Category: Emotion

Feeling awe can sometimes be awful

Tornadic supercell in the American plainsBy Alex Fradera

Most research into the emotion of awe – a response to something vast or overwhelming – has focused on its positive upsides, classing it alongside delight or pleasure. But the University of California’s Greater Good research programme recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the first full investigation of what they call “threatening awe” defined as a strong feeling of wonder and fear.

Amie Gordon and her team looked at times where people felt awe in response to overwhelming stimuli like huge storms or the vastness of the universe, or were exposed for the first time to accounts of historical horrors such as the Vietnam war. Skin conductance and heart rate measures showed that feeling the threatening version of awe activated the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which is associated with negative emotional states. The data also suggested that feeling threatening awe rather than the positive kind may be influenced by thoughts which make us actively feel powerless – the prospect of being trapped on the pitiless ocean – rather than simply small, such as reflecting on the vastness of the cosmos.

Whereas previous work has shown awe to be associated with wellbeing and life satisfaction, one of the new experiments involving 603 participants found that an ominous video with swirling tornadoes, associated with threat-based awe, produced lower wellbeing compared to a positive awe-filled video and even a neutral one. Gordon’s team pointed out that the word awe produces two offspring with very different connotations: awesome and awful. Gazing into the face of God, or the vastness of the cosmos, isn’t a sunshine and kittens experience: awe exists in the “upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”.

The dark side of the sublime: Distinguishing a threat-based variant of awe

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

Two-year-olds seem to find helping others as rewarding as helping themselves

smiling child holding hand of woman at beachBy Christian Jarrett

If you’re in need of some renewed faith in human nature, the research literature on altruism by toddlers is a great place to look. Charming studies have shown that little children will readily go out of their way to help you, such as picking up things you’ve dropped, or passing you stuff you can’t reach. They can even do “paternalistic helping” which is when they ignore your specific request to help you in a way that you’ll find even more beneficial.

There are some evolutionarily tinged theoretical explanations for why children have these instincts: we’re a highly social species so it makes sense that we’re naturally inclined to help each other as a way to gain status and receive reciprocal favours later. A new paper in Developmental Psychology has taken a slightly different approach, asking: what is it, in the moment, that motivates toddlers to help others? Robert Hepach and his colleagues, including Michael Tomasello who’s conducted a lot of the landmark work on the development of altruism, report that toddlers are helpful, at least in part, because, well, they enjoy it. In fact, based on a new body-language measure of their emotion, they seem to find helping someone else about as pleasurable as they find helping themselves.

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We know what will make us happy, why do we watch TV instead?

Couch Potato Watching TVBy Christian Jarrett

The luxury microwave meal was delicious, the house is warm, work’s going OK, but you’re just not feeling very happy. Some positive psychologists believe this is because many of us in rich, Western countries spend too much of our free time on passive activities, like bingeing on Netflix and browsing Twitter, rather than on active, psychologically demanding activities, like cooking, sports or playing music, that allow the opportunity to experience “flow” – that magic juncture where your abilities only just meet the demands of the challenge. A new paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines this dilemma. Do we realise that pursuing more active, challenging activities will make us happier in the long-run? If so, why then do we opt to spend so much more time lazing around engaged in activities that are pleasant in the moment, but unlikely to bring any lasting fulfilment?

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The reasons why, once we start worrying, some of us just can’t stop

thinkstockphotos-519388062By Christian Jarrett

A certain amount of worrying is a normal part of life, especially these days with barely a moment passing without a disconcerting headline landing in your news feed. But for some people, their worrying reaches pathological levels. They just can’t stop wondering “What if …?”. It becomes distressing and feels out of control. In the formal jargon, they would likely be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but excessive worrying is also a part of other conditions like panic disorder. There are many factors that contribute to anxiety problems in general, but a new review in Biological Psychology homes in on the cognitive and emotional factors that specifically contribute to prolonged bouts of worry. Its take-home points make an interesting read for anyone who considers themselves a worrier, and for therapists, the review highlights some approaches to help anxious clients get a hold of their excessive worrying.

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A fear of feeling guilty might be key to some forms of OCD

On/Off SwitchBy Christian Jarrett

There’s increasing recognition that our vulnerability to mental health problems isn’t just about how much we are prone to certain emotions such as anxiety and low mood, but also how we relate to those emotions. If we find them aversive and intolerable, we’re more likely to develop problems. A new study in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy applies this principle to people’s experience of guilt and their vulnerability to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), helping make sense of why past research has been inconsistent on whether guilt-proneness is a risk factor for OCD or not. Gabriele Melli and his colleagues provide new evidence that the inconsistent results might be because the key factor is not how much guilt you suffer, but whether you’re highly guilt-sensitive. They found that clients with OCD who said they found guilt unbearable were especially likely to have OCD symptoms related to compulsive checking, such as checking doors are locked and ovens switched off. Though preliminary, the results point to new ways to help clients with this kind of OCD.

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A promising study suggests teachers can train 8-year-olds in Theory of Mind

Teacher Calling on StudentBy Christian Jarrett

Theory of Mind is psychologist-speak for our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to recognise that their thoughts and beliefs can be different from our own. Children begin to develop this ability around age three to four: it starts off fairly basic, in terms of understanding people can hold false beliefs, becoming more sophisticated as they get older, eventually taking in concepts like double bluffing and faux pas.

Of course, as with most things, kids vary in how adept they are at Theory of Mind, and there’s evidence that those with more skills in this area benefit in all sorts of ways, from their relationships to school achievement. Importantly, experiments have shown that this isn’t something that’s fixed, rather children can be trained fairly easily to improve their Theory of Mind by spending time talking about and reflecting upon characters’ perspectives in social scenarios.

These previous training studies have been contrived experiments delivered by researchers with the sessions conducted outside of normal classes. A promising but preliminary new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology has made an important leap, taking the training to a more real-life setting, showing that a brief teacher-led intervention was able to boost eight- to nine-year-olds’ Theory of Mind, with the benefits still demonstrable two months later.

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The power of rituals: they calm nerves and boost performance

Haka dancersBy Alex Fradera

A tough interview or critical match can generate such anxiety that it ends up sabotaging our hopes and fulfilling our fears. People adopt different ploys to drive it away, from meditating to enjoying a cigarette. But it’s another tactic at the centre of new research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: the power of ritual. Many top-level performers use ritual to prepare for their game or show, whether this be chewing on exactly two cookies or chanting Latin – and the new research suggests many of the rest of us do too, with around half of a surveyed sample of participants admitting to trying it at least once. But is there a point to it?

The research, led by Harvard Business School’s Alison Woods Brooks, suggests there is. In a pair of studies, 250 participants had to cope with the pressure of having to sing part of a song to a stranger, the Journey “classic” Don’t Stop Believing. Just before they put their voice on show, participants in one condition were asked to conduct a short ritual: draw a picture of their feelings, sprinkle salt on it, recite a countdown aloud before throwing the paper in the trash.

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An influential theory about emotion and decision-making just failed a new test

balloonBy Christian Jarrett

It’s a common belief that to make optimal decisions we need to be more logical and less emotional, rather like Mr Spock in Star Trek. In fact, much evidence argues against this. Consider the behaviour of patients whose brain damage has made them unusually cold and logical. Rather than this helping them make decisions, they often seem paralysed by indecision.

These patients, who usually have damage to parts of their frontal cortex, also tend to perform poorly on a game that’s used by psychologists to measure risk-taking behaviour: the Iowa Gambling Task. The neurologist and author Antonio Damasio thinks this is because they have lost the ability to incorporate gut instincts – literally, their visceral reactions – into their decision-making, an idea that forms the basis of his Somatic Marker Hypothesis. This hypothesis has been very influential but the evidence supporting it, now gathered over several decades, is nearly all based on research using the Iowa Gambling Task.

In a recent paper in Decision, two British psychologists tested the Somatic Marker Hypothesis in a new context, the Balloon Analogue Risk Task, which involves deciding how far to pump a balloon. They found little evidence to support the central tenet of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, the idea that our physiological reactions shape our decisions.

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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.

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Men: this study suggests it’s a really bad idea to cry in front of your colleagues

Businessman cries. Boss in puddle of tears. ToscaBy Alex Fradera

We’re supposed to be hungry for workplace feedback: after all, it can help us to eliminate blind spots in our self-knowledge, give us focus and surpass relationship issues. Often, though, it can be a bit hard to take. On the wrong day, when the feedback’s particularly upsetting, it may even bring us to tears. If this happens to you and you’re a man, according to new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, it could spell bad news for your career prospects.

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