Category: Emotion

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.

Continue reading “An influential theory about emotion and decision-making just failed a new test”

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

A white voodoo doll with five red pins in itBy 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”

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.

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

This one specific brain area was smaller in participants who were in love

A happy couple runs through waves on sunlit beachBy Christian Jarrett

Poets have long described the mind-altering effects of a passionate relationship – “my love’s a noble madness” wrote John Dryden. “Of all the emotions,” said Cicero, “there is none more violent than love. Love is a madness.” Psychology research is beginning to back this up. A recent study found that students in the early days of a passionate relationship exhibited reduced cognitive control in basic psychological tests. Now brain researchers in Japan have started to look for the neural correlates of these effects. Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, Hiroaki Kawamichi and his colleagues report the results of their brain imaging experiment showing that participants in the relatively early stages of a romantic relationship had reduced grey matter in a region of the brain involved in processing reward, which might suggest their brains had adjusted to the intensity of their love affair.

Continue reading “This one specific brain area was smaller in participants who were in love”

Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain

ThinkstockPhotos-488470018.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Imagine a person is terrified of dogs because they once suffered a terrible bite. Following long-established techniques, their psychologist might gradually expose them to dogs in a safe setting, until their fear gradually faded away. This “exposure therapy” can be effective but it has some serious drawbacks, including the fact that the person might at first find it traumatic to be close to dogs again.

What if there were a way to remove this person’s fear of dogs at a subconscious level, without the need for any traumatic exposure? Such an approach has now come much closer to clinical reality thanks to a new study reported recently in Nature Human Behaviour. The findings suggest that neurofeedback can be used to unlearn a fear by pairing relevant non-conscious neural activity with a reward, such as money. Significant technical hurdles remain before this becomes a real-life treatment, but it’s an exciting breakthrough.  Continue reading “Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain”

Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation

10060586965_48caa648e4_kBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

Television programs portraying ordinary people in unexpected situations are almost as old as the medium of television itself. First aired in 1984, Candid Camera is often seen as a prototype of the reality show. Its premise was simple – unsuspecting people were confronted with unusual, funny situations and filmed with hidden cameras. However, the genre exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and 2000s with the global success of such series as Survivor, Idol, and Big Brother, and to this day many people continue to abandon their own activities for the voyeuristic other.

Reality shows have not only amassed incredible popularity but have also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism. Among the most serious complaints is the allegation that the shows rely on viewers’ enjoyment of the humiliation and degradation of participants. It is quite difficult to find an individual who is indifferent to such programmes. We either hate reality shows or we watch them, quite often without considering why.

Up until now, scholarly opinion on the subject has been divided. Some maintain that the shows’ appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and is thus driven by positive feelings like empathy and compassion. Others claim that reality TV viewers are driven by a voyeuristic desire to intrude on others and to see them in their most private and embarrassing moments. Michal Hershman Shitrit and Jonathan Cohen from University of Haifa in Israel recently tested these contrasting perspectives for a study in the Journal of Media Psychology. Continue reading “Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation”

Women who suppress their emotions are as good at mental rotation as men

Female head and refresh iconBy Christian Jarrett

In the ongoing, complex debates about the extent and meaning of psychological differences between the sexes, mental rotation ability is usually quoted as one of the most robust examples of where a difference can be found. This is the ability to rotate objects in your mind’s eye, and while there is a lot of overlap between men’s and women’s performance, there is plenty of evidence that men, on average, are better at this than women. Can we take this to reflect a genuine, specific difference in average cognitive ability between the sexes?

Not necessarily. A new, small study in Psychological Research reminds us why this field of science is so difficult to interpret. The findings suggest that the mental rotation ability of women who habitually suppress the public display of their emotions is equal to that of men. In other words, sex differences in mental rotation ability may reflect an emotional difference between the sexes – emotional suppression is known to be more common in men than women – rather than a cognitive difference. Continue reading “Women who suppress their emotions are as good at mental rotation as men”

Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to

By Christian Jarrett

The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.

The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.” Continue reading “Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to”

Three labs just failed to replicate the finding that a quick read of literary fiction boosts your empathy

Book charging brain concept 3d illustration on gradient backgrowBy Alex Fradera

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” So said Joyce Carol Oates, and many more of us suspect that reading good fiction gives us insight into other people.

Past research backs this up, for example providing evidence that people with a long history of reading tend to be better at judging the mental states of others. But this work has always been open to the explanation that sensitive people are drawn to books, rather than books making people more sensitive. However in 2013 a study came along that appeared to change the game: researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano showed that exposure to a single passage of literary fiction actually improved readers’ ability to identify other people’s feelings.

This finding sent ripples through popular media, even prompting some to suggest strategies for everyday life like leafing through a book before you go on a date. But since then, as is the usual pattern in psychology these days, a struggle has ensued to establish the robustness of the eye-catching 2013 result. Continue reading “Three labs just failed to replicate the finding that a quick read of literary fiction boosts your empathy”

Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower

By Christian Jarrett

Those people with their gym-toned bodies and high-flying careers. Somehow they always seem to make different choices than the rest of us – fruit over chocolate, work over TV. It’s as if they are capable of super-human willpower, but a new study that’s currently in press at Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests it’s not so. Achieving your work and fitness goals is not about exercising self-control, the findings imply, rather it’s about avoiding temptation in the first place.  Continue reading “Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower”