Category: Emotion

“Strongest evidence yet” for ego depletion – the idea that self control is a limited resource

GettyImages-543744061.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For years, “ego depletion” has been a dominant theory in the study of self control. This is the intuitive idea that self control or willpower is a limited resource, such that the more you use up in one situation, the less you have left over to deploy in another. It makes sense of the everyday experience of when you come home after a hard day at the office, abandon all constructive plans, and instead binge on snacks in front of the TV.

The trouble is, the theory has taken some hard knocks lately, including a failed joint replication attempt by 23 separate labs. Critics have pointed out that most supportive studies – and there are over 200 of them – are small and underpowered. A meta-analysis that corrected for a positive bias in the existing literature concluded that ego depletion is not real. A study in India – where there’s a cultural belief that exercising self-control is energising – even found evidence for “reverse ego depletion“.

It’s not easy to weigh the evidence for and against, but perhaps the science is tipping back in favour of ego depletion. Two new studies, made publicly available on the PsyArXiv preprint website, provide what the researchers at Texas A&M University, led by Katie Garrison, describe as “the strongest evidence yet of the ego depletion effect”.

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Replication failure: No evidence that big smilers live longer

GettyImages-659908692.jpgBy Emma Young

What’s in a smile? According to a widely reported 2010 study of US major league baseball players, which we covered here at BPS Research Digest, one important answer is: an indication of how long the smiler will live.

By analysing official individual photos of players from the 1952 baseball season, and then looking at subsequent death records, Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger at Wayne State University, Detroit, concluded that players who’d smiled like they meant it – with full “Duchenne smiles“, which involve muscles around the eyes as well as the mouth – lived on average seven years longer than players who’d posed with less convincing grins.

The result was taken to support existing evidence that happier people tend to live longer. It also seemed to show that smiles in posed photos – even on just one occasion – are a fairly reliable signal of people’s underlying emotional disposition and therefore their likely longevity.

But a new replication and extension of the Baseball photo study has produced very different results. This is important, because the idea that happier people live longer is widely promoted, and has implications both for individuals and policy-makers.

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The deactivation effect: What 15 minutes device-free solitude does to your emotions

GettyImages-493659014.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Psychology research has tended to portray solitude as an unpleasant experience. Studies conducted in the 1970s and 1990s suggested a clear pattern: people usually felt less happy when alone as compared with having company. More recently, researchers showed that their volunteers preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit in silence with their own thoughts. However, in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a research team led by They-vy Nguyen at the University of Rochester explains the shortcomings in this earlier research and presents a more nuanced picture, showing how 15 minutes solitude can have beneficial effects on our emotions. Their results suggest that if you want to lower the intensity of your emotions, positive and negative, time spent alone may be just the ticket.

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Ten-year study finds loneliness and self-centeredness appear to be mutually reinforcing

By Emma Young

We usually think of loneliness as a condition with no redeeming features. Certainly, chronic loneliness is linked to poorer physical and psychological health, as well as unfavourable effects on personality. But an evolutionary model of loneliness, pioneered by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, US, proposes that it has an adaptive function, in that it:

  1. makes people want to do something about absent or unsatisfactory social relationships, and
  2. encourages people to focus on their own interests and welfare

The second proposed motivational force is the focus of a new study, led John Cacioppo, and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers predicted that feelings of loneliness would make people more self-centred – and this is exactly what they found.

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The psychology behind why we value physical objects over digital

GettyImages-467559030.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

When technological advances paved the way for digital books, films and music, many commentators predicted the demise of their physical equivalents. It hasn’t happened, so far at least. For instance, while there is a huge market in e-books, print books remain dominant. A large part of the reason comes down to psychology – we value things that we own, or anticipate owning, in large part because we see them as an extension of ourselves. And, stated simply, it’s easier to develop meaningful feelings of ownership over a physical entity than a digital one. A new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research presents a series of studies that demonstrate this difference. “Our findings illustrate how psychological ownership engenders a difference in the perceived value of physical and digital goods, yielding new insights into the relationship between consumers and their possessions,” the researchers said.

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The effect of emotions on your behaviour depends partly on your expectations

GettyImages-598165432.jpgBy Emma Young

Will you get a better result from a business negotiation if you get angry or remain calm? What about a creative task – will you come up with more solutions to a problem if you’re excited, or relaxed?

The answer, according a new study in Emotion, is that it depends at least in part on what you expect the impacts of emotions to be.

Some theories linking emotion and behaviour hold that emotions activate fixed behavioural “programmes” (anger activates aggressive actions, for example). Others hold that while emotions do influence behaviour, how they do so depends upon the individual’s past experiences, and the current context. (Faced with a bullying boss, the anger you feel may lead you respond aggressively, if this has worked for you in the past; alternatively, it may prompt you to go off and strengthen bonds with colleagues.)

Maya Tamir and Yochanan Bigman at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, reasoned that if this second class of theory is correct, a given emotion will lead to a particular behaviour if a person expects it to do so – but if that expectation is not there, it won’t.

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For people in Japan, happiness isn’t associated with better health

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In the USA but not Japan, more positive emotions correlated with a healthier cholesterol profile (low ratio of total cholesterol to “good”/HDC cholesterol); from Yoo et al 2017

By Emma Young

Feeling positive emotions is good for your physical health, right? There’s certainly evidence in support of the idea. But it’s mostly come from studies of people living in Western countries. Now a study published in Psychological Science, concludes that for people in Japan, it may not be the case.

While positive emotions, like happiness, are seen as a good thing in the US, UK, and elsewhere in Europe, the picture is different in east Asia: they aren’t seen being as necessarily desirable, and negative emotions aren’t considered to be all that bad. As the researchers, led by Jiah Yoo at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, write in their introduction: “No study to date has directly compared the biological correlates of positive affect across cultures.”

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Women know better than men what other women are thinking and feeling

By Emma Young

If you want to know what a woman is really thinking, ask another woman. That’s the message of a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which was designed to probe our ability to use other people’s posture, facial expressions and behaviours, as well our interpretations of ambiguous statements, to infer what’s going on in their mind – no matter what they’re actually saying.

The research team, led by Renata Wacker at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, recruited 304 women and 241 men, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The volunteers were put through possibly the most irritating – though potentially clinically useful – movie-watching experience imaginable.

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New research reveals the long-term toll of keeping secrets

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It is mind-wandering about our secrets that most seems to take a toll, rather than the job of concealing them

By Alex Fradera

Secrets burden minds. To understand how, researchers have previously focused on the act of concealment during one-off social interactions, showing that keeping a secret is draining and can increase anxiety. But what about the longer-term toll? A new paper in Attitudes and Social Cognition describes ten studies on the impact of secrecy day-on-day, showing how the burden of a secret peppers our waking life with reminders and periods of brooding.

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Learning more about yourself could help you better understand others

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The intervention used in this research was based on the Internal Family Systems model that sees an individual’s personality as made up of different sub-personalities

By guest blogger Marianne Cezza

As social creatures, accurately recognising and understanding the mental states of others (their intentions, knowledge, beliefs, etc.) is crucial to our social bonds and interactions. In fact, in today’s multi-cultural world and strongly divided political climate, this skill – known as Theory of Mind – is perhaps more important than ever. A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement proposes that an effective way to develop our Theory of Mind lies in learning to better understand ourselves.

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