Showing posts with label Social. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Social. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

During jokes, the teller and responder engage in an involuntary "dance"

Knock Knock!
Who's There?
Ima who?
Ima psychologist. I'm here cos you won't open up.
When dance partners perform, their bodily movements become synchronised. This is deliberate on their part, of course, and we can see the timed interplay of their actions. What psychologists have begun to realise is that this kind of bodily synchrony also occurs between people in many everyday situations, except in these cases the physical "dance" is unintentional and it's more subtle, such as when two people sitting in rocking chairs begin to rock in time without realising it.

For the latest demonstration of this effect, Richard Schmidt and his colleagues have explored the physical choreography that occurs between people during the telling of formulaic knock-knock jokes. The researchers used a Kinect camera to record the movements of 32 students as they performed these jokes in pairs. The Kinect, which is found in many homes as part of a video-gaming console, detects the 3D locations of 21 body joints for each person, and records up to 30 frames per second. Eight of the participant pairs had never met each other before, but before the joke telling all pairs performed physical ice-breaker exercises, such as standing back-to-back, locking arms and attempting to stand up together. There were eight all-female pairs, and eight mixed-gender pairs.

The researchers observed significant bodily movement synchrony between joke tellers and responders. This was true across a session of ten jokes; within each joke lasting five to seven seconds; and also within each joke sub-component, such as each utterance or teller-responder exchange. This synchrony was not due to chance - when the researchers compared movement between participants who were not paired together, no such synchrony was observed. In technical terms, the synchrony between joke tellers and responders was "in-phase" - that is, bodily movement by the teller was reliably followed by movement by the responder; and it also showed "coherence", in that the lag between teller and responder tended not to change over time.

Schmidt and his colleagues said their study has shown the "bodily 'dance' underlying human communication interactions..." There were some further details to the study. Half the time, the pairs performed the jokes facing away from each other. This reduced, but did not eliminate, the "dance". Half the pairs were told to perform certain gestures during the joke telling - for example, the teller was to perform a door knocking mime, and the responder to shrug their shoulders when they uttered "Who's there?". The dance between teller and responder was actually reduced for these pairs. The researchers surmised that this is because focusing on performing these prescribed movements took the participants' attention away from their partner.

Finally, after the main task, the participants completed questionnaires tapping their social skills - a measure of social monitoring (how much a person tailors their behaviour to the social context) and the Autism Spectrum Quotient. People who scored higher on the latter measure tended to display less of a "dance" during the joke telling/responding. Zooming in on the sub-scales of this autism measure, social skills were not relevant. Rather, it was specifically those people who said they paid more attention to detail and/or had trouble switching their attention, who also tended to display less of a physical "dance" with their partner during the joke telling.

"Individuals vary in terms of their ability to create stable interpersonal entrainment," the researchers said, "and such skill seems to be underwritten by the flexibility by which they can attend to and pick up information about their environment."


Schmidt RC, Nie L, Franco A, & Richardson MJ (2014). Bodily synchronization underlying joke telling. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 25177287

--further reading--
How many psychologists does it take... to explain a joke? (Psychologist magazine feature article, part of this special issue on humour).

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

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Want people to care about the environment? Don't overplay the power of science

When people are presented with a picture of rapid scientific progress, they are less likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviours. This is the conclusion reached across a series of experiments in which students were presented with a short newspaper article on science's achievements and future prospects.

The news article came in two flavours. Participants in the "progress" condition read a uniformly positive perspective, lauding medical advances and new technologies to combat climate change. In the "undermine progress" condition, the article emphasised how killers such as cancer remain insoluble and the limited nature of technological solutions to environmental problems. Of more than one hundred students from the University of Amsterdam, those who read the pessimistic article subsequently agreed more with the idea that "our lives are ruled by randomness".

Researchers Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens say this attitude has consequences for how we act. We relax when the world appears well-ordered and the future predictable, whether thanks to our own efforts or because we trust others can manage things. These agents could be family, government, or God; and according to this new research, "scientific progress" can now be added to the list.

In another experiment with more participants, those who read the scientific progress article went on to report fewer pro-environmental attitudes and intentions than those in the undermining condition, agreeing with statements such as "I believe waste sorting is unnecessary".

Yet more participants were confronted with hypothetical decisions. In this case, students who read about scientific progress chose to spend less money on factory air filters, and were less likely to select organic options when shopping (although note that the comparison for this latter result only reached a marginal level of significance).

"If they're doing something, I don't have to" is a lazy rubric in most situations, but it's hard to think of a more misguided application than to the maintenance of our living environment. Science cannot fully mitigate the ongoing environmental crises, so - whether through the day-to-day habits of energy efficiency or one-off decisions to invest in a home away from a flood plain - we need to be prepared to get stuck in ourselves. To support this, science communicators should be wary of presenting science as an unstoppable force, and instead highlight the fascinating truth: it's a process of inquiry that makes no promises.


Meijers, M., & Rutjens, B. (2014). Affirming belief in scientific progress reduces environmentally friendly behaviour European Journal of Social Psychology, 44 (5), 487-495 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2009

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

Friday, 29 August 2014

The psychology of wearable computing - does Google Glass affect where people look?

Computing eyewear such as Google Glass can record information far more discreetly than a handheld camera. As a result, privacy concerns have been raised, whether in a bar or changing for the gym. Are users of this tech likely to use their new toys responsibly? Early research was promising, suggesting that the very act of recording our gaze may lead us to be extra considerate in where we look. Unfortunately a new study finds that while wearing gaze-monitoring devices may initially encourage more socially-acceptable looking behaviours, the effect doesn't last.

In this experiment, 82 participants (aged 18 to 51; 59 women) were secretly monitored as they waited alone after finishing the six-minute computer task they believed to be the purpose of the study. The researchers led by Eleni Nasiopoulos were interested in how much time during the wait the participants spent glancing at the racy pin-up calendar hanging on the wall.

A control set of participants who were not wearing special eye-tracking glasses spent around 80 per cent of the available minute ogling the calendar. Another group were earlier fitted with eye-tracking glasses and knew that their gaze was being tracked by the device. In line with past research, this group used their gaze in a more socially acceptable manner, glancing at the calendar less than half the time. So far, so good.

But the experiment had another preliminary task at the very beginning, in which participants spent five minutes walking the building searching for coloured squares stuck on walls. Some of the participants in the later eye-tracking condition were actually set up with eye-trackers before this initial task, so they’d been wearing the glasses for a longer amount of time than the others. Focusing on just these participants, the researchers found their eyes lingered on the calendar for as much time as those in the no-device control group. The longer passage of time and different context appeared to eliminate the social acceptability effect of gaze-monitoring equipment.

Interestingly, participants who had eye-trackers fitted at the start, but were subjected to a brief equipment recalibration once they had entered the calendar room, did show an effect of the glasses: their calendar perusal was back down to about 45 per cent. This suggests that rather than users habituating to the eye-trackers - meaning that the experience matters less and less until it becomes passé - it's more about people forgetting that they are in use.

Eye-tracking researchers have argued that users of wearable computing are actually taking along a chaperone, and although it can be a discreet one (putting aside the spectre of hacking hanging over all digital data), the appeal of resharing recorded experiences to social media renders every use as potentially public. This feeling of our gaze being recorded should make us self-conscious and influence our looking behaviour - just as we engage in more approval-seeking behaviours when filmed by a security camera, despite not knowing if the film will ever be watched, or by whom. But wearable computing isn't “Out There” - like cameras or the human beings who have evaluated our social behaviour since childhood - it's “On Us”, and this phenomenon may be too unfamiliar to trigger a sense of being observed.

Of course, this is good news for researchers keen to use eye-trackers to evaluate realistic behaviours, who now also learn the benefit of an acclimatisation period in their set-ups. Meanwhile, if we want to deter Google Glass users from recording things they shouldn’t, another lesson from this research is that socially-conscious app designers could insert reminders into recording software to keep users aware that their gaze has a witness.

  ResearchBlogging.orgNasiopoulos, E., Risko, E., Foulsham, T., & Kingstone, A. (2014). Wearable computing: Will it make people prosocial? British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12080

--further reading--
CCTV cameras don't reassure, they frighten

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

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Can relationships with fictional characters aid our self development?

"... forming a relationship with an interesting but
potentially dangerous character does not present the
same obstacles in the narrative world
as it might in the physical world.”
By guest blogger Robin Abrahams.

If you’ve been on the internet at all this year, you may have noticed an explosion of fiction-based personality quizzes. What house would you belong to in Hogwarts—or in Westeros? Which “Mad Man” are you? What Shakespeare role were you born to play?

Why do we want to know?

Researchers led by Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker may have some answers. Their paper, “Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters” rests on the concept of parasocial relationships—a relatively new construct in the social sciences that is becoming increasingly relevant in our media-saturated age.

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

Can our fictional friends make us better people?

Other than safe distance, what might a relationship with a fictional mobster have to offer? This study examines the extent to which parasocial relationships facilitate “self-expansion,” or the sense of greater possibilities for the self. Real-world relationships lead to self-expansion when people view their relationship partner as “a valuable source of new knowledge and experiences.” Can fictional characters have the same effect of helping us envision a bigger, better version of ourselves?

They can. University students were asked to read an unfamiliar short story about a young person competing in a race, and then to rate the story’s protagonist, along with two real-life contacts (a close friend and a classmate) and two television characters (the participants’ favorite and a non-favorite character) across various dimensions of likability and relevance to the self. Self-expansion was measured by a 14-item scale (e.g. “How much does X help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?” and “How much has knowing X made you a better person?”) and was found to vary upwards in line with the intensity of the relationship, not its real-life or fictive origin.

Close friends inspired the most self-expansion, followed by favourite television characters, then non-favourite characters, and finally casual acquaintances. The more a character was perceived as being like the participant’s ideal (as opposed to actual) self, the stronger the effect. Participants’ “narrative transport,” or the degree to which they felt engaged and absorbed in a fictive world (this was manipulated via instructions given to participants before reading the short story) also enhanced self-expansion.

While no one claims that parasocial relationships can replace mutual ones, the authors see their study as largely good news, as it implies that our capacity to learn and grow from relationships is not constrained by our daily environment. “[I]mmersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development,” the authors maintain, pointing out that parasocial relationships can provide role models “especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, or those with homogenous social groups.”

The authors note two shortcomings of the study—the lack of developmental and personality perspectives. What are the effects of long-term parasocial relationships? Are they as beneficial as brief ones, or are there potential dangers to an extended commitment to someone, real or imagined, who can never reciprocate? Secondly, why are some people more likely than others to identify themselves with fictional characters, and use that identification as a source of personal growth?

Personal experience suggests, unsurprisingly, that both temperament and upbringing play a role. Self-enhancing parasocial relationships require a fair amount of imagination and psychological-mindedness. Real-life peers and authority figures, meanwhile, can encourage such relationships or mock them as "imaginary friendship" or a pop-culture obsession. Of course organised religion has harnessed the power of parasocial relationships for self-betterment for millennia: Asking one's self "What would Jesus [or Mohammed, Buddha, or Martin Luther King Jr.] do?" is, after all, a classic case of transcending the self through a relationship with a person one has never met.


Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., & Arkin, R. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters Self and Identity, 13 (5), 556-578 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.882269

Post written by Robin Abrahams for the BPS Research Digest. Robin Abrahams is a writer with a PhD In psychology. She is the author of the popular Boston advice column "Miss Conduct" and the book "Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners," and she blogs about the intersection of science and the performing arts.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

How to help an anxious interviewee - be mean to them?

They've barely taken their seat, but it's obvious that your interviewee is nervous. You give her a reassuring smile and nod affirmatively at each of her answers, hoping to put her at ease. Unfortunately, it turns out that positive feedback does a socially anxious interviewee no favours. In fact, it would be better to turn that smile upside-down.

We know this from a new study from North Illinois University where a "careers counsellor" (actually a research assistant) conducted practice interviews while moderating his or her tone of voice, posture and facial expression to provide either positive, negative, or no feedback to the interviewee. The sessions were recorded to allow later evaluation of interview performance and behaviours, and each of the 85 student participants initially completed a questionnaire to rate their social anxiety.

Under positive and neutral feedback, the more relaxed participants gave better interviews than their anxious counterparts, making more impact and looking more hireable. But under negative feedback this pattern reversed, and the anxious were the stronger performers. This wasn't simply due to the relaxed participants collapsing under the baleful eye of the negative interviewer; the socially anxious actually benefited from the negative feedback, giving better interviews under that condition than any other.

Drilling into the specific behaviours shown by the socially anxious participants, Christopher Budnick's team observed that positive and neutral feedback was associated with an upswing in anxiety displays - fidgeting, low eye-contact, sparse responses - and fewer assertive tactics such as positioning themselves as being like the interviewer. The anxious individuals actually made a better impression when facing off against an interviewer who seemed to have a low opinion of them.

This paradoxical effect can be explained by our need to have a consistent self-image. Consider a relaxed person given reassuring cues: their self-image is unchallenged, so they can place their attention on external concerns, including making a good impression. By contrast, a socially anxious person typically has a negative self-image, meaning positive feedback is jarring and invites self-consciousness, distracting them from effective interpersonal engagement and social behaviours.

Budnick's team tested this explanation by presenting participants with open-ended questions and counting their use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, myself, and mine) in response, which was taken as a sign of increased self-focus. The anxious interviewees relied on more of these under positive (vs. negative) feedback, with a reversed pattern in relaxed participants. A subsequent analysis confirmed that this higher self-focus was part of the route by which incongruent feedback led to worse performance.

The researchers conclude with a recommendation: "high anxiety interviewees might not benefit fully from traditional interview training"; instead they could try learning techniques that "reduce the perceived disconnect between positive feedback and self-views." If you have a tendency to be anxious, you could prepare by thinking through all the reasons why someone might express an emotion without it necessarily being about you, and even put this into practice by asking a cheery friend to put you through a mock interview.
Budnick CJ, Kowal M, & Santuzzi AM (2014). Social anxiety and the ironic effects of positive interviewer feedback. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 1-17.

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

The simple piece of information that could dramatically increase your muscular endurance

How most of us choose to behave is shaped powerfully by the behaviour of others (or, more specifically, our perception of their behaviour). Psychologists call this the influence of "social norms", and its potency has been investigated extensively in the context of environmentally friendly behaviours like recycling, and health behaviours, such as binge drinking and frequency of exercise.

What if this same psychological lever could be exploited, not to encourage people to take up more physical activity, but to boost their athletic performance? A pair of researchers, Carly Priebe and Kevin Spink, have tested this idea for the first time.

Sixty-eight regulars (average age 40, nine men) at a pilates studio were asked to perform two plank exercises, and to hold each for as long as they possibly could. As a cover story, they were told that the purpose of the challenge was to help find out the average performance level for this exercise.

The plank is a physically demanding exercise that involves adopting a face-down prone position, then raising the body on forearms and toes, and holding this position rigid, parallel to the ground. It was emphasised to participants that they should hold the position for as long as possible on both attempts, and that their times would be averaged for the research.

The participants were given a three-minute rest between each attempt. The key intervention is that between planks, half the participants were given the "social norms" message that 80 per cent of people similar to them (in terms of age, gender and pilates level) had achieved a 20 per cent longer time on their second effort. The other participants were told nothing of this kind, or anything else (this is a potential weakness of the study, which I'll return to).

The researchers had hoped their intervention, if successful, would lead merely to sustained performance on the second attempt. The rather dramatic result is that participants given the social norms message achieved a five per cent increase on their second attempt (first attempt average time was 95.82 seconds; second attempt average was 99.79 seconds). This is dramatic because after performing a first plank to exhaustion, one would typically expect participants' second attempt to be shorter. The control participants, as expected, achieved a significantly shorter time on their second plank attempt (76.38 seconds vs. 90.09 seconds on their first attempt - a drop of 18 per cent).

Priebe and Spink said their findings "hint at the potency of the descriptive norm information and the potential effects of social influence on physical activity tasks." Participants in the social norms condition reported higher "self-efficacy" (belief in their own ability) than control participants, so this hints at a possible mechanism for the effect of the intervention.

A strength of this research is that the researchers gauged participants' beliefs about other people's performance before presenting them with the social norms message. The majority of participants assumed that most others would decline in performance on their second attempt. This was important to check because past research has shown that social norms interventions can backfire if people hold initial beliefs that exceed the reality of the normative message.

As hinted at earlier, a weakness of the study is the lack of a control condition that communicated a different message to the participants. This means we can't tell how much of the apparent effect of the current intervention was specific to its social norms content. It's possible receiving any kind of motivational message between exercises would have had a galvanising effect. Another problem, of course, is that the social norms message was a fabrication - the participants were effectively fed a lie. It's also not clear how long this kind of intervention could sustain its effects. News of other people's performance might be motivating at first, but could quickly lose its potency, or even become counter-productive.


Priebe, C., & Spink, K. (2014). Blood, sweat, and the influence of others: The effect of descriptive norms on muscular endurance and task self-efficacy Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15 (5), 491-497 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.04.012

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

Friday, 15 August 2014

We're happier when we chat to strangers, but our instinct is to ignore them

It's become a truism that humans are "social animals". And yet, you've probably noticed - people on public transport or in waiting rooms seem to do everything they can not to interact. On the London tube there's an unwritten rule not to even look at one another. This is the paradox explored by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder in a series of nine new studies involving members of the public on trains, planes, in taxis and a waiting room.

The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions - to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience. Their answers were compared to the predictions made by other commuters, who instead of fulfilling one of these three conditions, imagined what kind of experience they'd have had if they'd taken part.

The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who'd had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between). Surprisingly perhaps, chatting with a stranger didn't come at the cost of self-reported productivity. These findings contrasted starkly with the predictions made by the commuters who imagined taking part - they thought that being asked to engage with a stranger would have been the least enjoyable of the three conditions. Epley and Schroeder said this provides evidence of a "severe misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement", thus providing a clue as to why, despite being social animals, we so often ignore each other.

Why do we think chatting to strangers will be so unpleasant? To find out, the researchers approached more commuters on Chicago trains and buses. One possibility is that people's predictions are skewed by the dominance of memories of past negative experiences. To test this, the researchers asked commuters to imagine having a positive conversation with a stranger, a negative conversation, or just any conversation. If memories of bad experiences skew people's perceptions, then being asked to imagine any conversation with a stranger should be negatively toned by default. In fact no evidence was found for this.

Another possibility is that each of us mistakenly assumes that other people don't want to talk, thus creating a situation of "pluralistic ignorance". This theory was supported: people said they were more interested in chatting to strangers, than strangers would be in chatting to them. Also, they predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk - in fact, this didn't occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.

If the reason we ignore each other is because so many of us hold the mistaken assumption that no one else wants to talk, then you'd expect greater past experience chatting to strangers (and discovering it's mutually enjoyable) would lead to more accurate predictions. That's exactly what the researchers found when they tested people queueing for taxis. Participants who said they frequently chatted to taxi drivers correctly anticipated that other passengers instructed to chat to their driver would have the most pleasant journeys, as compared with those instructed to sit in silence, or simply behave as normal. Note: people instructed to chat to their driver tended to report having more pleasant journeys, even if their usual habit was to sit in silence.

In a final study, the researchers attempted to address two issues - perhaps chatting to a stranger is only fun if you're the one who initiates it, and/or perhaps the results were due in part to participants' satisfaction at completing a goal set by the researchers. This time Epley and Schroeder asked strangers to spend time in pairs in a waiting room. Some of the individuals in each pair were instructed in advance to chat to the other person; others were "invited" to do so, but it was emphasised to them that this was not an instruction. Consistent with the earlier results, people reporting having a more pleasurable time in the waiting room if they chatted to each other, and this was true whether they were invited or instructed to chat. It was also true for those people who were the recipient of the initial approach, as well as those who initiated the conversations.

A further interesting detail from the studies is that the pleasure of talking to strangers was observed for introverts and extraverts alike. "Removing the barrier to starting a conversation, rather than trying to increase a person's own trait extroversion, may therefore be the most effective way to encourage interactions with distant strangers," the researchers said.

Of course one can look for loopholes in these studies. One problem is the results may be specific to urban US culture. Another is this research involved isolated instances of chatting to a stranger. In real life, frequent commuters may avoid striking up conversation with fellow travellers, for fear of getting stuck talking with the same person everyday.


Epley N, & Schroeder J (2014). Mistakenly Seeking Solitude. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 25019381

--further reading--
We're happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness
Is it the darkness within? Some people would rather shock themselves with electricity than spend time with their own thoughts

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

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Star performers suffer more than most from a loss in status

Tiger Woods experienced a loss of status in 2009.
(He didn't win another major until 2012.)
Compared with lower-ranked people, those higher up the pecking order find it more difficult to stomach a drop in status, and their performance takes a bigger nosedive as a result. This is the verdict of a new article that presents experimental work, together with a more unusual source of evidence: major league baseball arbitration, in which players and clubs contest the players’ worth.

In many ways, individuals with high status are sitting pretty: more likely to receive praise, support, and positive influence from others; more likely to have positive life outcomes and perform better at work. You might expect them to be armed with the resources to cope with a threatening situation, such as being sidelined or demoted, and many psychologists would back you up.

But Jennifer Marr and Stefan Thau predicted that a status drop may have deeper repercussions for high-status individuals because their identity is likely to be more tied to their status, and identity threats suck up psychological resources and make focus harder.

Their first study examined 186 instances of baseball "final-offer arbitration" - a last-ditch contract renegotiation where the player and his club each make a proposal of his true worth for a third party to select between. In this adversarial situation, a club’s case often involves an indictment of the player’s health, team spirit, and temperament. A decision in favour of the club’s case therefore reflects a real status loss for the player. After controlling for player past performance and team results, Marr and Thau found that players ranked as high-status (based on awards and selection for All-Star Games) experienced a larger slump in their on-field performance following unfavourable arbitration.

Follow-up experimental work had participants recruited from a university pool interact in groups before completing a solo task (for example, some of them had to propose adjectives to describe the taste of a chocolate chip cookie). Between the group work and the solo challenge, some participants were told they’d sunk in the estimation of their teammates. This news led to poorer performance specifically for those participants who’d previously seen themselves as top dog, thanks to some rigged feedback they received earlier. When this status drop was followed by a positive self-affirmation exercise, those in the high status condition didn’t slump so badly on the final task, supporting the idea that the adverse effect is due to identity threat.

Taken together these findings suggest that when a high status person takes a tumble, a vicious cycle may result, with poor performance making further status drops possible. This is most likely for those who haven’t earned their status from superior ability and effort: once toppled, poseurs and Machiavellians may quickly slide into obsolescence. Legitimate high-status figures, with a track record of commitment and performance arguably deserve our attention and support. They should know that, perversely, a strong identification with their status could actually make it harder to hold onto it.

Jennifer Carson Marr and Stefan Thau (2014). Falling from Great (and Not-So-Great) Heights: How Initial Status Position Influences Performance after Status Loss. Academy of Management Journal.

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

Monday, 4 August 2014

The iPhone Effect - when mobile devices intrude on our face-to-face encounters

You've probably experienced this. You're in the middle of telling your friend a story when his eyes flick across to his phone. Perhaps he even picks it up, checks the screen. "Sorry, go on," he says. But your flow is interrupted. And you know his mind is at least half elsewhere.

Shalini Misra and her team approached 100 pairs of people (109 women; average age 33) in cafes across Washington DC and neighbouring districts. They asked them to chat for ten minutes at a table in the cafe about a trivial topic (plastic festive trees) or about the most meaningful events of the past year. For each pair, the researchers observed from a discreet distance and checked whether either party put a mobile device on the table, or held one in their hand. After ten minutes was up, each person in each pair was asked to fill out a few questionnaires about the conversation and their partner.

Feelings of "interconnectedness" (rated by agreement with statements like "I felt close to my conversation partner") were reduced for pairs in which a mobile device was placed on the table or held by one of them. Similarly, "empathetic concern" (measured by items like "To what extent did your conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings about the topic you discussed?") was rated lower by pairs in which a mobile device was brought into view. The topic of conversation made no difference to these results, but the reduction in empathetic concern associated with the presence of a mobile device was especially pronounced for pairs of people who were in closer relationships, perhaps because their expectations about the interaction were higher.

The difference in the quality of conversations in the presence versus absence of mobile devices was modest - average scores for connectedness and empathic concern were 5.05 and 5.51 (on a 7-point scale), respectively, with devices, versus 5.36 and 5.85 without devices. Also, what this study gains in realism by being a real-world observational study, it loses in experimental control. The causal role played by smart devices can't be proven - perhaps less engaging conversational partners were more likely to reach for a smart phone or tablet.

Nonetheless, these real-world results converge with the findings of a lab study published last year that also found the mere presence of a mobile phone adversely affected strangers' feelings of social intimacy. Misra and her team say that smart mobile technologies create a "state of polyconsciousness" in which our attention is torn between the people we're with physically and those to whom we're connected by the smart device. "The result," they believe "is diminished quality of the 'here and now' interactions with co-present others."


Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., & Yuan, M. (2014). The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices Environment and Behavior DOI: 10.1177/0013916514539755

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

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

When the cuddle hormone turns nasty - oxytocin linked with violent intentions

For many years, the hormone oxytocin was caricatured as the source of all human goodness - trust, altruism, love, and morality. Among the findings that contributed to this picture were the discovery that sniffing oxytocin increases people's trust and generosity in financial games; that it aids face recognition; and that its release is associated with maternal bonding; and with orgasm.

However, the picture has grown a lot more complicated of late, with findings showing that oxytocin has a "dark side" - for example, boosting envy and shadenfreude. Now a team of researchers led by Nathan DeWall has further sullied the reputation of this once idolised molecule. They've demonstrated that for certain people in particular circumstances, exposure to oxytocin might actually lead to increased violence.

The researchers split 93 undergraduates (47 men) into two groups - one group sniffed oxytocin, the other group sniffed a salt water solution. The students didn't know whether they'd received the oxytocin or the placebo, and the researchers were also blinded to who'd received what. Next the students completed two tasks designed to make them stressed, including giving a public presentation to an unfriendly audience. Finally, they answered two questions about their tendency to be physically aggressive, and further questions about how likely it was that they'd engage in violence towards a current or former romantic partner based on how they currently felt.

Here's the main finding - oxytocin boosted the self-confessed likelihood of being violent towards a partner, specifically in those students who admitted that they have a proclivity for physical aggression. DeWall's team think this fits with an emerging, more nuanced understanding of oxytocin's effects. It remains true that the hormone plays an important role in maintaining human relationships, but this isn't always an innocent function. Previous research shows oxytocin can increase intolerance and aggression towards outsiders. Now we learn that for people who typically resort to aggression to keep hold of their romantic partners, stress plus increased oxytocin nudges them towards violence.

"Our findings add to the understanding of the 'prickly side of oxytocin'," said DeWall and his team. "Far from being a panacea for all social ills, oxytocin may have a much more diversified effect, as in the current case."

  ResearchBlogging.orgDeWall, C., Gillath, O., Pressman, S., Black, L., Bartz, J., Moskovitz, J., & Stetler, D. (2014). When the Love Hormone Leads to Violence: Oxytocin Increases Intimate Partner Violence Inclinations Among High Trait Aggressive People Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5 (6), 691-697 DOI: 10.1177/1948550613516876

--further reading--
A social 'Viagra' for shy people?
Why do some men insult their partners?

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

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Remembering together - How long-term couples develop interconnected memory systems

Although it might seem a good idea to work with other people to remember important information, the evidence suggests that this typically isn't so. Individual recall is most efficient whereas social remembering comes with drawbacks, tripping up our flow and inhibiting memories. But this evidence mostly comes from asking people to collaborate with a stranger. What happens when you know each other really, really well?

Celia Harris and colleagues at Macquarie University recently reviewed their previously published and new research on social remembering by long-term intimate couples. Their data showed that on standard tasks, such as reproducing words from studied lists, couples working together often did as well as when they worked alone. This lack of a penalty from social remembering is itself notable, but it's just a gateway into more intriguing findings.

During another study, the researchers noticed that although couples did more poorly at listing their shared holidays when recalling together, these social sessions were filled with anecdotes and tangents that weren't generated in the solo sessions. This inspired them to depart from testing memory for lists of words and events, and to explore the amount of rich, in-depth information remembered by couples about experienced events. They found these social exchanges led to clear collaborative memory benefits, which could take three forms:

  1. “New information” such as finally snatching an elusive name of a musical thanks to a chain of prompts between the two parties.
  2. Richer, more vivid descriptions of events including sensory information.
  3. Information from one partner painting things in a new light for the other.

Differences between the couples were crucial. Those who structured their approach together and were more prepared to riff off the other's contributions did better than those who were more passive or critical. Richer events were also better remembered by partners who rated their intimacy as higher.

The authors note that older adults tend to experience the greatest memory difficulties with first-hand autobiographical information, rather than abstracted facts. This is exactly where the couples gained the biggest benefit from remembering together, as evidenced by performance on the in-depth event recall task and the spontaneously emerging anecdotes. It's possible that as we grow older, we offset the unreliability of our own episodic systems by drawing on the memorial support offered by a trusted partner. This might explain why when one member of an older couple experiences a drop in cognitive function, the other soon follows. Our memory systems are more of a shared resource than we realise.


Harris, C., Barnier, A., Sutton, J., & Keil, P. (2014). Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts Memory Studies, 7 (3), 285-297 DOI: 10.1177/1750698014530619

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

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

What the textbooks don't tell you - one of psychology's most famous experiments was seriously flawed

Zimbardo speaking in '09
Conducted in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) has acquired a mythical status and provided the inspiration for at least two feature-length films. You'll recall that several university students allocated to the role of jailor turned brutal and the study had to be aborted prematurely. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment's lead investigator, says the lesson from the research is that in certain situations, good people readily turn bad. "If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples," he has written.

The SPE was criticised back in the 70s, but that criticism has noticeably escalated and widened in recent years. New details to emerge show that Zimbardo played a key role in encouraging his "guards" to behave in tyrannical fashion. Critics have pointed out that only one third of guards behaved sadistically (this argues against the overwhelming power of the situation). Question marks have also been raised about the self-selection of particular personality types into the study. Moreover, in 2002, the social psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam conducted the BBC Prison Study to test the conventional interpretation of the SPE. The researchers deliberately avoided directing their participants as Zimbardo had his, and this time it was the prisoners who initially formed a strong group identity and overthrew the guards.

Given that the SPE has been used to explain modern-day atrocities, such as at Abu Ghraib, and given that nearly two million students are enrolled in introductory psychology courses in the US, Richard Griggs, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, says "it is especially important that coverage of it in our texts be accurate."

So, have the important criticisms and reinterpretations of the SPE been documented by key introductory psychology textbooks? Griggs analysed the content of 13 leading US introductory psychology textbooks, all of which have been revised in recent years, including:  Discovering Psychology (Cacioppo and Freberg, 2012); Psychological Science (Gazzaniga et al, 2012); and Psychology (Schacter et al, 2011).

Of the 13 analysed texts, 11 dealt with the Stanford Prison Experiment, providing between one to seven paragraphs of coverage. Nine included photographic support for the coverage. Five provided no criticism of the SPE at all. The other six provided only cursory criticism, mostly focused on the questionable ethics of the study. Only two texts mentioned the BBC Prison Study. Only one text provided a formal scholarly reference to a critique of the SPE.

Why do the principal psychology introductory textbooks, at least in the US, largely ignore the wide range of important criticisms of the SPE? Griggs didn't approach the authors of the texts so he can't know for sure. He thinks it unlikely that ignorance is the answer. Perhaps the authors are persuaded by Zimbardo's answers to his critics, says Griggs, but even so, surely the criticisms should be mentioned and referenced. Another possibility is that textbook authors are under pressure to shorten their texts, but surely they are also under pressure to keep them up-to-date.

It would be interesting to compare coverage of the SPE in European introductory texts. Certainly there are contemporary books by British psychologists that do provide more in-depth critical coverage of the SPE.

Griggs' advice for textbook authors is to position coverage of the SPE in the research methods chapter (instead of under social psychology), and to use the experiment's flaws as a way to introduce students to key issues such as ecological validity, ethics, demand characteristics and subsequent conflicting results. "In sum," he writes, "the SPE and its criticisms comprise a solid thread to weave numerous research concepts together into a good 'story' that would not only enhance student learning but also lead students to engage in critical thinking about the research process and all of the possible pitfalls along the way."


Griggs, R. (2014). Coverage of the Stanford Prison Experiment in Introductory Psychology Textbooks Teaching of Psychology, 41 (3), 195-203 DOI: 10.1177/0098628314537968

--further reading--
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology
Tyranny and The Tyrant,  From Stanford to Abu Ghraib (pdf; Phil Banyard reviews Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect).

Image credit: Jdec/Wikipedia
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Young men and women have very different attitudes towards touch in cross-sex friendships

Friendships between heterosexual men and women can be tricky to navigate, especially when it comes to tactile contact. Is that touch on the arm a gesture of platonic care and affection? Or an unwanted signal of sexual interest? A new survey by US researchers shows the situation is complicated by the contrasting attitudes of young men and women towards touch in cross-sex friendships.

Michael Miller and his team quizzed 276 undergrads at an Eastern US University, including 128 women*. The participants were asked to consider a current or recent cross-sex friendship, and then they answered questions about the intimacy of this friendship, and their feelings about physical touch in the relationship. Friendship intimacy was gauged through a number of factors, including trust and spontaneity, uniqueness of the relationship, feeling close, and enjoying activities together.

Overall, men wished for more physical touch in their cross-sex friendships than women, regardless of the friendship's level of intimacy. Perhaps the most intriguing result was that as friendship intimacy increased, men tended to say that they wished for less physical contact, whereas women showed the opposite pattern - with more friendship intimacy, they desired more physical contact.

Mitchell and his team interpreted these results in line with evolutionary theory and contemporary social pressures. Evolutionary theory states that men are motivated towards having more sexual partners, whereas women are more invested in each of their offspring, and therefore more motivated towards finding a reliable partner with the resources to support the family. In this context, the researchers said, men are more averse to physical contact as friendship intimacy increases, for fear (either consciously or unconsciously) that "such behaviour may lead to a monogamous relationship and/or limit their ability to mate with other partners." For women, by contrast, greater friendship intimacy may provide them with the "comfort and security" they desire for touch to take place.

This interpretation was supported by the participants' answers about their sexual arousal in response to touch in their friendship. Overall, men reported more sexual arousal than women, and their amount of arousal didn't vary according to the intimacy level of their friendship. By contrast, women reported more sexual arousal in response to touch in more intimate friendships.

Taken together, the researchers said this suggests that men are more interested in the sexual possibilities of the friendship (regardless of the closeness of that friendship), whereas women interpret friendship intimacy as a sign of commitment, making more appealing to them the possibility of the relationship becoming sexual. Also, in terms of cultural pressures, the researchers said that women may have less fear of being labelled a "slut" if touch occurs in a more intimate friendship (this is in the context of research showing a double-standard, whereby women are judged more harshly than men for partaking in casual sex).

Two more findings worth noting - women with a romantic partner were more desiring of "safe haven touch" from their male friend (e.g. receiving comforting touch when distressed), as compared with single women. Men's attitudes towards safe haven touch in the friendship didn't vary according to whether they had a romantic partner. And finally, women were more uncomfortable than men about touching their male friend in public - again, perhaps because of the social stigma of female promiscuity.

The study has its limitations: the dependence yet again on a Western student sample; the self-report methodology (how honest were the answers?); the lack of information on the cross-sex friendships; and the cross-sectional design, which means we can't know which factors are causal. For example, is it greater friendship intimacy that leads women to find friendship touch more arousing, or does the arousal influence the friendship intimacy? Nonetheless, the researchers said their findings suggest men and women have divergent attitudes towards touch in cross-sex friendships "due to the driving forces that stem from evolved differences related to parental investment and the different manner in which they are socialised to perceive their roles in cross-sex friendships."


MILLER, M., DENES, A., DIAZ, B., & RANJIT, Y. (2014). Touch attitudes in cross-sex friendships: We're just friends Personal Relationships, 21 (2), 309-323 DOI: 10.1111/pere.12033

*The sexual orientation of the participants is not stated, although the authors refer to "heterosexual cross-sex friendships" throughout the paper.

--further reading--
Just good friends? Attraction to opposite-sex friends is common and burdensome

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