Saturday, 31 January 2015

Link feast

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

Finding The Golden Thread of Consciousness
"... the play is a lost opportunity to push ethical questions about human conduct up against the genuinely profound questions about the self raised by modern brain research," writes Vaughan Bell at The Psychologist, reviewing Tom Stoppard's new play The Hard Problem, showing at the National Theatre in London.

Batgirl's Psychologist
The amazing story of Andrea Letamendi - the clinical psychologist whose once-secret love for comic books led to her being written into one story as Batgirl's therapist.

Is Bilingualism Really An Advantage?
A new meta-analysis finds that the cognitive benefits of learning a second language may have been over-stated.

The Story of Now - Morality
Neuroscientist Molly Crockett discusses the psychology and neuroscience of morality as part of the BBC's experimental and interactive Story of Now project.

Do Dolphins Grieve?
A new study suggests the answer is Yes.

Early Bird or Night Owl?
A new, free app from The Open University allows you to monitor your mental performance through the day.

Does Subliminal Advertising Actually Work?
The BBC conducted its own test to find out.

Team of Rivals: Does Science Need “Adversarial Collaboration”?
Neuroskeptic reports on the results of an "adversarial collaboration" that was established to find out whether performing simple horizontal eye movements really can aid memory (a finding previously reported here at the BPS Research Digest).

The Surprising World of Synaesthesia
At The Psychologist magazine, Jack Dutton meets those with the condition and the researchers who study them. Might it have benefits, and could it even be taught?

How to Survive a Disaster
In a catastrophic event, most people fail to do the one thing that would save their life, says Michael Bond at BBC Future.

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

Friday, 30 January 2015

There are two types of envy; only one is associated with schadenfreude

You watch with envy as your long-time colleague gets yet another performance bonus - something you've strived for but never obtained. Not long after, you see him trip over in the office in front of everyone. Do you find this situation pleasingly amusing? In other words, do you experience schadenfreude?

According to an international team of research psychologists, your answer will likely depend on the specific kind of envy you feel toward your colleague. Niels van de Ven and his co-workers say there are in fact two types - malicious envy and benign envy. Both involve comparing yourself to someone who is better off in a way that matters to you, but with malicious envy your focus is on the person and wishing they didn't have the advantage you covet, whereas benign envy involves greater focus on the object of your envy and how you might achieve it for yourself. In some languages, such as Dutch and German, they actually have separate words for these two types of envy.

Malicious envy leads to schadenfreude, the researchers say, but benign envy does not. They demonstrated this in a series of three studies involving hundreds of people, one conducted in Dutch, the other two in English. The general format was the same throughout - participants recalled a situation in which they'd envied another person's achievement, and then they answered questions about the specific type of envy they'd experienced. Next they were asked to imagine the person they envied had suffered a minor misfortune and whether they would find this amusing. Finally the participants answered questions about their other feelings for the envied person, such as whether they resented them and whether their achievements were seen as deserved. The consistent finding throughout was that malicious envy, but not benign envy, was associated with stronger feelings of schadenfreude, even after factoring out the influence of other feelings such as liking and deservingness of success.

As the researchers explained, this pattern of results makes sense because:
"the motivational goal of malicious envy is to hurt the position of the other to prevent the other from being better off. If a misfortune befalls the superior other this motivational goal is satisfied, triggering positive feelings (i.e. schadenfreude)".
Past research on the links between envy and schadenfreude have been inconsistent. Also, scholars have disagreed about whether the essence of envy is simply coveting what another has, or whether it necessarily also involves some malicious intent towards the envied. van de Ven and his colleagues say these inconsistent results and debates over definitions are resolved by recognising the key difference between benign and malicious envy - or what in Brazil and Russia they call "white envy" and "black envy".


van de Ven, N., Hoogland, C., Smith, R., van Dijk, W., Breugelmans, S., & Zeelenberg, M. (2014). When envy leads to schadenfreude Cognition and Emotion, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2014.961903

--further reading--
Envy is a stronger motivator than admiration
Alex Haslam & Steve Reicher - our Envy
Kids experience schadenfreude by age four, maybe earlier

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

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Why you might want to beware the introvert on your team

Introverts have received a lot of positive press in recent years thanks to the run-away success of Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Cain tells us these are people who like their own space, but also happen to be empathic and sensitive and deep-thinkers. A new paper on peer appraisals by team-members bucks this hug-an-introvert trend.

Amir Erez and his co-authors report that introverts tend to give especially low performance ratings to their team-mates who are extravert and over-bearing, even though these people's actual performance for the team might be the same as other team-mates with different personality types.

"We suggest that introverted peers are more sensitive to extraversion because they recognize that highly assertive (i.e., extraverted) actors often compromise relational outcomes in the interest of instrumental ones, and because extraverts are often afforded initial high status in the absence of relevant performance information," the researchers said.

In other words, the researchers think introverts use peer appraisals strategically. Extraverts often throw their weight around and get undue credit, and so given the chance, introverts exert a corrective influence by giving extraverts relatively negative ratings. Extraverts, by contrast, were not found to modify their ratings for team-members based on their personality. The researchers think this is because they aren't so aware of other people's traits, and aren't threatened by dominant characters.

The results came initially from a field study involving 178 business students who'd been working together in four- or five-person teams for half a semester. The students rated their own extraversion, agreeableness, and the performance of their team-mates.

Further evidence came from an experiment in which business students thought they were taking part in a virtual team creativity task, in which they interacted with team-mates by text and headsets. In fact, their team-mates were computer controlled and the experience was manipulated so that some of them appeared extravert and others introvert, some unfriendly, others friendly. Afterwards the participants had to rate the performance of one of their team-mates. On objective terms, the researchers made it so the performance of the fictional team-mates rated by the participants was equal; all that differed between them was their personality.

The introverted participants gave poorer performance ratings to team-mates who were extravert, and were nearly six times less likely to recommend them for a bonus reward. Introverts also gave especially negative ratings to unfriendly team-mates. By contrast, extravert participants did not take the personality of their team-mates into account when making their peer ratings. The difference between the introvert and extravert participants was explained in part by the fact the introverts were more aware of the traits of their team-mates, and they formed more negative impressions of the extraverts and unfriendly people.

As peer appraisals are becoming increasingly popular in many organisations, the researchers said their findings have obvious practical implications. ".... [I]ndividuals high in extraversion and disagreeableness should be made aware that their trait-relevant behaviors may have a profoundly negative impact on how introverted individuals experience their dyadic encounters," they warned, "and may lead to reduced performance evaluation or reward giving for collective accomplishments."

A weakness of the study is that the experimental section involved creating team-mates who were caricatures of particular personality types. In reality, few people display such extremes of personality. As the researchers also acknowledged, there is a sense too in which the introverts' peer ratings could be seen as more accurate - it all depends on whether your focus is purely on task performance (which was matched for the imaginary team-mates who were rated), or if you take a longer-term picture and consider the wider team culture. "The sensitivity of introverted peers may actually represent detection of behaviours which are anticipated to hurt collective (but not individual) performance," the researchers said.


Erez, A., Schilpzand, P., Leavitt, K., Woolum, A., & Judge, T. (2014). Inherently Relational: Interactions Between Peers' and Individuals' Personalities Impact Reward Giving and Appraisal of Individual Performance. Academy of Management Journal DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0214

--further reading--
Introverts use more concrete language than extraverts

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

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A face that could get away with anything

First impressions lead to a multitude of assumptions, and trustworthiness is one of them: faces with v-shaped eyebrows and frowning mouths are consistently judged as less trustworthy than others with ^-shaped brows and mouths with upturned corners (this may be related to the former betraying a hidden anger and the latter having positive undertones). Now a study by Brian Holtz suggests that a person's looks can colour perceptions, not only of how trustworthy their character might be, but of whether their actual deeds are fair and well-intentioned.

In an ideal world, we’d trust people based upon what they say and do, and use that track record to evaluate whether their subsequent actions were in good faith. These new results suggest that often isn't so -  instead, our superficial impressions influence how we evaluate their behaviour.

The first study presented data on an imaginary company to 609 people recruited through an online portal, all of whom had experience of being in work. They were asked to evaluate a decision made by the CEO to cut pay by 15 per cent for all staff (including the CEO himself) in order to avoid cut-backs in tough economic times. Participants felt more trust towards the CEO and judged the decision as fairer when the CEO’s biography included a facial photo previously rated as highly trustworthy, rather than an untrustworthy one.

In the lead-up to this evaluation, participants were asked if there were other solutions to the financial crisis, and if so, if they could have been fairer. When they thought the CEO had a trustworthy face, they were less likely to believe there were fairer alternatives he could have taken. In both this and a subsequent replication, this doubt in viable alternative options mediated how strongly the photo drove trust in the CEO’s behaviour. This is fascinating and surprising to me - it suggests that a gut feeling, based on physical appearance, could have consequences for how we intellectually review a situation. I should note a third study with a smaller sample, conducted in the context of fairness in university marking, didn’t find this mediating route, but the main effect of facial appearance on trust in a person’s behaviour was replicated.

When we assume that certain facial characteristics can mark someone out as special - more electable, fit for higher rank, or a better captain of industry - these assumptions often become self-fulfilling. But whereas it’s easy to be accepting about the inevitability of some of these effects - people who look imposing will obviously be more imposing - most of us like to believe that perceptions of trust go deeper and are truly shaped by a person’s ethics and actions. Yet the sad truth is, some faces seem to mark one out as an easy scapegoat, while others are able to get away with murder.



--further reading--
Your trustworthiness is judged in a tenth of a second, or less
Want people to trust you? Try apologising for the rain

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

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

No one noticed when this man's speech was fed to him by a 12-year-old. Welcome to the Cyranoid Illusion

Imagine if the words that came out of your mouth were spoken by another person. Would anyone notice? This idea was explored by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his studies into obedience, but he never published his results.

Milgram called the hybrid of one person's body and another person's mind, a Cyranoid, after the play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the handsome Christian woos a woman using the graceful words provided by plain-looking Cyrano. Now the concept has been resurrected by a pair of British researchers, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, who say the approach has huge potential as a paradigm in social psychology.

The first study was a proof of concept. Forty participants (average age 30; 22 women) spent 10 minutes in conversation with a 26-year-old man, getting to know him. They thought this man was another participant, but in fact he was working for the researchers. For half the participants, the man spoke freely as himself. For the other half, he was a Cyranoid and spoke the words of a 23-year-old woman hidden in an adjacent room. In this condition, the woman could see and hear the man's interactions, and she fed him what to say live, via the wireless earpiece he was wearing.

Afterwards, the participants were asked whether they thought the man had spoken his own thoughts, or whether his answers were scripted. Only a tiny minority of participants in both groups thought this might be true. None of them thought he'd had his words fed to him by radio. The participants in the Cyranoid condition were astonished and amused when told the truth of the situation.

A second study went further. This time, panels of between three and five participants interrogated either a 37-year-old man or a 12-year-old boy about who they are and what they know about science, literature, history and current affairs. For half the participants, the man and boy simply answered as themselves. For the other participants, the boy or man was Cryanoid. If the Cryanoid boy was present before the panel, his answers were fed to him by the man; if the Cryanoid man was present, the words he spoke came from the boy.

Amazingly, the participants in the Cryanoid conditions were no more likely to say afterwards that they thought their interviewee had given scripted responses, spoken words relayed by radio, or wasn't speaking his own thoughts. No participants raised any spontaneous suspicions about the interviewees' autonomy during the interviews. And afterwards, when prompted directly, only one person out of 17 in each condition (two Cyranoid conditions and two normal) believed their interviewee's answers had been fed to them.

The Cryanoid set-up is especially intriguing to social psychologists because it allows the influence of a person's appearance to be weighed against the influence of their words, as spoken by another person. In this study, the participants rated the personality and intelligence of the man and boy equally positively when they spoke as themselves. Yet when the man spoke the words of the boy, he was given more negative ratings. This is in spite of the fact the participants failed to adjust the difficulty of their questions in this condition, presumably so as not to patronise the man publicly.

You can begin to see how the Cyranoid paradigm can illuminate issues to do with social stereotypes triggered by appearances and words, and the differences in people's responses in terms of their private thoughts and public actions. Another angle is the issue of how a person's speech is changed by the fact they are speaking through another body. In this case, the man and boy were trained to speak as themselves, yet the man shortened his sentences when speaking through the boy. The boy did not increase the length of his utterances when speaking as the man, perhaps because of the difficulty of doing so.

There could also be practical applications for this technique - for instance, imagine helping people with social anxiety. They could occupy an intimidating situation bodily, but have their words dictated by someone else; or conversely, they could practice providing the speech in such a situation while having the relative comfort of speaking their words through someone else's body.

"Though Milgram did not live to see his Cyranoid method come to fruition, the current research provides ample basis for the continued exploration of this intriguing methodological paradigm," the researchers said. "Indeed, the Cyranoid method may yet prove to be a long overdue addition to the social psychologist's toolkit."


Corti, K., & Gillespie, A. (2014). Revisiting Milgram’s Cyranoid Method: Experimenting With Hybrid Human Agents The Journal of Social Psychology, 155 (1), 30-56 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.959885

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

Monday, 26 January 2015

We're more likely to cheat when we're anxious

When we’re stressed out and feeling threatened, our priority becomes self-preservation. According to new research, this defensive mode even affects our morality, making us more likely to cheat and excuse our own unethical behaviour.

Maryam Kouchaki and Sreedhari Desai demonstrated this through six experiments. In the clearest example, 63 student participants spent three minutes listening to either calm music, or in the anxiety condition, to Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score. Those freaked out by Hermann's definitive ode to unease declared they were more anxious at the end of the study, and they had threat on their mind (this was confirmed through a word matching task - the Psycho group more often selected words with connotations of threat).

Anxious? Check. Threatened? Check. Unethical? Kouchaki and Desai went hunting for cheaters. Their participants next completed a simple computer task for money, for which there was an obvious way to cheat. The non-anxious students made an average of 19 "clear cheats", whereas the anxious ramped this up to 24. The more threatened the anxious felt, the more they cheated.

The researchers think this probably happened because threat provokes us to grab resources, status ... anything to buffer the self. An alternative explanation is that anxiety somehow frazzles our apparatus for moral judgment in general. The researchers showed this wasn’t the case in a further experiment where an unethical act - secretly copying a password that gave access to the questions for the next day's fictional job interview - was either posed as something that the participant had done, or a third party named Steve. Participants who had been put into an anxious state judged Steve's infraction just as severely as their non-anxious counterparts, yet they were more likely to let themselves off the hook.

When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system floods us with noradrenaline, activating our fight-or-flight pathways. How can I look after me, now? With this imperative looming large, it's unsurprising that we no longer have bandwidth available for our higher principles. It tallies with evidence that, when threatened, people are more likely to consume scarce communal resources, without regard to fair distribution or the long-term. The new findings may not extend to more severe violations such as willingness to harm others, but they do suggest we’re quick to forget lofty notions such as "fair play' when we feel under threat.


Kouchaki, M., & Desai, S. (2014). Anxious, Threatened, and Also Unethical: How Anxiety Makes Individuals Feel Threatened and Commit Unethical Acts. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0037796

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

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Link Feast

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

Why are men more likely than women to take their own lives?
In the Guardian, Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman argue that suicide prevention programmes need to take sex differences into account.

Introducing The Psychologist Magazine's First Ever Poetry Competition
"There is no guidance other than to consider our publication and audience; come on what you know, pure discovery," says Editor Jon Sutton.

Brain-branded Energy Drinks Might Make You Less Smart
Over at Brain Watch, I took at look at the claims made by a supposedly cognition-enhancing energy drink.

How to Curb Hunger Pangs with Your Mind
Pay attention to your eating, says David Robson at BBC Future, and you may find it easier not to over-indulge.

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve the Mystery of Consciousness?
Oliver Burkeman investigates for the Guardian.

In Our Time: Phenomenology
On BBC Radio 4, Melvyn Brag and his guests discuss phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that has given its proponents the chance to "talk about everything from the foundations of geometry to the difference between fear and anxiety." (Listen again on iPlayer)

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others
The smartest teams are distinguished by three key characteristics, says this column written by psychologists for the NYT.

Psychology of Emotions and Emotional Disorders
90 free journal articles from Psychology Press (access is open until Jan 31).

Pretty in Pink
"My two-year-old daughter already knows that pink is for girls. And she loves it," writes Elisabeth Camp for Aeon. "Why does that make me see red?"

How To Get Stuff Done When You Really, Really Don’t Want To
Advice from for when you've got the time, but not the motivation.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.