Month: March 2016

10 Studies That Show The Advantages of Feeling Down

By Christian Jarrett

As human beings, there’s no avoiding feeling sad – as R.E.M. put it “everybody cries, and everybody hurts sometimes”. We usually think of this as an unpleasant state, and for those of us who want to minimise our miserable moods as much as possible, the internet is bursting with tips on how to be happier. But with this post, I wanted to take a different approach, to explore the benefits, if any, of embracing your low moods. I’m not talking about serious, debilitating depression, but more mundane, moderate levels of moodiness. In short, I looked for any psychology research that shows the potential upsides to feeling a little bit down. Here are ten studies I found:

1Bad moods can be motivating (when they’re followed by good moods)
A 2011 study that assessed software developers twice a day for 55 days found that the most engaged with their work in the afternoon were those who’d switched from a bad mood to a positive one, as compared with those who were happy all day or fed up all day. The finding is consistent with what’s known as the “affective shift model” of work engagement. “We think it is of benefit to understand and accept that negative mood and negative events, such as crises, conflicts, and errors, are integral and unavoidable aspects of human action at work,” the researchers said. “In the absence of negative experiences, people will perceive less necessity to act and show lower levels of work engagement.”

2. Embrace your bad moods and they won’t do you harm
For a study published last year, researchers interviewed 365 German participants about their attitudes to negative and positive emotions, and about their mental and physical health. The researchers then monitored the participants’ mood states over a three-week period using their smart phones. The links between people’s frequency of bad moods and negative outcomes (in terms of mental and physical health) varied depending on the attitudes they held toward negative emotion. Those participants who had negative attitudes toward bad moods tended to pay the usual price: the more negative moods they experienced, the poorer their mental and physical health, both in the moment and longer term (for example, based on their number of health complaints). However, among the participants who had a more positive attitude toward bad moods, these links were mostly reduced, or in some cases even absent completely.

3. There’s a good chance you’ll feel better after having a proper cry
Giving yourself a chance to wallow in your sadness can sometimes be cathartic, at least in the short term. That was the message from a study published in 2011, in which 97 female undergrads completed a crying diary for between 40 and 73 days. Most often, mood after crying was reported as unchanged (60.8 per cent), but 30 per cent of tearful sessions were associated with a positive mood change, with only 8.8 per cent leading to a deterioration in mood. More intense (but not longer) crying episodes were associated with more positive mood outcomes, as were crying episodes that followed a feeling of inadequacy and that triggered a positive change in the situation. Also, crying in the company of one other person was associated more often with positive mood change than was crying alone or crying in the company of multiple people.

4. You’re more persuasive when you’re sad
For this research released in 2007, participants were provoked into happy or sad moods by watching short films, either featuring comedy or a person dying from illness. Next, they had to write down arguments to persuade someone to change their mind about a controversial issue, such as student fees or Aboriginal land rights in Australia. Across several studies testing variants of this set up, sad people produced more effective messages than happy people, and what’s more, their arguments were more persuasive. The effect seemed to be due to the fact that sad people produced more concrete and specific arguments than happy people.

5. Mild depression may come with enhanced empathy 
Depressed people are normally thought of as being somewhat disengaged from the rest of the world, but in 2005 psychologists at Queen’s University in Canada found that mildly depressed students actually had a heightened ability to detect other people’s emotions from photos that showed only the eye region of their face. Unfortunately, this “advantage” could backfire. The researchers said ultra sensitivity to other people’s emotions could cause problems for individuals prone to depression – “by being more sensitive, dysphoric and depressed individuals have more opportunities to deploy their negative biases in interpreting fleeting emotional reactions,” they said.

6. Being in a grump probably won’t affect your mental performance
For a study published this year, researchers had participants complete similar versions of the same mental tests for five consecutive days, including memory and processing speed. Each day before the tests, the participants also completed comprehensive measures of their mood. The participants mood and mental performance fluctuated over the course of the study, but crucially the two were not linked – in other words, there was no evidence that being in a bad mood was associated with performing more poorly on the mental tests.

7. Sad leaders encourage an analytical thinking style 
In this research from 2013, business students received task instructions and encouragement from a manager who spoke to them via video link. The wording of the leader’s guidance was the same for all students, but some of them watched the manager deliver his advice in a happy mood, while the others watched him while he was in a sad mood. After the video, those students who’d watched the happy manager excelled at a creative task (coming up with ideas of what you can do with a glass of water), but meanwhile the students who had the sad manager excelled at sudoku puzzles, used as a measure of analytical thinking.

8. Feeling sad makes you less prone to misleading information 
For research conducted in 2005, participants looked at pictures of a car crash. About an hour later, they recalled either happy or sad events from their lives, which had the effect of putting them in a happy or sad mood. Next, they answered questions about the car crash, some of which were misleading, such as “did you see the fireman holding a fire hose?” (in fact there was no fire hose). The key finding is that sad participants were less often mislead by this kind of false information than happy participants. The researchers said their results were consistent with other findings showing that “negative moods often promote a more accommodating, externally oriented and piecemeal information processing style that often results in more accurate and less distorted judgments and inferences.”

9. You’re less gullible when you’re feeling down
Being sad also makes us less gullible and better at detecting lies, according to a study published in 2008. Participants were provoked into happy or sad moods by watching suitably themed films. Next, they watched videos of people lying or telling the truth about whether they’d stolen a movie ticket from someone’s room. The sad participants were more skeptical in general in their response to these videos, and they were better at detecting when the people in the videos were lying. “Our findings may also help to highlight the potentially beneficial effects of negative mood and the possible undesirable consequences of good mood in some circumstances,” the researchers said. “The cognitive benefits of negative affect can be understood in terms of the more accommodative, externally oriented processing style it induces,” they added.

10. Bad moods are part of a meaningful life
They say only a fool can be happy. That might be overstating it, but an American survey published in 2013 did find that people who rated their lives as more meaningful also tended to report experiencing more stress, anxiety and worry. The researchers, led by Roy Baumeister, concluded that the highly meaningful but relatively unhappy life has “received relatively little attention and even less respect” to date. “But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions,” they said.  “Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.”


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

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Episode 5: How To Learn A New Language

This is Episode Five of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. In this episode we explore whether psychology can help us learn a new language.


We hear about research showing the benefits of music training to language learning, and how it may be possible to boost your learning of foreign words while you sleep. Our presenter Christian Jarrett also discusses the anxiety that many people feel when trying to speak a foreign language and why it’s so important to just give it a go!

Our guests in order of appearance are Dr Christina Gkonou of the University of Essex, Dr Sylvain Moreno, Director of Canada’s Digital Health Hub at Simon Fraser University, and Professor Björn Rasch at the University of Fribourg.

Among the research studies that we talk about in this episode are:

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Previous episodes:
Episode one: Dating and Attraction.
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits.
Episode three: How to Win an Argument
Episode four: The Psychology of Gift Giving

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You’ll get over it, you’re probably better at managing guilt and shame than you think

A recurring finding in psychology is that people tend to overestimate the strength of their future emotions, an error known as the “intensity bias”. You imagine that failing your driving test will leave you in the depths of despair, for example, but actually when it happens, you don’t really feel too bad – the examiner was mean, you were feeling tired, and anyway you’ve still got your mate’s party to look forward to next weekend. In other words, the reason you overestimated the emotional impact of the exam failure, is that you underestimated your powers of emotional regulation. A new study in Cognition and Emotion puts this account to the test, specifically for the emotions of guilt and shame.

Wilco van Dijk and his colleagues recruited 52 students and allocated half to complete three tests with a partner (an actor pretending to be another student), and the other half to forecast how they would feel in the testing situation were they to do it. The “experiencers” were told that if they and their partner together averaged a score of over 60 per cent on the maths, language and puzzle tests, then they would receive a cash bonus. After taking the tests, these participants were given fixed feedback informing them that they’d personally underperformed (designed to induce shame), and that therefore both they and their partner would miss out on the cash bonus (designed to induce guilt). The “forecasters” were asked to imagine being in this exact same situation and how they would feel.

After receiving the bad news about their performance, the experiencers rated their levels of guilt and shame, and how much they engaged in various strategies that usually reduce emotional intensity, including reappraising the situation (measured by agreement with statements like “the task wasn’t that important”); suppressing their feelings (“I’m trying to be as calm as possible”); and acceptance (“I can live with the current situation”); and also how much they engaged in rumination, which usually increases emotional intensity (“I’m thinking mostly about what I did wrong”). Meanwhile, the forecasters stated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience if they were in this situation, and how much emotional regulation they thought they would probably engage in.

The main finding is that the forecasters overestimated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience (as compared with the actual emotions reported by the experiencers) – this is a classic example of the intensity bias, but the first time it’s been demonstrated for the so-called “self-conscious” emotions of guilt and shame. The forecasters also underestimated how much acceptance they would engage in, and they overestimated how much they would ruminate. Moreover, the forecasters’ overestimation of their guilt and shame was largely explained by their misjudgments about their likely use of acceptance and rumination.

Of course just because we tend underestimate the intensity of our future emotions from an objective point of view, doesn’t mean that this is an unhelpful bias to have. The researchers point out, for example, that the intensity bias could help motivate us to avoid bad outcomes and find positive ones (I would add that in the case of anticipated guilt and shame, the bias also likely helps encourage people to engage in more ethical behaviour). “Thus, although turning a blind eye to our emotion regulation processes can be regarded as error when we look in the crystal ball of our emotion lives,” the researchers said, “it is perhaps not a grave one”.


van Dijk, W., van Dillen, L., Rotteveel, M., & Seip, E. (2016). Looking into the crystal ball of our emotional lives: emotion regulation and the overestimation of future guilt and shame Cognition and Emotion, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1129313

further reading
Guilt-prone people are highly skilled at recognising other people’s emotions
Guilt is catching

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

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Did you really understand that post you just retweeted?

Students showed less
comprehension of the items
they’d chosen to repost. 

What fun it is to write something on Twitter or Facebook and see lots of people repost what you said – no matter the disclaimers in people’s online profiles, we usually interpret reposts of our comments as a mark of endorsement. However, a new study in Computers in Human Behavior puts a bit of a downer on things. The researchers based at Peking University and Cornell University say that the very option to share or repost social media items is distracting, and what’s more, the decision to repost is itself a further distraction and actually makes it less likely that readers will have properly understood the very items that they chose to share.

The research was conducted with dozens of Chinese undergrad users of the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo (very similar to Twitter). In one study, the students had to read forty short (maximum 140 Chinese character) Weibo posts about a recent controversial issue in China – whether or not to help elderly people who have fallen over. Half the participants had the option to repost the items, whereas the others did not. The key finding was that the group who had the option to repost each item performed less well in a subsequent comprehension test of the 40 Weibo posts. Moreover, the participants who could repost made twice as many errors for the posts they had reposted than those they hadn’t. Why should this be? “The feedback function encourages individuals to make quick responses, taking away the time individuals would otherwise use to cogitate and integrate the content information they receive,” the researchers said. They added: “This finding has overarching implications given that the majority users of micro-blogging sites only read and repost others’ messages”.

A second study was similar, with some students given the option to repost Weibo items and others not given this option, but this time the Weibo part of the task was followed by a reading comprehension test on a New Scientist article. The finding – students who’d had the reposting option on Weibo performed worse at the subsequent reading comp test, and this seemed to be because they were more mentally tired after reading the Weibo posts. The researchers said: “When we are reposting and sharing information with others, we unwantedly add burden to our cognitive resources and, as a result, our own understanding of the information is compromised and our subsequent learning hindered.”

Does micro-blogging make us “shallow”? Sharing information online interferes with information comprehension
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Mind wide open – brain activity reveals motives behind people’s altruism

By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

We often want to know what’s driving other people’s actions. Does the politician who visited a refugee camp on the eve of elections truly care for the poverty-stricken? In reality of course, our mind reading skills are pretty limited and something as complex as an apparent act of altruism can disguise a huge diversity of motives. Most of the time, these motives remain entirely private to the individual – a driving force in a black box.

For a new paper published in Science, however, researchers have prised open the box by decoding patterns of brain activity to reveal the hidden motives underlying people’s altruistic decisions. Participants engaged in a financial game that required them to make choices about how to allocate money between themselves and their experimental partner. A decision could either be selfish, in that it primarily benefitted the participant (eg. £10 for me, £2 for my partner) or altruistic, in that it maximised the partner’s payoff at a cost to the participant (eg. £4 for me, £10 for my partner). Occasionally, participants made self-sacrificial decisions – but why?

The researchers pinned down the participants’ motives for altruism by creating these motives themselves. To do this, they put the participants through two different conditions. Half of the participants were made to feel a sense of compassion towards one of their partners, by having them repeatedly observe this partner receive aversive electric shocks – the researchers reasoned that this would encourage the participants to be generous to this partner out of empathy. The other half of the participants were provoked into feeling a desire to reciprocate their partner’s kindness – they observed one of their experimental partners sacrificing their own profit on several trials in order to prevent the participant him or herself from receiving painful electric shocks. The researchers anticipated that this would encourage these participants to make altruistic decisions towards this partner as a way of repaying the kindness.

Indeed, both motive inductions pulled at the heartstrings – participants playing with a partner towards whom they felt empathy or in debt made more altruistic decisions than when they had to allocate money to a neutral partner. As the participants made these decisions, the research team examined their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The scans revealed that there was no brain region in particular that became more or less active under the influence of a particular motive. Thus, a quick glance at brain activity couldn’t tell the researchers whether a person’s altruistic decision was rooted in empathy or a desire to reciprocate.

Instead, what did appear to be critically different between the two motives was how various brain regions communicated with each other. However, the ultimate test of the consistency and usefulness of this finding lay with this question: could a computer be trained to use information about these connections to judge whether a person made a selfless choice due to a state of empathy or a wish to reciprocate?

The researchers investigated this by providing a computer programme (a kind of “learning algorithm”) with multiple “learning experiences” – this involved showing it examples of the kind of brain connection patterns that were associated with each type of motive. Crucially, the researchers then measured how often the algorithm was able to accurately identify a person’s motive when it was given a brain scan it had never been exposed to. Using this approach, the computer could predict individuals’ hidden motives with an accuracy of 68 per cent.

Interestingly, the researchers found a remarkable similarity between connection patterns that characterised altruism driven by empathy, and altruism that participants occasionally displayed towards a completely neutral partner. This raises the intriguing possibility that what the authors call “home-grown altruism” – our intrinsic impetus for kind behaviour – is primarily rooted in a sense of compassion.

Now, these findings appear to show that machines can have insight into the richness of human motivation, even when behaviour itself lends us no clues. But let’s temper that excitement! While we might find it intuitively impressive that a machine accurately judged a person’s hidden motive in 68 per cent of cases, we should keep in mind that if it were 50 per cent accurate, it would be no better than random guessing (after all, because of the way the researchers designed things, the computer programme only needed to choose between two possible motives).

As we delve into the realm of real social interactions, hidden motives gain a far greater complexity. People may lend a helping hand due to a sense of compassion, because they expect the return of good karma, as a means of boosting their public image, or perhaps for some other more obscure reason. Faced with such intricate thought processes, no doubt rooted in incredibly complex sets of connections in the brain, the guessing of the machine might be no better than our own! But that remains to be seen.


Hein G, Morishima Y, Leiberg S, Sul S, & Fehr E (2016). The brain’s functional network architecture reveals human motives. Science (New York, N.Y.), 351 (6277), 1074-8 PMID: 26941317

further reading
How to cheat a brain-scan-based lie detector
First brain scan study to feature THAT dress

Post written by Sofia Deleniv for the BPS Research Digest. Sofia holds a degree in Experimental Psychology and is currently working towards a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, where she investigates multisensory processing in the mouse brain. In 2015, she decided to try her hand at science writing by starting her blog ‘The Neurosphere‘. You can visit her Facebook page or Twitter feed for updates on her written work and other exciting bits of science.

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Distrust of atheists is "deeply and culturally ingrained" even among atheists

Just as people throughout history have been subject to prejudice and persecution because of their religious beliefs, recent evidence suggests that atheists today are discriminated against because of their lack of faith. For instance, in a 2012 study, nearly one in two atheists and agnostics reported having experienced discrimination at work, in the family and elsewhere. Another US study that asked respondents to imagine their children marrying people from different social groups found that participants were most disapproving of the idea of their child marrying an atheist.

Building on these kinds of past results, most of which stem from the US, a new British study published in The International Journal for The Psychology of Religion, has found that many people’s distrust of atheists seems to be deeply held, and what’s more, even many atheists seem to have an instinctual distrust of other atheists. For background, Britain is a country where 13 per cent of people today consider themselves convinced atheists.

Leah Giddings and Thomas Dunn recruited 100 participants from Nottingham Trent University: their average age was 21 and 70 were women. Forty-three per cent were atheist, 33 per cent were Christian and the remainder subscribed to other faiths. The researchers presented the participants with a vignette about a man who one day backed his car into a van and failed to leave his insurance details, and later on, when he found a wallet, he removed the money from it for himself. In short, this chap wasn’t very trustworthy or moral. Next, half the participants were asked to say whether it was more probable that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and religious (let’s call this the teacher+religious condition). The other half of the participants had to say whether they thought it was more likely that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and an atheist (the teacher+atheist condition).

Logically speaking, in both conditions the correct answer is always (a) because (b) is a subset of (a) and therefore less likely by definition. However, it’s well known in psychology that many people struggle to answer these kinds of questions logically because they’re swayed by the connotations of the secondary category that’s mentioned in (b) – an error that’s known as the conjunction fallacy.

What was particularly revealing in this study is that participants in the teacher+atheist condition were much more prone to committing the conjunction fallacy (66 per cent of them did so), than the participants in the teacher+religious condition (just 8 per cent of participants in this condition fell for the conjunction error). These results suggest that at a superficial level, the description of the distrustful man sounded to many of the participants like a typical atheist, and hence many of them said they thought it more likely that he was both a teacher and an atheist than a teacher.

To test the strength of this apparent prejudice towards atheists, the researchers asked the participants the same question again, and they also presented them with information about the proportions of the population who are religious or atheist. To participants in the teacher+atheist condition, this barely made any difference to their answers, suggesting their instinctual prejudice towards atheists was robust. Even though they were given a chance to think more rationally, they still fell for the fallacy. By contrast, the participants in the teacher+religious condition committed the conjunction fallacy even less often when they were asked the question for a second time.

The prejudice shown towards atheists in this study was more pronounced among those who professed a stronger belief in God, but it was also present, albeit to a lesser extent, among the non-religious. Another thing – the non-religious participants, like the religious, showed more instinctual distrust toward atheists than towards religious people (that is, they committed the conjunction fallacy more often in the teacher+atheist condition than the teacher+religious condition).

The researchers said their findings “suggest anti-atheist distrust is deeply and culturally ingrained regardless of an individual’s group membership”. This raises the question – why are people, at least in the UK and the US, so distrustful of atheists? The researchers speculated that it may be because most people assume that religious folk believe they’re being monitored by a higher being, and that this will therefore encourage these people to behave morally, whereas this supervision is absent for atheists. Also, perhaps people’s distrust of atheists stems from the fact that, unlike religious people, atheists lack a coherent set of known moral rules (of course they have their own individual moral code, but as a group they don’t have a code that they all follow).

“Looking to the future,” the researcher said, “it is also important to explore how these perceptions and attitudes toward atheists manifest behaviourally, whether people act on these prejudices and in what contexts. It is only once the nature and extent of the issue is better understood that we can take measures to address it.”


Giddings, L., & Dunn, T. (2016). The Robustness of Anti-Atheist Prejudice as Measured by Way of Cognitive Errors The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26 (2), 124-135 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2015.1006487

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

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Psychologists helped these ambulance phone operators to answer their calls more efficiently

When calling an ambulance, every second counts. So when an ambulance service in South Africa wanted to speed up their response time, who did they call? Psychologists, of course.

Looking to reduce any obstacles that delayed operators from obtaining key facts from callers, Claire Penn at the University of the Witwatersrand and her colleagues initially expected language issues to be a big tripwire – the officially English-language service was based in South Africa’s Western Cape, where four in five people favour Afrikaans or isiXhosa.

But in fact, the researchers found that the multi-lingual call handlers already dealt with this deftly. Instead, the time delays were stemming from more conversational factors. For example, call handlers redundantly asked “What is your emergency?”, and used the identifying term “Emergency Medical Services”, which often had to be clarified as the place for ambulances. Call handlers who tried to save time by not naming themselves ran against callers who wanted to know who they were speaking to. And even in these life and death situations, some calls would fall into familiar – but time-consuming – greeting sequences: “How are you?”, “Fine, and yourself?”, “I’m fine, thank you.”

Penn’s team used their analysis to produce a simple two-part protocol for starting calls: “Ambulance service, Simon speaking” that avoided these diversions, and in a trial over one 12-hour shift involving 1100 calls they demonstrated this new protocol led to an average four-second shortening of call length compared with the previous shift.

Penn and her team concluded that “communication factors enable accuracy and reduced response time and should be acknowledged as a priority in training and monitoring. Shaving off even a few seconds between answering the call and the dispatch of the ambulance may have life-saving consequences in this context.”


Penn, C., Koole, T., & Nattrass, R. (2016). When seconds count: A study of communication variables in the opening segment of emergency calls Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315625357

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

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Pornography use correlates with pro-feminist attitudes, according to US survey

Radical feminism conceives of pornography as fundamentally harmful to women; it is, in the words of anti-pornography activist Gail Dines, “the most succinct and crisp deliverer of a woman-hating ideology.” But past research on how porn influences how we think about equality for women has been inconsistent and often reliant on underpowered studies. Now, a US survey published in The Journal of Sex Research and involving 24,000 men and women who were quizzed between 1975 and 2010 has shown no link between pornography use and nonegalitarianism. In fact, male and female users of pornography were significantly more willing to endorse women in positions of power, working outside the home, and as having the right to make their own decisions over abortion.

These correlational effects run contrary to the claims about pornography’s power to condition attitudes against women. Taking the balance of findings, lead author Taylor Kohut concludes that they appear to indicate “that pornography use may not be associated with nonegalitarian attitudes toward women in the manner implied by radical feminist theory. In light of this evidence, continued anti-pornography rhetoric proclaiming that ‘pornography is what the end of the world looks like’ appears unjustified.”

Is Pornography Really about “Making Hate to Women”? Pornography Users Hold More Gender Egalitarian Attitudes Than Nonusers in a Representative American Sample

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

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People with schizophrenia-like traits can tickle themselves (whereas most people can’t)

Go ahead, try tickling yourself on your inner forearm or neck. If you’re like most people, you’ll find it doesn’t work. The sensation would make you shiver or giggle with ticklishness if someone else did it, but when you do it yourself, it no longer has any tickle power.

The inability of most people to tickle themselves has been documented by psychologists for a while, and it’s thought be due to the fact that the brain creates predictions of the sensory consequences of our own actions, and then cancels them out. Although it might be fun to be able to tickle ourselves, on balance it’s probably a good thing that our brains work this way most of the time – it helps us pay more rapid attention to other people’s actions rather than our own, and it contributes to our sense of self.

At the turn of the century, neuroscientist Sarah Jayne-Blakemore and her colleagues showed that some patients diagnosed with schizophrenia can tickle themselves. This fitted with other features of their illness – for example, the patients who could self-tickle also experienced hallucinations and the feeling that other people were controlling their actions. One theory is that the apparent failure of these patients’ brains to adequately cancel out the sensory consequences of their own actions could be contributing both to their symptoms and to their self-tickling ability.

Now a team of psychologists in France has extended these findings, showing for the first time that psychologically healthy people who score highly in schizophrenia-like personality traits – for example, they have vivid imaginations and are prone to mild paranoia – are also capable of tickling themselves. The findings are in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The researchers, led by Anne-Laure Lemaitre, first identified from an initial pool of 397 students, 27 students who scored very highly on the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire, and 27 students who scored very low on the same measure. The questionnaire includes questions on things like unusual beliefs and strange perceptual experiences. None of the students had ever been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. They also completed a questionnaire about their experience of feelings of passivity, measured with items like “feeling you were a robot or zombie without a will of your own”.

Next, the students took part in different tickle tasks involving a brush. The participants either tried to tickle their own forearm with the brush, or the brush was controlled by the researcher. In each case, the participants rated how ticklish the brush movements felt on their arm.

Overall, the students who scored high in schizotypic traits were no more ticklish than the low schizotypic students. Crucially, however, the highly schizotypic students found the self-tickling condition more ticklish than did the low schizotypic students, and they also found the self-tickling condition just as ticklish as when the researcher applied the tickling, whereas the low schizotypic students found the self-tickling condition less ticklish than when the researcher did it.

A limitation of the study that jumps out immediately is that there was no control group with intermediate levels of schizotypic traits, meaning that if you were to interpret these results in isolation, it’s possible the low schizotypic students were unusually non-ticklish in the self-tickle condition, rather than the high schizotypic students being unusually self-ticklish.

But of course, it makes sense to interpret these new findings in light of past research, including the Blakemore finding of self-tickling ability in patients with schizophrenia, and another paper from 2010 that showed high scorers on schizotypy were poor at controlling their own strength to match the force produced by a machine (another indication of diminished self-monitoring).

Moreover, in the current research, the more self-tickling sensations that the high schizotypic students reported, the more they tended to agree with items related to suspicion and unusual perceptual experiences on the Schizotypy questionnaire, such as “I’m sure I’m being talked about behind my back” and “I often hear a voice speaking my thoughts aloud”, and the higher they scored on the passivity scale.

These findings don’t mean that if you can tickle yourself you are likely to develop schizophrenia. However, they are consistent with the idea that the same brain processes (involved in movement control and monitoring) that may contribute to the symptoms experienced by patients with schizophrenia, may also contribute to schizophrenia-like beliefs and experiences in healthy people.

The researchers said their results show that “non-clinical subjects with schizophrenia-like symptoms have an abnormal subjective experience of willed actions”. They added: “When considering a continuum ranging from the absence of a disorder to the full-blown symptoms of schizophrenia, our data provide a basis for understanding the illusions of control experienced by schizophrenic patients.”


Lemaitre, A., Luyat, M., & Lafargue, G. (2016). Individuals with pronounced schizotypal traits are particularly successful in tickling themselves Consciousness and Cognition, 41, 64-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.02.005

further reading
You still can’t tickle yourself, even if you swap bodies with another person

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

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Inside the mind of an ultra-runner – the tougher it gets, the more fun it is

According to UltraRunning Magazine, an ultra run is anything longer than a standard marathon of 26 miles, but it’s not unusual for people to participate in gruelling runs that take place in punishing environments over days or even weeks. For people who struggle to run to catch a bus, the idea of deliberately putting yourself through this kind of physical punishment, for fun, seems little short of crazy. Yet this is a sport that’s on the increase – the number of official events has doubled in the last decade.

Exercise-related distress was once seen as a simple consequence of physical symptoms like metabolic discharge building up in the muscles. But we now understand that the mind plays an important role in deciding whether a symptom is acceptable or unbearable. It’s this that makes ultra-runners possible. In fact, a new in-depth case study of an ultra runner published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that with greater physical exertion comes the experience of ever more positive emotion.

The profiled runner is an unnamed woman who was new to ultra-running but had a pedigree of elite-level running in international marathons. The researchers, led by Urban Johnson at Halmstad University, examined her experiences during a 10-week run in late spring covering 3641 kilometres (2262 miles) across Europe. The route included flats and substantial rises, passing through mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees. She and her experienced running partner covered between 26 and 80 kilometres each day, typically running between five and eight hours, taking turns to push a baby buggy holding their equipment. In case it’s not obvious … that’s a lot of running.

After the run, the researchers interviewed the runner to understand what she perceived as the mental qualities that made for ultra success. She revealed four key factors: mental stamina; motivation to test one’s limits, a will that’s generated by the enjoyable features of the journey; a sense of camaraderie with the partner; and self-awareness. As an example of the last factor, the running pair formalised a rule to communicate to teach other whenever they felt even a twinge of pain so that it could be immediately addressed: a “not one step further” rule. In addition, the pair did not run to targets, covering as much distance as felt comfortable day to day.

The ultra-runner also made a weekly record of her mood and exertion levels, starting three weeks prior to the run and ending three weeks after its completion. The researchers were interested in finding out from these records whether the physical impact of intensive running would produce psychological stress even in the absence of competition or targets.

During the run, the more physical exertion the runner experienced, the more her positive mood intensified. There was only one dip in positive mood during the run and this occurred during a two-week period where the close running dynamic was disrupted by the temporary participation of a third runner. Meanwhile, a measure of more negative mood states found no significant difference due to exertion, nor any differences inside or outside of the run period. So for this runner, no, intensive running was not psychologically stressful, but rather rewarding. It was only after the run was over that our ultra-runner experienced a drop in feelings of vitality, harmony, and appreciation from others, as she came down from her remarkable trip.

This case study provides insight into a person doing exceptional things, with particular drives: as the authors note drily, “the runner enjoys running!” But her breakdown of the key psychological ingredients for success in intense endeavours may resonate with you, whether you climb, act, or are founding a business.


Johnson, U., Kenttä, G., Ivarsson, A., Alvmyren, I., & Karlsson, M. (2016). An ultra-runner’s experience of physical and emotional challenges during a 10-week continental run International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 14 (1), 72-84 DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2015.1035736

further reading
What do long-distance runners think about?
Marathon runners forget how painful it was
Why you’re particularly likely to run your first marathon when your age ends in a “9”

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

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