Category: Anger

Revenge really is sweet: study shows the mood-enhancing effect of retaliation

By Alex Fradera

When we feel ostracised, we’re more likely to behave aggressively. Previous research suggests that vengeance on those who we think have wronged us can be driven by a sense of justice, and may activate neural reward centres. But being ostracised can also lead to generalised aggression, even lashing out at unrelated people, so there seems to be more going on. In new research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall tested the idea that social rejection, by making us feel wounded and unwanted, triggers a need to repair our mood by whatever means available, including through the satisfaction of causing harm to those who have made us suffer. They found that aggression can indeed be a viable method of mood repair.

Continue reading “Revenge really is sweet: study shows the mood-enhancing effect of retaliation”

Does target shooting make teenagers aggressive?

When the dust settles on the tragedy of the latest mass shooting, gun clubs usually see a spike in their memberships as people look to arm and defend themselves. At the same time, many others argue for greater gun controls, and from their perspective, recreational target shooting is very much part of the problem, not the answer.

Anecdotally, this is borne out by the many killers who often turn out to have been target shooters. Indeed, in Germany after the teenage perpetrators of two spree atrocities, or their parents – in Erfurt in 2002 and in Winnenden in 2009 – were found to be shooting club members, the German Shooting Sport and Archery Federation decided to sponsor psychological research into the question of whether shooting club members are more aggressive than normal, and whether target shooting makes people more aggressive. Some of the initial findings have now been published in the journal Aggressive Behaviour and while the results are not conclusive, they do suggest there is reason to worry about the psychological effects of gun club membership.

The initial study involved 45 teenage target shooters (average age 13 years; they’d been a member of their clubs for about a year) completing measures of their aggression three times every six months over the course of the research. For example, they rated their agreement with statements like “I would rather hit somebody than be a coward”, and they took another test to reveal how readily they associated self-related words with words pertaining to violence and aggression – this supposedly providing an implicit or non-conscious measure of the aggressiveness of their self concept. They also answered questions about their emotional regulation abilities – for example, whether they deal with emotional problems by seeking help or through anger or aggression.

Although there was no control group – the research sponsors didn’t want to spread negative publicity among non-shooters – the aggression questionnaires used in the study have previously been throughly tested by psychologists on the general public, thus giving an idea of a “normal” level of aggression. The results showed that the teen shooting club members were significantly above average in their self-rated aggressive tendencies, and that this rose through the course of the study, so that by the end, they averaged a level of aggression higher than 84 per cent of the general population (in contrast, results on the implicit test suggested they associated their self concept more strongly with peace than aggression, but without a control group it’s difficult to interpret this finding. The teenage shooters also scored highly for maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, especially anger.

A second study involved teenage shooting club members and teenage basketball players spending around 40 minutes on target practice – four rounds of ten shots, either firing a gun at a target or throwing a ball at a basket, respectively. Before and after the training they all completed what’s known as a “Lexical Decision Task”. This involves looking at strings of letters and deciding if they’re real words or not. In this case, the researchers were particularly interested to how quick the participants were to recognise words pertaining to aggression and anxiety – greater speed at recognising words with these connotations after the training would be taken as a sign that aggression and anxiety had become more salient in the participants’ minds. The results were clear – for the shooting club members, but not the basketball players, training specifically increased the salience of aggressive and anxiety-related concepts.

The researchers cautioned that their results to not show there is a causal link between shooting club membership and acts of aggression – after all, they did not take any measures of actual aggressive behavior. Nonetheless, they said that the German Shooting Federation (and other shooting federations) “should feel strongly encouraged to counteract aggressive tendencies of their members based on the present results”.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Erle, T., Barth, N., Kälke, F., Duttler, G., Lange, H., Petko, A., & Topolinski, S. (2016). Are target-shooters more aggressive than the general population? Aggressive Behavior DOI: 10.1002/ab.21657

further reading
Are shooting club members more aggressive than most?

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

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Scientific evidence that counting to 10 helps control anger (sometimes)

It’s something we’re taught from a young age – when you’re about to go into a rage, force yourself to count to ten and hopefully the storm will pass. This may sound like common sense, but without testing the method scientifically, how do we know if and when it really works? For example, while the counting delay could give you a chance to get a grip of your aggressive urges, it’s equally plausible that it could give you time to grow even angrier about whatever triggered your displeasure in the first place.

For a new study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Jeffrey Osgood and Mark Muraven at the State University of New York have put a version of the count-to-ten method to the test and they’ve found that it really can help reduce aggression, but only in certain circumstances.

They recruited 312 students to take part in what they were told was a test of virtual teamwork. First, the researchers asked half the participants to complete a task designed to reduce their levels of self-control (they had to write a stream-of-consciousness essay while avoiding thinking about a white bear). The other participants completed some maths problems, which does not tax self-control so much.

Next, each participant wrote an essay about their favourite childhood TV show and then they exchanged essays with what they thought was their task partner who was working elsewhere on another computer. In fact, this was a ruse and was simply a chance for the researchers to provoke the participants with some damning essay feedback, ostensibly from their partner.  He/she wrote of their essay: “This is one of the dumbest essays that I have ever read. Only an idiot would say something like that, I can’t believe you are even in college.

Suitably provoked, each participant was then given the chance to decide how many minutes their partner had to play an unpleasant card memorisation game in which wrong answers were punishable by a noise-blast – choosing a longer amount of time was taken as a sign of greater anger and increased aggression.  In two further twists, some of the participants had been told that their partner would subsequently be making the same decision for them – in other words, he or she would have the chance to retaliate. Also, some of the participants chose their partner’s fate immediately after receiving the rude essay feedback, while others were forced to wait around 30 seconds, thus mimicking the delay effects of counting to ten.

As expected, the participants who’d had their self-control depleted tended to decide their partner’s fate more quickly (when there was no forced delay) and they tended to be more aggressive in their decisions, although this wasn’t statistically significant. Focusing on the participants with reduced self-control, the results showed that when there were consequences (i.e. their partner could retaliate), the forced delay made them less aggressive – that is, they chose for their partner to suffer 3.9 minutes of the unpleasant noise-blast task on average, compared with 6.6 minutes when their reaction was not delayed. Conversely, when their anger would have no immediate consequences for themselves, the forced delay actually increased these participants’ aggression (they chose 8 minutes suffering for their partner, compared with 5.7 minutes without a delay).

In summary, these results suggests that counting to ten could help stop you from lashing out too harshly when there are obvious consequences for your anger, presumably because the delay gives you time to take these consequences into account before choosing how to act. Backing this interpretation, a number memorisation task during the forced delay removed the calming effect of the delay for the depleted participants who knew their partner could retaliate, probably because they now couldn’t use the time to think about the consequences of their choices. Finally, when there are no obvious consequences to an outburst, the results suggest that counting to ten could make you lash out even more, likely because in this kind of situation the delay just gives you more time to stew over whatever provoked you in the first place.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Osgood, J., & Muraven, M. (2016). Does counting to ten increase or decrease aggression? The role of state self-control (ego-depletion) and consequences Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46 (2), 105-113 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12334

further reading
Beat anger by imagining you’re a fly on the wall
How anger can make us more rational

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

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What happens when you fall in love with someone who’s aggressive?

Does experiencing aggression in a relationship make us more vigilant against it – or more forgiving? New research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when we want to keep our partner badly enough, we redefine the levels of aggression that we believe it is justifiable to endure.

Aggression can manifest in obvious violations such as controlling behaviours or physical violence, but also includes more common behaviours – denigrating a partner, or threatening to leave them. Drawing the line with these isn’t guided by societal absolute, but depends on individual discretion. Could that discretion be influenced by exposure to aggression?

Ximena Arriaga and her colleagues investigated this through research with students currently in a relationship. The students reported their experience of aggression in their own relationships, then responded to a list of specific aggressive behaviours, revealing in each case whether or not they would tolerate such behaviours. Examples on the list included a partner who “refused to talk about an issue with you” or “belittled you in front of others.”

Three separate studies involving more than a thousand participants showed that participants were more tolerant of aggressive behaviours if their current partner had already committed an act of aggression toward them. This can be explained in terms of the need to feel consistent and avoid dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is appropriate: if you’ve stayed in spite of what they’ve done, you’ll find it harder to see similar acts as a basis for leaving in the future.

A further longitudinal study (that surveyed participants repeatedly over several weeks) showed that initial levels of commitment to one’s current partner was also an important factor that was associated with people being more tolerant of later acts of aggression. At the start of the study, many participants had yet to experience aggression from their partner, but some had a different story to tell by the time of the final data collection eight or ten weeks later. Did these twenty individuals who had newly experienced aggression become more accepting of aggressive behaviours? Only some did: those who were strongly committed to their relationship. If you want it to succeed badly enough, you justify. And a further study showed this tendency to be very focused on making this relationship work: highly committed people were no more likely to tolerate (hypothetical) aggression when it was described as being directed towards a stranger, but became forgiving when they had to imagine it directed at them from their current partner.

These findings suggest that, at least in this sample, tolerance of aggressive partners is driven more by the present relationship than past history. Another intriguing detail from the longitudinal study was that it found that the participants’ stated tolerance to aggression at the start of the study was no predictor of who experienced aggression by its end, meaning that it gives no evidence of tolerant people gravitating to (or attracting) aggressors. And across the studies, aggression history prior to the current relationship wasn’t associated with current tolerance levels, once other factors were taken into account. Rather, the main driver seems to be the motivation to make the current relationship work, and seem workable, even if that means redrawing the lines that a loved one is not supposed to cross.

Postscript. Across almost every study, gender came out as a significant factor: the male participants were more tolerant and more willing to stay in relationships that involved aggressions. This was unexpected, but may reflect a reluctance within men to define their partners as aggressors and themselves in some sense as victims, as seen in low reporting rates of domestic violence against men.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Arriaga, X., Capezza, N., & Daly, C. (2015). Personal Standards for Judging Aggression by a Relationship Partner: How Much Aggression Is Too Much? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000035

further reading
Men who are ashamed of their bodies are more prone to sexual aggression against women – US study
Why do some men insult their partners?

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

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Most acts of aggression by toddlers are unprovoked

Watching toddlers pinch, hit and bite each other doesn’t fill you with confidence about human nature. But there’s no need to be down about it – the little devils don’t yet have the self-control to manage their anger and frustration, that’s all. Right?

Not according to a new study published in Developmental Science, which is the first to systematically investigate the use of force in infants from age 11 months and up. Audun Dahl at the University of California, Santa Cruz, finds that in fact most of the time, the use of aggression* by toddlers is unprovoked.

Dahl interviewed 74 middle-class mothers with infants who were aged on average 16 months (range 11 to 24 months; 33 female). He asked these mums to describe a recent time when their child harmed someone else. Analysing the mothers’ stories, he found that in 76 per cent of the situations, the act of aggression was unprovoked and the aggressive infant did not show any signs of visible distress. This chimes with past research in which mothers reported their toddlers mostly showed signs of pleasure when they caused upset to other people.

Meanwhile, 26 per cent of the aggressive acts were provoked, for example to regain a toy from a sibling (and usually accompanied by distress), and 3 per cent were accidental. Overall, the stats argue against the idea that babies and toddlers mostly hit, scratch and bite as a way to vent their anger or frustration because they haven’t yet developed enough self-control.

To get more evidence, Dahl filmed 26 more infants (11 female) in their own homes for 2.5 hours each visit, always in the company of the child’s mother and a sibling. When he first visited each child, they were 14-months-old, then he returned when they were 19-months and 24-months-old. Analysing the videos for acts of aggression, he found that 49 per cent of the time the use of force was unprovoked, 43 per cent of the time it was provoked, and 8 per cent of incidences were accidental. Parents were the most frequent targets of aggression, followed by siblings and pets.

Zooming in on the acts of unprovoked aggression, most of the time these appeared to be what Dahl calls “explorative force”, for example to get attention, and there was rarely evidence that the aggressive infant was distressed. Less often, these unprovoked attacks were actually “miscalibrated force” – for example hitting the dog over the head when the probable intent was to stroke him.

More clues come from the infants’ personality: the toddlers who scored higher on their tendency to show pleasure tended to be the ones who committed more acts of unprovoked aggression, again suggesting they were using force as a form of fun interaction, rather than in rage. Also, provoked and unprovoked aggression showed different developmental trajectories. Provoked use of force increased consistently over time whereas unprovoked use of force rose at first, peaked at around 18 months, then decreased when the children were aged two.

These developmental results fit the idea that provoked aggressive acts are a symptom of toddlers’ ongoing lack of self control (and growing wilfulness) whereas their more frequent unprovoked aggression is more related to exploration and attention-seeking, combined with a relative lack of understanding about other people’s pain. Unprovoked acts presumably became less frequent from 18-months onwards as the toddlers learned that their aggression hurts others, or as they became more sensitive to other people’s distress. Complementing this account, Dahl found that unprovoked aggressive acts were especially likely to elicit negative reactions from parents or siblings, which presumably helped the toddlers learn to refrain from this behaviour.

Dahl concluded that his results show “that infants’ use of force against others is more diverse than typically assumed”, and he said more research on the topic is now needed in other settings and cultures to better understand how young children come to realise that unjustified aggression is wrong.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Dahl, A. (2015). Infants’ unprovoked acts of force toward others Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12342

*Note: Audun Dahl prefers not to describe infants’ use of force as “aggression” which implies the intent to harm, which he says is “difficult or impossible to assess in infants”. I chose to use a mix of descriptive words to avoid repetition, to resonate with readers’ everyday experience (parents rarely speak of “acts of force” but they do fret about their children’s aggression), and also because Dahl’s own analysis actually distinguishes between acts of unprovoked force which were apparently deliberate and those that were “miscalibrated force” – i.e. any harm was accidental.

further reading
“I’m really good with my hands and I hit him” – Children’s descriptions of harming siblings and friends
Systematic evidence of fake crying by a baby
10 Surprising Things Babies Can Do

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

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What kind of mass murderer is likely to die in the act, and why should we care?

There’s a striking fact about mass murderers – an extremely high percentage (around 30 per cent) of them die in the act, either by suicide or because of deadly police force. Of course, only a saint would likely be moved to feel sympathy by this statistic, but a new paper digs into the reasons behind it, in the hope that doing so could help prevent future killings.

The formal definition for a mass murderer, as opposed to a serial killer, is someone who kills four or more people in the same act, “with no distinctive time period between the murders”. This includes religiously inspired suicidal bombers, family killers (where one family member murders his or her partner and their children), and rampaging school shooters.

Researcher Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama (author of The Myth of Martyrdom) hired a crack team of investigative journalists to identify all the mass murders committed in the US between 2006 and 2014. The team mined media reports, FBI records and local police reports to find details of 242 cases of mass murder. Averaging 4.9 victims, and with over 90 per cent of the perpetrators being male, the crimes were coded according to several basic features such as killing type and age of offender, allowing Lankford to establish whether there was anything distinctive about the 31 per cent of mass murderers who died in the act (80 per cent of whom died by suicide) compared with those who survived.

Gender wasn’t a relevant factor, but older mass murderers were more likely to die, as were killers who operated alone (48 per cent of those who lived had a co-offender compared with just 5 per cent of those who died). Mass murderers who died also tended to kill more victims (an average of 5.5. versus 4.6 victims among the surviving killers). Regarding types of mass murder, family killers were the mostly likely to end up dead (61.7 per cent), followed by public killers (i.e. rampage shooters and such like; 28.7 per cent), perpetrators of miscellaneous mass murders (e.g. gangland killings or neighbour disputes; 5.3 per cent) and robbery-related mass killings (4.3 per cent).

Why should we care about these statistics? Lankford’s thesis is that they support the notion that “suicidal motives play a major role in the behaviour of many mass murderers”. He draws on the work of the nineteenth century French psychologist Émile Durkheim to suggest that many of the mass murderers effectively took their own and other people’s lives either as an act of egoistic suicide ,”whereby people who lack social connections and the moderating influences of others are more likely to spiral into suicidal despair”; or anomic suicide, in which “[the killer’s] anger and actions may lack clear purpose or direction”; or altruistic suicide, “which is carried out by people who feel they are serving some greater good”.

Lankford points to the parallel between suicide statistics for the US population as a whole (where suicide rates correlate with greater age) and the fact that older offenders were more likely to die – “it is interesting that despite the aberrational natures of their crimes, mass murderers seem to fit with these basic demographic trends,” he says. He also notes the apparently powerful protective influence of a co-offender. “Even among this extremely violent minority of homicide offenders,” he writes, “the presence and social influence of fellow offenders may be critical to preventing a self-orchestrated death.”

Lankford acknowledges that the exceptionally high rate of suicidal deaths among family killers may seem to contradict Durkheim’s writings on suicide (Durkheim said that the married person’s family bonds would keep them stable). But Lankford argues that “in the case of many family killers, that connection has clearly been broken” – frequently because the murderer suspects infidelity or feels abandoned in some way by the family.

One of Lankford’s most important messages is that a “side-benefit” of improved suicide prevention strategies is likely to be a reduction in the occurrences of mass murder. And he warns that just as high-profile (non-homicidal) suicide cases often prompt a temporary increase in suicide rates, “it appears that some recent mass murderers have been influenced and inspired by their knowledge of other highly publicised killers.” One preventive strategy in this context, he says, is for the media to avoid glamorising mass murderers and to deter potential copycats by covering “… the more humiliating aspects of the killers’ own deaths, such as the fact that their bowels often release and leave their body soaked in urine or feces”.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lankford, A. (2015). Mass murderers in the United States: predictors of offender deaths The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1054858

further reading
The Psychology of Violent Extremism – Digested
How killing begets more killing (of bugs)
The psychology of female serial killers

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

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Are prisoners calmer when their cells are painted pink?

On the back of research first published in 70s and 80s, an increasing number of jails in the Western world are painting their cells pink, in the belief that doing so has a calming effect on prisoners.

Unfortunately, this early research was poorly designed. For example, one study found that prisoners’ strength, pushing against an experimenter, was reduced when they were presented with a pink vs. blue coloured card. But the experimenter could also see the card and may simply have exerted more effort in the pink condition.

Another early study reported that prisoners were calmer in pink cells versus white cells. But the prisoners in the pink cells were monitored one year, and the white cell prisoners during another year. Also, prisoners were not randomly allocated to the different colours. Both these shortcomings make it difficult to rule out other influences, besides the paint colour on the cell walls.

Now a team of psychologists led by Oliver Genschow at Ghent University has provided the first carefully controlled systematic test of the pink cell claim. They trained guards to measure the aggressive behaviour of 59 male prisoners in Switzerland, who were placed into special detention as punishment for violating prison regulations. Half these prisoners were chosen at random to be placed into cells painted entirely pink, across the floor, walls and ceiling. The other half were placed into cells of identical size, but painted white, with a grey floor. Aggression ratings were taken on arrival in the cells and after three days.

The prisoners showed reduced aggression at the end of three days, compared with at their arrival, but crucially, at no time was there a difference in aggression levels (in terms of emotions or behaviour) between prisoners in the differently coloured cells. The same null result was found when analysis was restricted to just those prisoners who started off low in aggression, or just those who started off with higher aggression.

Genschow and his team said their results question the wisdom of painting prisoners’ cells pink. In fact, they speculate that doing so could even be counter-productive: “Being placed in a pink detention cell may … attack inmates’ perceived manhood and/or cause feelings of humiliation.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Genschow, O., Noll, T., Wänke, M., & Gersbach, R. (2014). Does Baker-Miller pink reduce aggression in prison detention cells? A critical empirical examination Psychology, Crime & Law, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.989172

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

Your angry face makes you look stronger

No matter where you travel on earth, you’ll likely have no problem recognising when someone is angry with you. From the plains of Russia to the beaches of Brazil, anger shows itself in a tell-tale facial display involving lowered brow, snarled nose, raised chin and thinned lips.

A popular view has it that, besides reliably conveying anger, this particular constellation of facial movements is arbitrary and serves no other function. A team of evolutionary psychologists led by Aaron Sell disagrees. They think the anger face also makes the angry person look stronger. This fits their “recalibration theory of anger” that sees the emotion as an aggressive threat. An angry animal or person is communicating the costs that they will inflict on others if they do not get what they want. By making an angry person look stronger, so the theory goes, the facial expression gives weight to the threat of aggression, likely influencing the target’s judgment about the seriousness of the threat.

To test this, Sell and his colleagues created pairs of faces using a computer programme. They began with a 20-year-old male face, morphed from averages of many faces, and then calibrated it so that for each of the seven distinguishing features of anger (lowered brow, raised lips, raised mouth, widened nose, enlarged chin, lips thinned, lips pushed forward), they created a pair of contrasting faces. One face in each pair displayed one angry feature, the other face showed the opposite feature. For example, one face showed lowered brows, the other face in the pair showed raised brows. In this way, the seven distinguishing features of anger were isolated.

Thirty-five student participants then looked at the facial pairs and indicated in each case which face they thought looked stronger. The key finding? Each anger-related facial feature when displayed on its own attracted higher ratings of perceived strength. This implies each element of the anger expression contributes to making a person appear stronger.

Further experiments ruled out an alternative explanation – perhaps angry faces actually serve to make a person look older, and this leads to ratings of greater strength because observers assume a slightly older man is stronger than a 20-year-old. One way the researchers tested this was to show participants pairs of morphed faces of a 60-year-old man, in which case looking older presumably wouldn’t be associated with greater strength. Three of the angry facial features actually led him to being rated as younger, with only two prompting ratings of being older. Moreover, participants rated the man as stronger when he displayed six of the seven angry facial features.

“The current study is the first systematic test of the individual components of the anger expression,” the researchers said. “And in so doing it confirms that these features are improbably well-designed to solve the adaptive problem of bargaining with threats of force.” The results are also consistent with a range of other research, including the finding that several features of an angry expression tend to be more prominent in men than women (this fits with the idea that aggression is a more important bargaining tool for men); that stronger and bigger men get angry more easily; and that men’s fighting ability can be discerned from the shape of their face. Looking at the study’s limitations, it’s a shame the researchers didn’t investigate women’s expressions of anger, and that they relied on student participants.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Sell, A., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2014). The human anger face evolved to enhance cues of strength Evolution and Human Behavior, 35 (5), 425-429 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.05.008

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

Reader reactions to news of terrorism depend on the images that are used

After viewing images of terrorists, people reported feelings of anger and fear

How readers’ emotions are affected by media reports of terrorist attacks depends on the photos used to accompany the story. That’s according to an analysis by Aarti Iyer and colleagues, who say these different emotional reactions in turn lead to support for different government policies.

Over two-hundred British adults (aged 18 to 68; 92 women), many based in London, read a news summary of the London terrorist bombings that occurred on July 7, 2005. Afterwards, the participants were split into two groups – one group was shown photographs that displayed the terrorist attackers, including head-shots and security camera footage. The other group was shown photographs displaying victims of the attacks, including wounded people and distressed bystanders.

Participants who viewed the images of terrorists subsequently reported feeling a stronger sense of injustice (than those who saw the victims), and felt more of a sense that the terrorists were dangerous and threatening. In terms of emotions, viewing the images of the terrorists was associated with higher levels of fear and anger. In contrast, participants who saw the images of the victims were afterwards more conscious of people suffering, and they tended to report feeling more sympathy.

Although a direct comparison found no difference between the two participant groups, in terms of their subsequent support for various government terrorism policies, Iyer and her team claim there were indirect effects of the two image conditions. According to the researchers’ analysis, viewing images of the terrorists increased levels of anger and fear, and in turn these emotions were associated with more support for aggressive counter-terrorism and more negotiation, respectively. In contrast, seeing images of victims increased feelings of sympathy, which was associated with more support for policies aimed at helping victims.

“Given that images of terrorism may be easily used (and abused) to manipulate public opinion, it is … vital that media editors and policy makers better understand the psychological processes underlying the phenomenon,” the researchers said. They admitted that much more research is needed in this area, and they acknowledged that in reality readers and viewers are often exposed to a mixture of images. But despite this caution, Iyer and her team also wrote that their findings demonstrate “the powerful impact of media images in shaping individuals’ emotional and political responses to terrorism…”

Readers of a sceptical persuasion may not be so convinced. The path analysis used in this research can only demonstrate correlations between measured factors – causality, and its true direction from one factor to another, has not been proven. Ultimately, the two groups of participants did not differ in their support for different government policies. This research was also unable to explain why some people responded to images of the terrorists with anger, and others with fear.

See the comments for more critical analysis.
_________________________________

  ResearchBlogging.orgIyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M., & Vanman, E. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (7), 511-521 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12243

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

A laboratory study of "everyday sadism"

No bugs or humans were hurt in the course of this research but the participants didn’t know that at the time. Psychologist Erin Buckels and her colleagues tricked their volunteers for the purpose of investigating “everyday sadism” – the tendency for many “apparently normal, everyday people” to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on others.

Seventy-one students thought they were taking part in a study of personality and tolerance of challenging jobs. As such, they had to choose between killing bugs, helping kill bugs, cleaning toilets or enduring pain by placing their hand in iced water.

Buckels’ team found that students who scored higher on a sadism questionnaire (e.g. do you agree “Hurting people is exciting?”) were more likely to be among the 53 per cent who chose the bug killer or killer’s assistant option. This involved placing Muffin, Ike and Tootsie (yes, the bugs had names) into a machine and grinding them to death, or watching someone else do the same. Sound effects gave the impression the bugs’ exoskeletons were crunching like nut shells. In truth Muffin and co escaped via an emergency slide, but the students didn’t realise this until later.

To the researchers’ surprise, the high scorers on sadism actually reported less pleasure after the killing than the non-sadists. Closer examination provided some explanation. Sadists reported lower pleasure across all the challenges, not just the killing. And those sadists that did the killing reported more pleasure than those who didn’t. “Sadists may use cruelty to compensate for a low baseline level of positive emotion,” the researchers said.

Would you blast a stranger with loud white noise, just for the fun of it? Seventy-one student participants in a follow-up study had this very opportunity. They thought they were competing at a reaction time challenge with an opponent located in another room (in truth the whole thing was computerised). Each round they won, the students had a chance to blast their opponent. The “opponent” always refrained from such aggression on the rounds he won, and yet high scorers on sadism seized their chances to blaze his eardrums.

Note that in both the studies, Buckels and her team also took measures of the students’ psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Sadism scores predicted choice of the aggressive options in both studies, above and beyond the explanatory power of these so-called Dark Triad traits. Moreover, in the second study, only sadists were willing to complete a boring challenge (crossing out letters in Latin text) purely for the chance to blast their opponents. Psychopaths, narcissists and the rest didn’t go to the trouble. Based on this, Buckels et al said that sadism should be added to the Dark Triad, to make a “Dark Tetrad”.

“Our findings provide a glimpse into sadism in everyday life,” the researchers concluded. “We hope this research will persuade readers to construe sadism as something more than a sexual disorder to be studied in hardened criminals.”
________________________________
ResearchBlogging.org

Buckels EE, Jones DN, and Paulhus DL (2013). Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological science PMID: 24022650

–Further reading–
This is not the first psychology study to involve the apparent killing of bugs. Check out “How killing begets more killing“.

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