“After decades of debate, a consensus is emerging about the way self-esteem develops across the lifespan.” So wrote a pair of psychologists – one from Kings College London, the other from the University of California Davis – in a paper published back in 2005. That “consensus” is that self-esteem is relatively high in childhood, drops during adolescence, rises gradually through adulthood before dropping sharply in old age. But a new paper suggests that there’s a major blip in this pattern for one huge part of the population. Becoming a mother triggers a decline in self-esteem and relationship satisfaction over at least the next three years, according to research on nearly 85,000 mothers in Norway, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Self-control has been dubbed a “master virtue” – one which enables so many others, such as selflessness and perseverance. Indeed, better control of short-term impulses in conflict with long-term goals is linked to everything from greater health to greater wealth. It’s no surprise, then, that schools are adopting strategies designed to improve their students’ self-control, under the assumption that there is no downside. But is there…?
Some researchers have argued that there might be. High levels of self-control might promote obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or a dysfunctional kind of perfectionism, in which a person rigidly strives for unreachable standards. Another potential downside has been suggested: “Too much” self-control might lead to “frequent and sometimes unnecessary regulation of emotions, thoughts and behaviours, resulting in a life marked by rigidity and blandness, thereby lowering subjective wellbeing” note the authors of anew paper on the topic, published in the Journal of Personality.
It’s a stereotype that has improved a little over the years but still persists: women are more emotionally expressive than men. Like Bridget Jones, we constantly reveal exactly how we’re feeling, while men, Mark Darcy-like, look on impassively.
Although prior evidence suggests that women really do smile more often, a new study, published in PLOS One, has considered a greater variety of facial expressions, and it finds that the gender pattern is more complex, with some emotions displayed more by men than women. Arguably, this work helps to reveal not only differences in the emotional signals men and women send to others, but also differences in the emotions that we feel.
Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?
In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.
“The truth is that everyone is bored,” according to Albert Camus – but a new article in the journal Emotion gets beyond sweeping statements in the most comprehensive study of everyday boredom to date. The nationally-representative sample of 4000 American adults used an iPhone app to record their mood every waking half-hour, with boredom turning up in only three per cent of entries. When boredom was present, it was often mixed with other negative emotions, like loneliness and sadness, and rarely with positive ones. Surprisingly, boredom had a strong relationship with anger, which goes against the idea that boredom, itself low-arousal, cannot mix with more intense feelings.
Emotions can be fleeting and superficial, for example imagine the split-second of anger you experience after missing the bus. But other “peak emotional states” are more powerful and they are accompanied by intense physical reactions, such as crying or “the chills”. Often these physical manifestations accompany extreme fear or sadness, but they can also occur when we admire a magnificent sunset or enjoy a beautiful piece of music.
Now a study published in Scientific Reports by Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga has taken a closer look at the contrasting psychology and physiology underlying the chills and tears many of us experience when we’re profoundly moved by a song.
Humans are infovores, hungry to discover, and nothing holds more fascination than the future. Once we looked for answers through divination, now science can forecast significant events such as the onset of certain hereditary disease. But the fact that some people choose not to know – even when information is accessible, and has a bearing on their lives – has encouraged scientists, including Gerd Gigerenzer and Rocio Garcia-Retamero, to try to map out the limits of our appetite for knowledge. Their recent study in Psychological Review suggests that it is a fear of what we might discover – and wishing that we’d never known – that often drives us to deliberate ignorance.
When you experience frustrations at work – spats with colleagues, or last-minute demands – it’s natural to want to voice your feelings. And surely it’s healthier. After all, better out than in! Not according to new evidence in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that shows complaining about negative events actually cements their impact. The researchers Evangelia Demeroutia and Russell Cropanzano recommend trying instead to meet the slings and arrows of everyday indignity with all the “sportsmanship” you can muster.
Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.
For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.
A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.
The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.