (2014). Individualism and the Extended-Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects PLoS ONE, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090787

--further reading--
The Psychology of Stuff and Things.

Post written by Bruce Hood (@ProfBruceHood) for the BPS Research Digest. Hood is University of Bristol Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society. He is elected Fellow of the BPS, Royal Institution, Society of Biology and the Association for Psychological Science. Also, President of the Psychology section of the British Science Association.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

“Just try to ignore it”: How neurotic people respond to extreme rudeness at work

We’ve all experienced rudeness at work; at the time it’s offensive and can harm our creativity, but it bears even darker fruits in the long-term, as repeated exposure is associated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

How do people deal with rudeness? When is it buried away, and when addressed? A new study suggests that we actually tend to ignore it most of the time. However more offensive acts may set us off – unless we are particularly emotionally sensitive, in which case, the greater the rudeness, the more likely we are to bury our heads in the sand.

Maquarie University’s Larissa Beattie and Barbara Griffin asked 92 customer service and admin employees at a security company to keep a diary of their experiences and responses to workplace incivility, on eight days spread over four weeks.

People of all personality types mostly (80 per cent of the time) just ignored instances of mild rudeness at work. But when rudeness was more serious, personality made a difference. In these situations, emotionally stable people became more likely to respond in some way (either by retaliating, seeking support or even forgiving the perpetrator), whereas high scorers in neuroticism were even more likely to keep their head down and ignore the incident.

The reasons for this difference aren’t clear from the research. This isn’t about neurotic people being scared to react to bullying from authority figures, as the status of the aggressor was not related to this effect. However, people with high trait neuroticism tend to avoid highly arousing negative situations in general, so it makes sense that they should want to avoid confrontations at work.

In this study, each individual showed a wide repertoire of responses to incivility - sometimes ignoring, sometimes reacting in kind, and in some instances taking it out on others. Context clearly matters, with temperament leaning us in different directions. Unfortunately, the study doesn’t give us an understanding of which responses lead to better outcomes; ignoring may be a healthy reaction in many cases, but we also know that sometimes outbursts of anger are needed to draw attention to workplace injustices. It’s in this context that the reaction of people with high trait neuroticism is concerning, as these more serious events may be precisely the ones that call for a reaction.

Also bear in mind the study looked at a range of roles, but only from a single organisation; it would be useful to explore this issue elsewhere to see how it generalises outside of a certain corporate culture. Given the impact that negative interactions have on job satisfaction and turnover, it’s important that we understand the reasons why some people suffer in silence.


Beattie, L., & Griffin, B. (2014). Accounting for within-person differences in how people respond to daily incivility at work Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 87 (3), 625-644 DOI: 10.1111/joop.12067

--further reading--
The harm caused by witnessing rudeness
Self-doubt turns bosses into bullies
A misogynistic workplace is bad for male employees too

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

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Most people think CEOs are paid too much

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc,
attends the 2013 Allen & Co conference.
It's often assumed that a desire to reduce income inequality is held only by people on lower pay, or by those who endorse left-wing views. However, a new study of over 55,000 people (average age 47; 55 per cent were female) across 40 countries on 6 continents finds a universal desire to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers. The authors, Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton, say their results "offer guidance to policy makers seeking to understand lay attitudes toward income inequality."

The research was based on an international survey that asked people to estimate the pay of a typical CEO in their country, a cabinet minister in government, and an unskilled worker. Participants then stated what the ideal pay for these three groups should be. The average estimated pay ratio of CEOs to unskilled workers was 10 (i.e. people thought that CEOs were paid ten times more than unskilled workers), while the average ideal ratio was 4.6. There was significant variation between countries, but a large gap between estimated and ideal pay ratios was found everywhere and across all demographic groups regardless of participants' own pay, their education or political affiliation.

The data for estimated and ideal cabinet minister pay showed similar patterns - people across all nations felt that senior politicians should be paid less than CEOs and more than unskilled workers, but they believed the pay gaps between these groups should be much smaller.

For 16 countries including many European nations, Australia, Japan and the US, the researchers also had access to data on actual pay ratios for CEOs and workers. This showed that not only did people in all these countries wish for pay gaps to be smaller than they thought they were, they also massively underestimated the size of the real pay gaps. For example, in the USA, participants estimated the ratio of CEO to unskilled worker pay to be 29.6, but in fact the real ratio is 354.

The Harvard Business Review have further unpacked these data. Focusing on the UK, participants thought the average ratio between CEO and unskilled worker pay should be 5.3. In fact it is 84: that is, based on 2012 figures, the average CEO in the UK earned $3,758,412 per year, while the average worker earned $44,473. If CEO pay was held constant and worker pay was increased to reach participants' ideal pay gap, then average worker pay per year would become $704,707.

Kiatpongsan and Norton said that pay gaps are unlikely to reduce any time soon to the ideal levels expressed by the participants in this study, but they said there are promising signs. For example, there are increasing calls in some countries for pay ratios between company CEOs and workers to be made transparent. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the Social Democratic Party recently submitted a large petition calling for the pay ratio of CEOs to the lowest paid workers to be capped at 12. However, the researchers also warned of hurdles ahead. The ice cream company Ben and Jerry's tried to enforce a 5 to 1 pay ratio between CEOs and low-paid workers, but had to abandon the policy in 1995 when they failed to recruit a new CEO.


Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael I. Norton (2014). How Much (More) Should CEOs Make? A Universal Desire for More Equal Pay Perspectives on Psychological Science

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

Monday, 29 September 2014

Can this simple strategy reduce children's anxiety about school tests?

The sad thing about children's exam nerves is that their fears often become self-fulfilling. Too much anxiety and they can end up under-performing relative to their abilities.

A team of psychologists led by Fred Paas and colleagues has taken a cognitive psychology approach to this situation. Children have a certain amount of "working memory" capacity, they say, and it's either used up by the task at hand, or by external pressures, such as intrusive, worrying thoughts.
Paas and his team have explored the benefits of a simple strategy that's designed to help children focus more on the school test, and less on worrying.

Over 100 children (aged 11-12) at three Greek primary schools sat a maths test. Stress was ratcheted up with a timer (three minutes per question) and a prize for the best performer in each class. Crucially, the researchers gave half the students one minute at the test start to skim through all 10 of the maths problems - this was the simple intervention. The researchers said this should reduce anxiety and boost confidence by "activating the relevant schemas for solving the test problems". The remaining students acted as controls and had an extra minute to answer the first problem.

The good news is that the children who took a minute to skim through the questions performed better on average than the control students, and this was true regardless of their tendency to experience test-related anxiety. Because the students' self-reported levels of mental exertion didn't vary across the control and intervention conditions, the researchers said this shows the skimming ahead strategy boosted performance by aiding the children's efficiency, helping them focus more on the task, and less on worry.

The problem with this interpretation is that the intervention helped all children, not just the anxious, and what's more, the children's self-reported anxiety levels were no different in the intervention condition versus the control condition. From a practical perspective, if our aim is to help anxious children overcome their disadvantage relative to the non-anxious, this intervention won't help. So, the skimming ahead strategy certainly seems like a simple method for boosting children's test performance, but it's not clear that this is specifically a way to reduce test anxiety.

The researchers disagree. They concluded: "Although further studies need to be conducted to show whether the strategy generalises to other topics, such as language, or that a longer period to look ahead will have a greater impact on anxiety and performance, the strategy seems very promising in enabling students to perform up to their maximum potential."


Mavilidi, M., Hoogerheide, V., & Paas, F. (2014). A Quick and Easy Strategy to Reduce Test Anxiety and Enhance Test Performance Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28 (5), 720-726 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3058

--further reading--
Simple psychological intervention boosts school performance of ethnic minority students

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

Friday, 26 September 2014

Eye contact makes us more aware of our own bodies

If you've ever felt acutely self conscious upon making eye contact with another person, a new study may help you understand why. Matias Baltazar and his colleagues have found that making eye contact activates people's awareness of their own bodies. That feeling of self consciousness induced by mutual gaze might be based in part on the fact that your brain is suddenly more attuned to your body.

The researchers presented 32 participants with a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen, and after each they asked them to rate the intensity of their emotional reaction. Crucially, each image was preceded either by a fixation cross or a photograph of a man or woman's face. These faces were either looking right at the participants, as if making eye contact, or they had their gaze averted. The participants' were also wired up to a skin conductance machine that measured the sweatiness of their fingers. This provided an objective measure of the participants' emotional reactions to the images, to be compared against their subjective assessments of their reactions.

The participants' accuracy at judging their own physiological reactions was more accurate for those images that followed a photograph that appeared to be making eye contact. "Our results support the view that human adults' bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another's gaze," the researchers said.

A problem with this methodology is that greater bodily arousal is known to enhance performance in psychological tests, so perhaps eye contact was simply exerting its effects this way. But the researchers checked, and the boost to self awareness of eye contact wasn't merely a side-effect of increased arousal - the participants' physiological reactivity (an indicator of arousal) was no greater after eye contact photos than after gaze averted photos. The performance-enhancing effect of eye contact was also specific to bodily awareness. The researchers checked this by confronting participants with occasional memory tests through the experiment, for words that had appeared on-screen. Participant performance was no better after looking at faces that made eye contact, compared with the averted gaze faces.

Baltazar and his team said the fact that eye contact enhances our awareness of our own bodies could have therapeutic implications. For example, they said it could "stimulate interoceptive awareness in people whose condition is associated with interoceptive hyposensitivity, [such as] anorexia nervosa and major depression disorder."


Baltazar M, Hazem N, Vilarem E, Beaucousin V, Picq JL, & Conty L (2014). Eye contact elicits bodily self-awareness in human adults. Cognition, 133 (1), 120-7 PMID: 25014360

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

Thursday, 25 September 2014

How do male scientists balance the demands of work and family?

Academia remains heavily gendered, thanks in part to historical stereotypes that assert men are suited to solving complex problems and ready to put "great works" over other concerns such as community or family. Psychology and sociology have shown how this disadvantages women working in these fields, particularly if they wish to have children.
A new study led by Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University takes a different approach, looking at what this world is like for men. From the 73 male scientists interviewed, four groupings emerged. A minority (15 per cent) indicated they saw a fundamental incompatibility between raising a family and success in science, and as a consequence intended to forgo childrearing entirely. A second group (30 per cent) saw no such incompatibility… as long as you have a wife to raise the kids full-time. These "Traditional Breadwinners" were slightly older (average age 47) and more likely to be full professors.
 They were quick to accept that the family duties performed by their wives were key to their own career success. Some recognised their fortune and the compromises their partners made, whereas others saw the spheres of science and family as separate and inevitably gendered. To the question “Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?”, one responded “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”
But norms about working and being a father are changing, with more men wanting a greater role at home and more career opportunities for their partners. This study suggests that while some male scientists are prepared to follow through on this with action, the egalitarian commitment of others is more theoretical. This latter group (22 per cent) are "Neotraditionalists": they are opposed to the idea that their working partners ought to devote themselves only to childcare, but when tensions arose between work and home life, these men presumed that their own (male) career ought to come first. They often took pains to distance themselves from having caused these tensions. One characterised his wife facing a career break during the early years of childrearing as "her issue". Another stated that “there’s more expected of the women in terms of family life”, and a third that women were the ones “burdened" with childcare. This fatalism was a common theme of the Neotraditionalists: the situation is unfair, but what are you going to do?
How about reducing your own work activities to accommodate the career of your female partner? This was the strategy taken by the final group, the “Egalitarian Partners”. These men (33 per cent of the sample) were likely to be together with another scientist, and saw each career track as equally important. In their interviews, they spoke of concessions made by both sides, and the recognition that other colleagues were outpacing them. Their language also betrayed awareness that their decisions were not in line with their gendered role: one qualified his decisions by saying "I’m trying to be a sensitive new age guy". Data exists that suggests fathers are not expected by most managers to actually use organisational work-family policies such as crèches or shorter work-time; the true egalitarians are going against the grain, or even "acting female" by placing family as equal to or more important than their devotion to the Big Questions.
Without greater societal efforts to overhaul institutional sexism, these challenges may remain for the Egalitarians. Non-child-rearing men are more likely to reach positions of power thanks to the extra time and energy they can devote to their work, and they may see less cause to introduce systems or drive cultural change to support those men who want to be an active partner in the home, however large their number may be at entry level. As a consequence, Damaske concludes, “the academic science pipeline may begin to leak young men as well as young women, increasing the overall loss of talent in academic science.”

Damaske, S., Ecklund, E., Lincoln, A., & White, V. (2014). Male Scientists' Competing Devotions to Work and Family: Changing Norms in a Male-Dominated Profession Work and Occupations DOI: 10.1177/0730888414539171

--further reading--
Childless women are the most productive staff of all, study finds
Girlie scientist role models could do more harm than good
Why female business owners are less successful but just as satisfied

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

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Rats outperformed humans on this learning task

We like to think of ourselves as the top of the class when it comes to intelligence in the animal kingdom. Our inventions and scientific progress are testament to that claim, and yet there are some ways in which our complex brains let us down. In this new study researchers led by Ben Vermaercke compared human and rat performance on two forms of category-based learning. On one of them, the rodents trounced the homo sapiens.

The participants - 16 rats and 24 humans - were trained to recognise that certain patterns (stripes of light and dark, known as gratings) shown on a screen were the targets, while others were the distractors. The patterns were presented in pairs, and for the rats, if they followed the target pattern in a pair, this led them to the correct route (out of two) towards the safety of a platform in a water maze. For humans, choosing the target pattern simply led to presentation of a "correct" symbol - a green triangle pointing upwards; choosing the distractor pattern triggered a downward red triangle.

Through choosing the different patterns and receiving feedback, the rats and humans learned which patterns were targets and which were distractors. In one "rule based" version of the task, the targets and distractors always differed only along one dimension - either the frequency, or the orientation, of the light and dark stripes. In the other "information integration" version of the task, the targets differed from the distractors along both dimensions (frequency and orientation) simultaneously.

The key challenge occurred next, when the rats and humans entered the test phase, and attempted to generalise what they'd learned in the training phase to new pairs of patterns. The rats and humans performed similarly on the rule-based version of the task. However, when it came to the "information integration" version, the rats performed significantly better than the humans. This was because the humans' performance dipped in the "integrated information" version of the task, whereas the rats performed just as well at this version as they did on the rule-based version.

What was going on? In the version of the task where the target was distinguishable from the distractors along two dimensions simultaneously, the correct choice couldn't be identified based on a simple rule. But humans like to make conscious decisions and use explicit rules, even when this approach isn't optimal. It's for this reason that they struggled at this version of the task. Rats, in contrast, used an implicit similarity approach in both versions of the task (think of this as going with your gut, as to which pattern seemed most similar to the targets seen in training). This served the rodents fine in the "rule-based" version, and actually led them to beat us humans in the more complex information-integration version. In this latter version, the humans looked too hard for an explicit rule, and would likely have performed better if they'd gone with their instincts.

"We have shown that rats display superior generalisation performance in a generalisation context in which correct stimulus-response associations do not follow a dimension-based rule," the researchers said. "This is in line with the hypothesised competition in the human brain between an explicit, rule based system and in implicit category-learning system."


Vermaercke B, Cop E, Willems S, D'Hooge R, & Op de Beeck HP (2014). More complex brains are not always better: rats outperform humans in implicit category-based generalization by implementing a similarity-based strategy. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 21 (4), 1080-6 PMID: 24408657

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