Category: Emotion

Updated: A re-replication of a psychological classic provides a cautionary tale about overhyped science

Screenshot 2018-08-15 09.55.01
via Strack et al, 1988

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

Update: On Twitter, some researchers argued, reasonably in my view, that I wasn’t quite sceptical enough in relating these findings. See the update at the end of this post for more details.”

If you wanted a poster child for the replication crisis and the controversy it has unleashed within the field of psychology, it would be hard to do much better than Fritz Strack’s findings. In 1988, the German psychologist and his colleagues published research that appeared to show that if your mouth is forced into a smile, you become a bit happier, and if it’s forced into a frown, you become a bit sadder. He pulled this off by asking volunteers to view a set of cartoons (paper ones, not animated) while holding a pen in their mouth, either with their teeth (forcing their mouth into a smile), or with their lips (forcing a frown), and to then use the pen in this position to rate how amused they were by the cartoons. The smilers were more amused, and the frowners less so – and best of all, they mostly didn’t discern the true purpose of the experiment, eliminating potential placebo-effect explanations.

This basic idea, that our facial expressions can feed back into our psychological state and behavior, goes back at least as far as Darwin and William James, but “facial feedback”, as it is known, had never been demonstrated in such an elegant and rigorous-seeming manner. Over time, this style of experiment was replicated and expanded upon, and soon it came to be considered a true blockbuster, so famous it found its ways into psychology textbooks, as well as popular books and articles citing it as an example of the unexpectedly subtle ways our bodies and environments can affect us psychologically. Often, facial feedback has been popularised along the lines of Maybe you can smile your way to happiness!, which added an irresistible self-help element that likely helped spread the idea. Either way, it seemed like a genuinely safe and solid psychological finding. That changed rather abruptly in 2016.  

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Three-week diary study: sex today increases sense of meaning in life tomorrow

By Christian Jarrett

What makes for a good life? Current psychological theory highlights the importance of relationships, belonging and having a sense of purpose. Gratitude, forgiveness, generosity and self-compassion often get a mention too. According to a team of psychologists at George Mason University, there is however a glaring omission. Sex.

“In theoretical models of well-being, sex is rarely discussed and in many seminal articles, ignored,” they write in their new paper published in Emotion.

Todd Kashdan and his colleagues have attempted to correct this oversight with a three-week diary study, in which they looked at the associations between sex frequency and quality and not only positive mood, but also sense of meaning in life. “If an individual gains sexual access to a romantic partner, this should raise momentary affect … and increase one’s sense of self-worth or meaning in life,” they predicted.

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Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

By Christian Jarrett

We’ve all been there: feeling so grateful to a friend or colleague that we hatch the idea of sending them a thank-you message. But then we worry about how to phrase it. And then we figure it probably won’t mean much to them anyway; if anything it could all be a bit awkward. So we don’t bother.

Does this sound familiar? According to a pair of US psychologists, a common failure of perspective means that a lot of us underestimate the positive impact on others (and ourselves) of expressing gratitude, meaning that we miss out on a simple way to improve our social relations and wellbeing. Based on their series of experiments in Psychological Science, Amit Kumar at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago conclude that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect”.

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Audiobooks pack a more powerful emotional punch than film

GettyImages-869794278.jpgBy Emma Young

Audiobook sales are booming, almost doubling in the UK over the past five years. Some are now sophisticated, being voiced by multiple actors and featuring extensive sound effects. But even single-narrator audiobooks are, it’s been argued, more cognitively and emotionally engaging than print – in part because a listener can’t slow down, as they can with a print book. 

As a writer whose latest psychology-themed novel She, Myself and I is now being produced as an audiobook, I can’t help wondering about the benefits, and the costs. Personally, I like to be able to control my pace through a print book, to re-read sentences or paragraphs that I particularly enjoy or that I don’t quite process properly on a first read. 

However, as Daniel Richardson at UCL, and fellow researchers, point out in a new study, available as a pre-print on the bioRxiv service, “Our oldest narratives date back many thousands of years and pre-date the advent of writing… For the majority of human history, stories were synonymous with oral tradition; audiences listened to a story-teller imparting a tale.” Humans did not evolve to read, so perhaps there’s something primordially special about listening to a story. But, as the researchers go on to write, “in the modern era, video has emerged as a major narrative tool as well.” 

So which is more engaging – video or audio? That’s the focus of the new paper. And I’m intrigued. I’ve also sold TV rights to the novel, and TV, of course, is the medium of mass-appeal. If my book is ultimately turned into a TV series, might viewers become more involved in the story than my audiobook listeners? 

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A mental technique called “cognitive reappraisal” makes long-distance running feel easier

GettyImages-635800174.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

When you’re in the middle of a gruelling long-distance run and the pain and fatigue is becoming overwhelming, an obvious strategy is to try to force the subjective experience out of your mind, for example by thinking nice thoughts or focusing on the environment around you. The trouble is, as the physical struggle intensifies, the distraction strategy becomes harder and harder to pull off. According to a new paper in Motivation and Emotion, an alternative approach that holds promise is to practice “cognitive reappraisal” – don’t ignore the sensations as such, but try to view them in a dispassionate way, as if you are a scientist studying running or a journalist reporting on the experience.

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Researchers have compared different cognitive strategies for falling out of love

Screenshot 2018-06-18 10.00.47.pngBy Emma Young

From You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling to Nothing Compares 2 U, there’s no shortage of songs about heartbreak. None, I suspect, contains the line, “Now it’s time to give negative reappraisal a go.” But whether you’ve just been dumped or you’ve done the dumping, if you’re still in love with your ex, this could be your best strategy for falling out of love and moving on, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. 

“Romantic break-ups can have serious consequences including insomnia, reduced immune function, broken heart syndrome, depression and suicide,” note the authors, Sandra Langeslag and Michelle Sanchez at the University of Missouri, St Louis. Strategies that help people to fall out of love could relieve the agony of unrequited love or make it easier to get out of a dysfunctional relationship. 

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Sending a supportive text to your partner can reduce their physiological stress levels, but only if you’re subtle about it

GettyImages-865821668.jpgBy Alex Fradera

The average young adult sends more than 100 texts per day, mainly to offer social support to friends and family. But until now, there has been little evidence whether it helps the recipient or not. New research in Computers in Human Behavior confirms that sending a comforting text to a partner confronted with a difficult task really can make them feel supported. But more surprisingly, the study suggests that to actually reduce their stress, it’s better to send a message that isn’t explicitly supportive.

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A radical new theory proposes that facial expressions are not emotional displays, but “tools for social influence”

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Expressing sadness or seeking protection?

By Emma Young

You’re at a ten-pin bowling alley with some friends, you bowl your first ball – and it’s a strike. Do you instantly grin with delight? Not according to a study of bowlers, who smiled not at a moment of triumph but rather when they pivoted in their lanes, to look at their fellow bowlers. 

That study provided the earliest evidence for a controversial hypothesis, the Behavioural Ecology View (BECV) of facial displays, outlined in detail in a new opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Carlos Crivelli at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK and Alan Fridlund at the University of California, Santa Barbara, put forward the case that facial displays are not universal, “pre-wired” expressions of emotion – a concept supported by 80 per cent of emotion researchers in a recent poll – but are flexible tools for influencing the behaviour of other people. 

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Contrary to popular belief, smiling makes you look older

GettyImages-498317079.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

In the adverts for anti-ageing skin products, everyone is smiling, positively blooming with youthfulness. A canny move by the marketeers you might think – after all, past research has found most of us believe smiling makes people look younger. It’s just that actually, it doesn’t. It makes you look older. That’s according to a new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that explores an intriguing mismatch between our beliefs and perceptions.

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Taking a mere five-day break from Facebook will lower your physiological stress levels, researchers claim

GettyImages-903669474.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Does the prospect of taking a “Facebook holiday” fill you with dread as you picture a life of social isolation, or does it sound like an appealing and refreshing chance to change priorities?

A new paper in the Journal of Social Psychology has investigated the psychological effects of taking time off from using Facebook. Given that Facebook helps keep us connected but can also expose us to many social stressors, like envy and gossip, the researchers, led by Eric Vanman at the University of Queensland, expected to find a Facebook break would be associated with a drop in life-satisfaction, but also a reduction in stress levels. Their findings are largely in line with their predictions “[and] consistent with the general ambivalent feelings that may typify most active users about Facebook”. However, the study also features ambiguities and limitations that may leave sceptical readers unconvinced.

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