Category: evolutionary psych

Where do women look when sizing each other up?

Friends enjoying a party in nightclubBy Christian Jarrett

Studies show that when heterosexual women look at other women’s bodies, they, just like men, tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at their waists, hips and breasts, as if estimating how much they will appeal to men. This is consistent with “mate selection theory” which argues, among other things, that women have evolved strategies to monitor potential love rivals. However, psychologists are interested in this topic, not only from an evolutionary perspective, but also because women who feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders, may be especially pre-occupied with comparing their body against others, potentially exacerbating their anxieties.

Past research is mixed: some studies suggest women with body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders pay disproportionate attention to the bodies of thin women, other studies suggest the opposite. A new exploratory paper in Psychological Research says hang on a minute, we don’t actually know much about how healthy, confident women behave when they look at other women, nor whether their attention is influenced by their feelings about their own bodies.

Continue reading “Where do women look when sizing each other up?”

Wardrobe malfunction – three failed attempts to replicate the finding that red increases attractiveness

By Christian Jarrett 

It’s one of the simplest, most evidence-backed pieces of advice you can give to someone who’s looking to attract a partner – wear red. Many studies, most of them involving men rating women’s appearance, have shown that wearing red clothing increases attractiveness and sex appeal. The reasons are thought to be traceable to our evolutionary past – red displays in the animal kingdom also often indicate sexual interest and availability – complemented by the cultural connotations of red with passion and sex.

But nothing, it seems, is straightforward in psychology any more. A team of Dutch and British researchers has just published three attempts to replicate the red effect in the open-access journal Evolutionary Psychology, including testing whether the effect is more pronounced in a short-term mating context, which would be consistent with the idea that red signals sexual availability. However, not only did the research not uncover an effect of mating context, all three experiments also failed to demonstrate any effect of red on attractiveness whatsoever.  Continue reading “Wardrobe malfunction – three failed attempts to replicate the finding that red increases attractiveness”

Psychologists said it’s disgusting to be reminded that you are an animal. It seems they were wrong

Woman with dog swimming underwater
By Christian Jarrett

Disgust has become a hot topic in psychology research over the last decade or so, not least because findings have shown that the way we respond to physically disgusting threats, like disease-infested blood and puss, is closely related to the way we think about moral violations and moral concepts like purity (hence people’s reluctance to don a shirt purportedly worn by Adolf Hitler).

One repeated claim in this area is that we have evolved to be disgusted by any reminder that we are animals. For instance, the leading disgust and morality researchers Jonathan Haidt, Paul Rozin and Clark McCauley have stated that disgust is “a defensive emotion that guards against the recognition of our animality” and that “anything that reminds us that we are animals elicits disgust”. It’s a compelling idea that feeds into other areas of psychology, for example related to how we react to and cope with reminders of our mortality, and the way we often instinctively dehumanise criminals, pariahs and outsiders. The trouble is, nobody has actually put the claim to a robust test. Until now.  Continue reading “Psychologists said it’s disgusting to be reminded that you are an animal. It seems they were wrong”

Even preschoolers like to gossip

Secret talk
Want a good reputation? Better impress those gossiping preschoolers

By Christian Jarrett

Gossiping is a serious business because it helps us keep track of who to trust and who to avoid. To count as proper gossip, you have to give or receive new information about a third-party. That’s effectively what’s happening when a friend begins a sentence: “You wouldn’t believe what [insert name] did the other day …” – their anecdote is giving you precious information about the reputations of the people involved. Just how early in life do we start gossiping? A new study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology shows that in its simplest form – telling someone else who to trust – gossiping is well on its way at age three. Continue reading “Even preschoolers like to gossip”

Altruistic people have more sex

Viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology, altruism takes some explaining. In a dog eat dog world, it seems like a risky, indulgent habit. Yet we are only alive today because our distant ancestors were successful at reproducing – and the fact many of us have inherited their altruistic tendencies suggests that being altruistic gave them some kind of survival or reproductive advantage.

One idea is that altruism is advantageous because it is often reciprocated. Another is that altruism is a “costly signal” that tells potential sexual partners you would make a good mate – if you’ve the freedom to be charitable, this suggests you must be capable and resourceful. Supporting this “costly signal” account, plentiful past research has shown that signs of altruism increase both men’s and women’s attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Now an article in the British Journal of Psychology has followed through on this logic to find out whether more altruistic people aren’t just more attractive, but actually have more sex. Continue reading “Altruistic people have more sex”

Men who can tell a good story are seen as more attractive and higher status

The results fit with evolutionary theory

Stories can change how we think about the world, about the people they describe, and even ourselves. According to new research, they also influence our attitude to the storyteller. An article published in the journal Personal Relationships suggests that people portrayed as stronger storytellers are considered as higher status than those that aren’t – and this status can make them more romantically attractive, at least in the eyes of women. Cue editing of Tinder bios across the globe.

John Donahue and Melanie Green ran experiments with US undergraduate samples (388 in total, 55 per cent women, two-thirds Caucasian, average age 20) who were asked to rate the attractiveness of a potential partner of the opposite sex based upon basic printed information. In the first experiment, participants received a photo and a short biography of a would-be partner which included information on their storytelling abilities. Participants in the strong storytelling condition, for example, heard that the person “often tells really good stories…he makes the characters and settings come alive.” Other conditions emphasised the mediocrity of the person’s storytelling or did not mention it at all. Stronger female storytellers did not tempt male participants, nor did male raconteurs foster extra female interest in short-term dating. But women were more interested in talented male story-tellers as long-term partners.

A further experiment held the design but added another category of attraction – “Do you think this person would make a good spouse?” – and a measure of the person’s perceived status. Both male and female participants considered storytellers to have higher status than non-storytellers. But for men, that didn’t translate into finding women more attractive, whereas for female raters, there was a clear route from men’s storytelling ability to status to desirability as a long-term partner or spouse.

To examine other explanations for the lure of the story-teller beyond the effect of status, the researchers ran another experiment where participants actually read a story, supposedly recounted by the potential partner. Some stories were fluid with lively vocabulary, and, as hoped, participants rated them as better and more involving than others that told the same facts in a hesitating and digressive manner.

But surprisingly, attraction didn’t depend on being swept up in the story – that is, would-be partners who’d produced a more engrossing story were not rated as more attractive than the bores. I should note, however, that a short oral anecdote transcribed onto paper is not the strongest way to entangle someone in the magic of story, and the researchers acknowledged that other unmeasured qualities of the story, such as personal identification, or sheer enjoyment, may well affect attraction.

Donahue and Green advance an evolutionary theory for their findings: females, with a biologically high investment into producing young, have evolved to seek mates with resources, and storytelling aptitude reflects advantages that prehistorically meant the difference between life and death. But there are other explanatory lenses: for example, that men are socialised to be suspicious of women who take space and focus, considering that active status a threat that masks any liking they might have for storytelling traits, whereas women are socialised to appreciate first impressions of male competence. I suspect there is a rich, specific picture of when and why storytellers appeal, a picture that will depend on looking across cultures and at the specific effects their stories arouse in us. For now, this evidence suggests that young western males who can spin a good yarn are seen, on first blush, as a better catch.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

DONAHUE, J., & GREEN, M. (2016). A good story: Men’s storytelling ability affects their attractiveness and perceived status Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/pere.12120

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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The psychology of who we find creepy and why

Maybe they’re sitting too close, or just smiling weirdly. Whatever, you know it’s creeping you out! Finding certain people creepy is a common experience yet psychologists, before now, haven’t investigated this emotion.

Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke, the authors of a new exploratory paper in New Ideas in Psychology, say that creepiness is what we feel when we think someone might be a threat, but we’re not sure – the ambiguity leaves us “frozen in place, wallowing in unease”.

The pair conducted an online survey of 1341 people (312 were men; average age 29, mostly based in the US), including asking them to rate the likelihood of a creepy person exhibiting 44 different patterns of behaviour (e.g. avoiding eye contact), and to rate the creepiness of different occupations and hobbies.

Several behaviours and aspects of appearance were consistently rated as characteristic of creepy people, including: standing too close; greasy hair; peculiar smile; bulging eyes; having a mental illness; long fingers; unkempt hair; pale skin; bags under eyes; odd/dirty clothes; licking lips frequently; laughing at odd times; steering conversation toward one topic (especially sex); making it impossible to leave without seeming rude; displaying unwanted sexual interest; asking to take a picture of you; being very thin; and displaying too much/little emotion. Men and women alike overwhelmingly said it was more likely that a typical creepy person would be male.

“While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behaviour, odd emotional characteristics or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This may activate our ‘creepiness detector’,” the researchers said.

The four most creepy professions, in order, were clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner and funeral director (least creepy was meteorologist). The creepiest hobbies were those that involved collecting (especially body parts like finger nails, or insects) or watching or photographing other people.

Consistent with the researchers’ theory that creepiness stems from ambiguity, participants said the typical creepy person makes them feel uncomfortable because they cannot predict how he or she will behave.

You probably think this research isn’t about you, but note, the researchers found most participants believed creepy people usually don’t realise that they’re creepy.

On the nature of creepiness
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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This woman went hitchhiking in a hijab, for science

According to evolutionary psychology, just as animals and birds sing and dance and build houses to communicate their sexual interest to others, we humans do things like wear red, tell jokes, drive fancy cars and, well yes, we sing and dance too. A consistent finding in this area is that people’s attractiveness to others depends on whether their appearance communicates an interest in short or long-term sexual commitment, and moreover, whether this matches what a potential suitor is looking for. For example, there’s evidence that heterosexual women interested in casual sex are more likely to wear clothing that they think will attract men (not the most surprising research finding), and that this kind of clothing increases their attractiveness to men as a partner for casual sex, but not as a partner for marriage. The vast majority of this research has so far been conducted in the West, but a new field study out of Iran bucks the trend.

Farid Pazhoohi and Robert Burriss asked a 25-year-old woman to stand on the same busy, well-lit street in Shiraz, Iran on two consecutive Monday nights until 1000 cars has passed. The first week she wore relatively liberal clothing – a black hijab and tight black clothing that revealed her body shape. The second week she wore a black chador which conceals the entire head and body (except the face) beneath a black cloak. The idea was to see how many drivers would stop to offer the woman a lift. When the woman wore a chidor, only 39 drivers stopped for her, compared with 214 drivers who stopped when she wore the more liberal costume (all drivers who stopped were male). This nearly 7-fold increase in interest is similar to, but much larger than, the effect seen in French research in which male drivers were more likely to stop for a woman who was smiling, had large breasts, wore red or makeup.

The researchers said: “Our results extend the findings of previous studies in Europe and North America on male helping behavior and female attractiveness to Iran, a nation where courtship behav- ior and dress are constrained by stricter social mores and laws than apply in the West.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Pazhoohi, F., & Burriss, R. (2016). Hijab and “Hitchhiking”: A Field Study Evolutionary Psychological Science, 2 (1), 32-37 DOI: 10.1007/s40806-015-0033-5

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Your brain treats LEGO people as if they’re alive

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Participants were especially good at spotting scene changes that involved LEGO people. Image from LaPointe et al.

Our brains are wired such that we pay extra attention to anything that seems to be alive. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view – after all, other living things might be about to eat us, or maybe we could eat them.

Consistent with this evolutionary perspective, prior research has shown that at a very basic level, we pay more attention to images of animals and people than we do to cars and trucks, even though in modern life, it is cars and trucks that are more of an everyday threat than animals. But now a study in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology has shown that this bias for processing living things extends to LEGO people, despite the fact that they are inanimate and were obviously never encountered by our distant ancestors.

Mitchell LaPointe and his colleagues tested dozens of undergrad students across several studies. The basic challenge was similar throughout. On each experimental trial, the participants looked at a pair of black and white, static images of LEGO scenes that alternated rapidly on a computer screen (each scene appeared for a quarter of a second before it flicked to the other scene in the pair and back again), and they had to indicate as fast as possible when they’d spotted the difference between the two scenes, and which side of the screen the change was on. After the participant responded, the next pair of images appeared and began flicking back and forth until a response was made.

Both LEGO scenes within each of the image pairs was identical but for one small difference, which was either the addition of an extra LEGO person or some other feature, such as a tree or a small tower of LEGO blocks of similar size to a LEGO person. The main finding is that participants were significantly quicker by two or more seconds, on average, at spotting scene changes that involved a LEGO person as compared with some other LEGO element. They were also more accurate at reporting where the changes had occurred when they involved LEGO people.

Variations in the methodology showed that the attentional bias for LEGO people was not due to their having faces (the advantage remained even when these were blurred). Even rotating the scenes 180 degrees, or blurring the entire scene, failed to fully eliminate the participants’ superior performance for spotting changes involving LEGO people.

This finding for LEGO people was very similar to that shown previously in terms of people spotting scene changes more quickly and accurately when they involve humans and animals as opposed to motorised vehicles (in fact, the LEGO person advantage was in some ways more robust – the attentional bias for humans and animals over vehicles disappeared when scenes were rotated 180 degrees).

The researchers who conducted the new research said, “it is clear that our participants treated LEGO people differently than LEGO nonpeople. The explanation that we favour for this difference in performance is that the animate category was generalised to the LEGO people, perhaps because the LEGO people contain some feature overlap with animate objects.” In other words, your brain thinks the little LEGO characters are alive!

What’s not clear from this research is if experience with LEGO figures is required for the attentional bias for LEGO people to be observed (no detail is given in the study on whether or how much the participants had played with LEGO as children, or adults). We also don’t know if these results say something special about LEGO people or if a similar effect would be found for other toy figures.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

LaPointe, M., Cullen, R., Baltaretu, B., Campos, M., Michalski, N., Sri Satgunarajah, S., Cadieux, M., Pachai, M., & Shore, D. (2016). An Attentional Bias for LEGO® People Using a Change Detection Task: Are LEGO® People Animate? Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale DOI: 10.1037/cep0000077

further reading
LEGO figures are getting angrier
When psychologists become builders

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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By age four, children are already willing to make sacrifices in the name of group loyalty

Psychologists interested in the way group loyalty develops through childhood have largely focused on young children’s preference for other kids who demonstrate loyalty. For example, one study found that four- and five-year-olds rated other children as nicer and more trustworthy if they pledged continued allegiance to their losing team, compared with when they said they wanted to switch to the winning side. Other research has found that children aged five to eight years say they will be loyal to their group, for example by continuing to support a losing sports team, but before now such loyal proclamations have not been put to the test.

Published in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a new study is the first to test young children’s willingness to make sacrifices in the name of group loyalty. Antonia Misch and her colleagues recruited 48 five-year-olds and 48 four-year-olds, with an equal number of girls and boys in each age group. The researchers tested each child individually and began by introducing them to four hand puppets.

Puppets used in the study. Figure from Misch et al

Next, yellow and green scarfs pulled from a box were used to allocate two puppets and the child to one team (either the green or yellow team) and the other two puppets to the other coloured team. The child then left the room with the researcher, ostensibly to help look for something, and on returning discovered two puppets, either from their own team or the other team (depending on the in-group or out-group condition) hiding a book. The puppets explained the book was a secret and urged the child not to tell anyone where it was. A short time later, a fifth puppet with no group affiliation (they wore no scarf) appeared and said they knew a secret had been hidden in the room. This puppet attempted to bribe the child with stickers to get them to reveal the secret.

Overall, 61 per cent of the children resisted the temptation to reveal the secret. But the key finding is that more children chose to keep the secret when they were urged to do so by puppets in their own team as opposed to the other team (75 per cent vs. 48 per cent). This in-group loyalty effect was present at both ages, suggesting the motivating effect of group loyalty is already present by age 4. However, there was an overall effect of age on the ability or willingness to keep the secret – averaging across the in-group and out-group conditions, 71 per cent of five-year-olds kept the secret compared with 52 per cent of four-year-olds.

The researchers said that their findings “extend previous research on children’s verbal predictions of their own loyalty and children’s attitudes about other people’s loyalty in demonstrating that even in direct social interactions where children are tempted to be disloyal, they can choose to remain loyal.” The findings are all the more striking given that the groups were so arbitrary and had only been formed a few minutes earlier. Misch and her team said that it’s likely children would feel an even keener sense of loyalty and identification with their real life groups.

________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Misch A, Over H, & Carpenter M (2016). I won’t tell: Young children show loyalty to their group by keeping group secrets. Journal of experimental child psychology, 142, 96-106 PMID: 26513328

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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