Category: Cross-cultural

Rural Cameroonian pre-schoolers just aced Mischel’s iconic Marshmallow Test

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It’s the first time that this iconic test of children’s self-control has been used in a traditional non-Western culture

By Christian Jarrett

Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test of self-control is one of psychology’s iconic experimental set-ups. First conducted in the 1960s, Mischel told the kids he tested that if they managed to resist eating the marshmallow in front of them until he returned (usually about 15 minutes later), they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

The children varied greatly in their powers of restraint and those who performed better displayed some cute distraction strategies, such as singing to themselves and covering their eyes. Perhaps most important, those kids who performed well at the test tended to do well in later life too, in terms of their health, education and career success. Given the huge impact this research has had, it’s amazing that it’s never been exported to a non-Western setting. Until now.

In a new paper in Child Development, Bettina Lamm and her colleagues have compared the performance of 125 4-year-olds from urban middle-class Germany with the performance of dozens of 4-year-olds from the Nso farming families of rural Cameroon. The Cameroonian kids aced the test, performing much better than their German peers. What’s more, their success seemed to be tied to the traditional, strict, hierarchical culture in which they’d been raised. The results challenge Western assumptions about what constitutes an ideal parenting style, and they provide another powerful demonstration of the urgent need for psychology to conduct more research outside of its usual Western focus.

Continue reading “Rural Cameroonian pre-schoolers just aced Mischel’s iconic Marshmallow Test”

“Reverse ego-depletion”: People in India find mental effort energising

Hindu Devotees Celebrate Holi Festival In IndiaBy Christian Jarrett

Exercising self-control leaves you feeling drained. That’s what many of us in the West believe and it’s what we seem to experience – think of the fatigue after a morning spent dealing with difficult clients or focused on spreadsheets on a computer screen. But in Indian culture, there is a widespread belief that mental effort is energising – that the more concentration and self-control you expend in one situation, the more invigorated you will feel for the next challenge.

Psychology has, so far, mostly backed up our Western intuitions. Over 100 studies – nearly all conducted in the West – have shown that participants are less able to resist temptation or exercise mental focus after completing a mentally taxing task, an effect that researchers call “ego depletion”. But now a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has tested Indian participants and it shows for the first time a “reverse ego-depletion effect” – the more difficult an initial mental task, the better participants performed on a subsequent challenge.

Continue reading ““Reverse ego-depletion”: People in India find mental effort energising”

New Milgram replication in Poland finds 90 per cent of participants willing to deliver highest shock

By guest blogger Ginny Smith

Fifty years ago, in Connecticut, a series of infamous experiments were taking place. The volunteers believed they were involved in an investigation into learning and memory, and that they would be administering shocks to a test subject whenever he answered questions incorrectly. But despite pretences, the scientist behind the research, Stanley Milgram, wasn’t actually interested in learning. The real topic of study? Obedience.

Milgram recorded how far his participants were willing to go when told to deliver larger and larger shocks. In one version of the study, 26 out of 40 participants continued to the highest shock level – two steps beyond the button labelled “Danger: severe shock”.

But this was 50 years ago – surely the same wouldn’t happen if the experiment were conducted today? That’s what a group of researchers from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland aimed to find out, in a “partial replication” of Milgram published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Continue reading “New Milgram replication in Poland finds 90 per cent of participants willing to deliver highest shock”

The ways that student samples differ from the public varies around the world

Students sit facing camera in a modern university classroomBy Christian Jarrett

Biologists have their fruit flies and rats, psychologists have students. An overwhelming amount of behavioral science is conducted with young people at universities on the assumption that it’s safe to generalise from this species of human to people more generally. There are some common-sense reasons for thinking this might be a problem and also some more specific issues, which we’ve documented before, such as that burnt out students could be skewing the findings.

Now a recent study in PLOS One shows that the ways students differ from the public is different depending on which country you’re in, meaning it’s extra complicated to figure out if and when it’s appropriate to extrapolate student-based findings to people as a whole.

Continue reading “The ways that student samples differ from the public varies around the world”

You’re in my space! How preferred interpersonal distance varies across the world

By Christian Jarrett

It’s really awkward when you’re chatting to someone whose sense of appropriate interpersonal space is way too close. There’s the option of performing a subtle backward shuffle, but what if they simply close the gap again?

Our judgments about such things obviously vary with individual personality – people with more social anxiety tend to prefer a greater distance – and also on the nature of the relationship we have with the other person. But culture must surely play a part too.

To find out how preferred interpersonal distances vary across the world, the authors of a new study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology approached – not too close, presumably – nearly 9,000 participants in 42 countries and asked them to indicate on a simple graphic how close another person – either a stranger, friend or more intimate relation – could get to them during a conversation for things to remain comfortable.

Continue reading “You’re in my space! How preferred interpersonal distance varies across the world”

Smartphone study reveals the world’s sleeping habits

Middle aged men get the least sleep, the research found

Researchers in the USA have used a smartphone app to see how people’s sleep habits vary around the world. More specifically they’ve investigated how much the timing of sunrise and sunset affect people’s sleep times or if social and cultural factors are more important. “Quantifying these social effects is the next frontier in sleep research,” they write in the paper in Science Advances.

The study involved the ENTRAIN smartphone app which helps people recover from jet lag by recommending ideal levels of light exposure based on a user’s typical sleep routine. Users have the option to make their information available for research. Olivia Walch and her colleagues at the University of Michigan began collecting data from the app in 2014 and the new analysis is based on information sent in by 8070 users around the world during the first year.

Overall the data showed that a later sunrise goes hand in hand with later waking-up times, and that a later sunset is associated with people going to bed later, just as predicted based on how light affects the suprachiasmatic nucleus – the bundle of neurons behind the eyes that controls our sleep cycle, also known as the circadian rhythm. But crucially, the link between sunset and bedtime was weaker than biological explanations would predict.

Put differently, the time we get up is strongly influenced by the timing of sunrise, but the time we go to bed is not as strongly influenced by sunset, suggesting other social and cultural factors are involved. Consistent with this account, most of the cross-cultural differences in sleep – for example, the Dutch reported the most sleep and Singaporeans the least – were explained by later bed times in the countries getting less sleep.

The difference between the countries with the most and least sleep wasn’t huge: just under 7.5 hours for Singapore and just over 8.1 hours for The Netherlands. But the researchers emphasised that even a 30-minutes difference is meaningful, especially when you consider that sleep debt can have a cumulative effect over time.

Users of the app from the UK averaged about 8 hours sleep (a healthy amount) with average wake time just after 7 am and average bed time just before 11.15.

The researchers were also able to use the smartphone data to compare sleep habits by age, gender, and time spent exposed to natural light. Age was the most important factor with older people tending to go to sleep earlier. There was also much less variability in the sleep times of older users, which could because of biological mechanisms that narrow the window of opportunity for when it’s easy for older people to fall asleep.

This age-related finding could have everyday relevance – “being careful about how much light affects your circadian clock could be more and more important to sleep as you get older,” the researchers said. If your body’s only willing to sleep between fairly limited hours, you’re best off listening to it and switching off that TV.

Meanwhile, women were found to get more sleep than men – 30 minutes more, on average – thanks both to going to bed earlier and waking up later. The gender difference was greatest in mid-life so that middle-age men are the demographic group getting the least sleep, on average.

In terms of exposure to outdoor, natural light, app users who had more of this tended to report going to sleep earlier and sleeping more, which is as you’d expect based on the effect of daylight hours on the brain’s circadian clock.

The researchers concluded that their results “point to the suppression of circadian signaling at bedtime as an important target for clinical sleep intervention; and suggest that age-related differences in the window during which sleep can occur are evidenced on a global scale”. Aside from these specific insights into sleep, the group also said their findings show the power of modern smartphone technologies as a research tool. “”This is a cool triumph of citizen science,” said co-author Daniel Forger in a press release.

A global quantification of “normal” sleep schedules using smarphone data

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

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Leaders smile in a way that says they’re feeling the emotions their followers crave

Trump’s grin may reflect the American
aspiration for high excitement

Deep into these highly-charged US presidential primaries, I’m taken by the colourful – sometimes cartoonish – diversity of personas on display. But despite their political and personality differences, new research in the journal Emotion suggests that if these American leadership aspirants are like other US leaders, they are all likely to have at least one thing in common – the way they smile will be coloured by the “ideal affect” of their culture: the high excitement of the American Way.

A large multinational research team led by Jeanne L. Tsai, pored over reams of photographs of leaders, and employed Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to analyse their facial expressions. The researchers were smile-hunting, and they were specifically interested in two variants: calm smiles, which involve a wrinkling of the eyes and a widening of the mouth, and excited smiles, which involve extra muscle action to part the lips and open the jaw. They hypothesised that leaders of nations that prize high arousal positive emotions – as the US has been shown to do – should be keen to demonstrate these through excited smiles. Meanwhile, calm smiles should be preferred by Chinese and other cultures that consider lower arousal emotions to be more desirable. In short, they wanted to test the idea that political leaders manifest the feelings that voters aspire to experience themselves.

The researchers began by looking at close to 500 official, posed photographs of US and Chinese leaders, from government, business and university positions. No significant cultural differences were found for calm smile rates, but this is likely because the Chinese leaders overwhelmingly preferred serious expressions to smiles, and calm smiles were rare in both cultures. In contrast, American leaders not only smiled more often, but they showed an abundance of excited smiling – overall, there were six times as many of these smiles in the US photos compared with the Chinese.

But this finding might have nothing to do with people’s aspirations. Maybe Americans, including American leaders, are simply more excitable than the Chinese and people from other cultures. To investigate further, the researchers gathered data on a wider range of countries – more Eastern ones including Japan and South Korea, and more Western ones including Germany, the UK and also Mexico. They analysed thousands of photos of leaders drawn from these countries’ respective legislative assemblies, and they asked roughly 150 students per nation to rate emotion words such as “euphoric” and “quiet” in terms of how typical and ideal these feelings are in their culture. In addition, the researchers looked at differences between the countries in terms of their development, wealth and democracy.

Tsai and his colleagues found that nations that idealise high-energy positive emotions were more likely to have excited smiling leaders, even after controlling statistically for the influence of other national differences, including wealth or the typical levels of high arousal experienced in each country. A similar pattern held for calm smiles, which turned out to be most frequent in France and Germany where low arousal positive emotions are the most idealised.

These new findings are consistent with past research that’s shown differences in national culture manifest more strongly in the emotions that people consider ideal, rather than in the emotional states which make up our lives – our actual emotional experiences are more heavily coloured by our individual dispositions and by human commonalities.

Trump, Clinton, Sanders and Rubio may be tight-lipped and statesmanlike at times, but look out for that bared-teeth grin emanating from their official feeds and photo-shoots. Not because it reflects how these would-be leaders feel. But because it’s a signal of the emotion that the American people crave.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Tsai, J., Ang, J., Blevins, E., Goernandt, J., Fung, H., Jiang, D., Elliott, J., Kölzer, A., Uchida, Y., Lee, Y., Lin, Y., Zhang, X., Govindama, Y., & Haddouk, L. (2016). Leaders’ smiles reflect cultural differences in ideal affect. Emotion, 16 (2), 183-195 DOI: 10.1037/emo0000133

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

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This woman went hitchhiking in a hijab, for science

According to evolutionary psychology, just as animals and birds sing and dance and build houses to communicate their sexual interest to others, we humans do things like wear red, tell jokes, drive fancy cars and, well yes, we sing and dance too. A consistent finding in this area is that people’s attractiveness to others depends on whether their appearance communicates an interest in short or long-term sexual commitment, and moreover, whether this matches what a potential suitor is looking for. For example, there’s evidence that heterosexual women interested in casual sex are more likely to wear clothing that they think will attract men (not the most surprising research finding), and that this kind of clothing increases their attractiveness to men as a partner for casual sex, but not as a partner for marriage. The vast majority of this research has so far been conducted in the West, but a new field study out of Iran bucks the trend.

Farid Pazhoohi and Robert Burriss asked a 25-year-old woman to stand on the same busy, well-lit street in Shiraz, Iran on two consecutive Monday nights until 1000 cars has passed. The first week she wore relatively liberal clothing – a black hijab and tight black clothing that revealed her body shape. The second week she wore a black chador which conceals the entire head and body (except the face) beneath a black cloak. The idea was to see how many drivers would stop to offer the woman a lift. When the woman wore a chidor, only 39 drivers stopped for her, compared with 214 drivers who stopped when she wore the more liberal costume (all drivers who stopped were male). This nearly 7-fold increase in interest is similar to, but much larger than, the effect seen in French research in which male drivers were more likely to stop for a woman who was smiling, had large breasts, wore red or makeup.

The researchers said: “Our results extend the findings of previous studies in Europe and North America on male helping behavior and female attractiveness to Iran, a nation where courtship behav- ior and dress are constrained by stricter social mores and laws than apply in the West.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Pazhoohi, F., & Burriss, R. (2016). Hijab and “Hitchhiking”: A Field Study Evolutionary Psychological Science, 2 (1), 32-37 DOI: 10.1007/s40806-015-0033-5

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

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Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test

There’s a simple and fun way to test a toddler’s self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it.

This is called the “mirror self-recognition test” (it’s used to test self-awareness in animals too) and by age two most kids “pass” the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased. Using a more physical and social self-awareness test, Josephine Ross at the University of Dundee and her colleagues actually find more precocious performance in a non-Western (Zambian) group of toddlers.

The researchers tested 33 mother-child pairs in Ikelenge, Zambia (a rural culture that emphasises the important of interdependence); 31 in Dundee, Scotland (a typical Western culture that emphasises independence and autonomy); and 22 in Istanbul, Turkey (a mixed culture that emphasises both autonomy and interdependence). The children were all aged between 15 and 18 months.

The researchers first filmed the mothers and their children playing and looked for differences in their parenting style: whether it was more “distal” involving more talk and less physical contact, which is typical of Western cultures, or more “proximal”, with more physical contact, which is more typical of non-Western interdependent cultures. During play, the mothers put a red sticker on their child’s head. Then the children were given the mirror self-recognition test. The Scottish children showed the highest pass rate (47 per cent) followed by the Turkish children (41 per cent) and the Zambian children (15 per cent), consistent with past research.

Next, the researchers used a different test of self-awareness that actually originates in the writings of the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. The children were asked to push a toy trolley toward their mother while they were standing on a mat that was attached to the bottom of the trolley. To succeed they must realise that their body is holding down the mat and step off it to push the trolley.

Whereas the mirror test is about recognising that the self has a distinct visual identity (a concept consistent with Western notions of an independent, autonomous self), the trolley test is more about realising that the self is a physical object like other objects. There is also a more social, collaborative element to the test because it involves pushing the trolley towards another person. The researchers reasoned that children raised in a more interdependent culture would excel at the task and that’s exactly what they found. Fifty per cent of the Zambian children passed the test, compared with 57 per cent of the Turkish and 23 per cent of the Scottish.

The measures of parenting style that the researchers looked at did not explain much of the cultural variance in performance, but they said that might be because they looked at the wrong things, such as eye contact and physical proximity and future research will need to explore other factors, such as mothers’ attitudes towards teaching their children interdependence versus autonomy.

The Zambian children were less familiar with mirrors than the other children, but they were given the chance to explore one before the self-awareness test, and anyway, past research has shown that performance on the test is not related to mirror experience. The Zambian children were also more precocious walkers than the other children, which you might think would explain their superior performance (compared with the Scottish kids) on the trolley test, but in fact performance on the trolley test was not related to walking ability. In short, the researchers favour the idea that the cultural differences on the two tests are due to the distinct perspectives on the self that are encouraged in the different cultures, rather than to familiarity with the test equipment or simple physical skill.

“Whatever the explanation for the cultural difference,” the researchers said, “this study highlights the necessity of recognising that the measurement of self-awareness is inextricably bound with the context of our development. More care needs to be taken in measuring self-awareness if valid cross-cultural comparisons are to be made.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12387

further reading
Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test
Study uncovers dramatic cross-cultural differences in babies’ sitting ability

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

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There are at least 216 foreign words for positive emotional states and concepts that we don’t have in English

One criticism levelled at positive psychology is that it takes an overly Western-centric view of the lighter side of human experience. Addressing that problem, Tim Lomas at the University of East London has begun a deep investigation into all the non-English words for positive emotions and concepts that don’t have a direct translation in English.

Publishing his initial findings in the The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas’ hope is not only that we might learn more about the positive psychology of other cultures, but that hearing of these words might enrich our own emotional lives. Of course there is a long-running debate about how much words influence our thoughts and emotions. Few people these days would advocate the idea that you can’t feel an emotion if you don’t have a word for it. But Lomas argues that at a minimum, if you don’t have a way of identifying a specific emotion or feeling, it “becomes just another unconceptualised ripple in the ongoing flux of subjective experience.”

Lomas’ method was to trawl websites devoted to “untranslatable words” (i.e. words that don’t have a single corresponding word in English), then to do some googling and finally to consult colleagues and students. This way he ended up with a list of 216 untranslatable words for positive emotional states and concepts. To find approximate English definitions of the words he used online dictionaries and academic references. Here are some examples of the untranslatable positive words that Lomas has organised into three main categories:

Words relating to feelings, including the subcategories of positive and complex feelings (definitions are taken from Lomas’ paper):

Gula – Spanish for the desire to eat simply for the taste
Sobremesa – Spanish for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing
Mbukimvuki – Bantu for “to shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance”
Schnapsidee – German for coming up with an ingenious plan when drunk
Volta – Greek for leisurely strolling the streets
Gokotta – Swedish for waking up early to listen to bird song
Suaimhneas croi – Gaelic for the happiness that comes from finishing a task
Iktsuarpok – Inuit for the anticipation felt when waiting for someone
Vacilando – Greek for the idea of wandering, where the act of travelling is more important than the destination
Gumusservi – Turkish for the glimmer that moonlight makes on water

Words relating to relationships, including the subcategories of intimacy and more general prosociality:

Nakama – Japanese for friends who one considers like family
Kanyininpa – Aboriginal Pintupi for a relationship between holder and held, akin to the deep nurturing feelings experienced by a parent for their child
Gigil – Philippine Tagalog for the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
Kilig – Tagalog for the butterflies in the stomach you get when interacting with someone you find attractive
Sarang – Korean for when you wish to be with someone until death
Myotahapea – Finnish for vicarious embarrassment
Mudita – Sanskrit for revelling in someone else’s joy
Karma – the well known Buddhist term for when ethical actions lead to future positive states
Firgun – Hebrew for saying nice things to someone simply to make them feel good
Asabiyyah – Arabic for a sense of community spirit

Words relating to character, including the subcategories of resources and spirituality:

Sitzfleisch – German for the ability to persevere through hard or boring tasks (literally “sit meat”)
Baraka – Arabic for a gift of spiritual energy that can be passed from one person to another
Jugaad – Hindi for the ability to get by or make do
Desenrascanco – Portuguese for the ability to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
Sprezzatura – Italian for when all art and effort are concealed beneath a “studied carelessness”
Pihentagyu – Hungarian for quick witted people who come up with sophisticated jokes and solutions (literally “with a relaxed brain”)
Kao pu – Chinese for someone who is reliable and responsible and gets things done without causing problems for others
Prajna – Sanskrit for intellectual wisdom and experiential insight
Wu Wei – Chinese for “do nothing” (literally) but meaning that one’s actions are entirely natural and effortless [check out the recent Psychologist magazine article on this concept]
Bodhi – Sanskrit for when one has gained complete insight into nature

Lomas is continually updating his list online and he welcomes any suggestions. He says compiling the list is just the start of this project – as a next step he suggests that each word now deserves its own paper “explicating and analysing them in rich detail”.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993

further reading
How language reflects the balance of good and bad in the world
How we see half the world through the prism of language

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

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