Many of our relationships begin with that moment when our eyes meet and we realise the other person is looking right at us. Pause for a second and consider the intensity of the situation, the near-magical state of two brains simultaneously processing one another, each aware of being, at that very instant, the centre of the other’s mental world. Psychologists have made some surprising discoveries about the way that mutual gaze, or the lack of it, affects us mentally and physically and how we relate to each other. Here we digest the fascinating psychology of eye contact, from tiny babies’ sensitivity to gaze to the hallucination-inducing effects of prolonged eye-staring.
Every now and again a psychology finding is published that immediately grabs the world’s attention and refuses to let go – often it’s a result with immediate implications for how we can live more happily and peacefully, or it says something profound about human nature. Said finding then enters the public consciousness, endlessly recycled in pop psychology books and magazine articles.
Unfortunately, sometimes when other researchers have attempted to obtain these same influential findings, they’ve struggled. This replication problem doesn’t just apply to famous findings, nor does it only affect psychological science. And there can be relatively mundane reasons behind failed replications, such as methodological differences from the original or cultural changes since the original was conducted.
But given the public fascination with psychology, and the powerful influence of certain results, it is arguably in the public interest to summarise in one place a collection of some of the most famous findings that have proven tricky to repeat. This is not a list of disproven or dodgy results. It’s a snapshot of the difficult, messy process of behavioural science. Continue reading “Ten Famous Psychology Findings That It’s Been Difficult To Replicate”
In a sense we’re all amateur psychologists – we’ve got our own first-hand experience at being human, and we’ve spent years observing how we and others behave in different situations. This intuition fuels a “folk psychology” that sometimes overlaps with findings from scientific psychology, but often does not. Some erroneous psychological intuitions are particularly widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent. This post is about 10 of these myths or misconceptions. It’s important to challenge these myths, not just to set the record straight, but also because their existence can contribute to stigma and stereotypes and to misinformed public policies in areas like education and policing. Continue reading “10 of The Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology”
These ten characters have all had a huge influence on psychology and their stories continue to intrigue each new generation of students. What’s particularly fascinating is that many of their stories continue to evolve – new evidence comes to light, or new technologies are brought to bear, changing how the cases are interpreted and understood. What many of these 10 also have in common is that they speak to some of the perennial debates in psychology, about personality and identity, nature and nurture, and the links between mind and body. Continue reading “Psychology’s 10 Greatest Case Studies – Digested”
Tomorrow, Saturday 10 October, is World Mental Health Day and to join in we’ve rounded up some of the research we’ve covered over the years that’s explored what it’s like to live with mental health problems, from obsessive compulsive disorder to hearing voices. Psychologists call these kind of studies “qualitative research”, where the aim is not to put a score against particular symptoms, but to discover the first-hand perspective and experience of the people who take part, based on their own words. Such studies are often distressing to read, but their insights make a vital contribution to our understanding of the human condition.
A recurring theme from interviews with seven people diagnosed with depression was their sense of depletion and emptiness, both bodily and in thinking about the past and future. “It’s like something’s gone inside me and swept my happiness away,” said one participant. “I feel like sometimes my life is on hold,” said another. Isolation was another key theme, as captured by this man’s description: “You get into a state I think mentally where, you’re just like out on an island … You can see from that island another shore and all these people are there, but there’s no way that you can get across [ ] or there is no way that you want to get across.” Writing in 2014, the researchers Jonathan Smith and John Rhodes said it was clear that all the interviewees had in common that they felt alone, empty and that they had no future.
Selective mutism does not feel like a choice
People with selective mutism can’t speak in certain situations even though there is nothing physically wrong with their vocal chords and they don’t have brain damage. Four people diagnosed with the condition were interviewed via Skype’s instant messenger interface. Their descriptions challenged the traditional idea that selective mutism is a choice. “It isn’t me,” said one participant. “I know who I am and I’m not shy or quiet, maybe that makes it harder. When I’m with my parents I can be myself but around everyone else it’s like it [selective mutism] takes over. I can get the words in my head but something won’t let me say them and the harder I try the more of a failure I feel like when I can’t.” The interviewees also revealed how the condition became self-fulfilling as people came to expect them to stay silent. And they talked about the extreme loneliness they experienced. “It’s like that scene from Scrooge where he looks through the window and he can see people having fun being together,” said one interviewee. “I’ll always be stuck outside looking in.”
To be a refugee with psychosis is to feel there is no future
The first-hand experience of refugees with symptoms of psychosis was documented for the first time in a heart-wrenching study published this year. Based on interviews with seven African refugees or asylum seekers, the researchers identified six main themes: bleak agitated immobility; trauma-related voices and visions (mostly the sounds or sights of lost relatives or attackers from the past); fear and mistrust; a sense of a broken self; the pain of losing everything; and the attraction of death. The last theme was captured by the words of 26-year-old Sando: “The worst part,” he said, “is I keep harming myself, … and you know knocking my head to the wall, kinda too much stuff in there, you know, I just want to open my head and finish with this.”
Some people have a love-hate relationship with their OCD
Based on their hour-long interviews with nine people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the researchers Helen Murphy and Ramesh Perera-Delcourt identified three main themes: “wanting to be normal and fit in”; “failing at life”; and “loving and hating OCD.” The first two themes were often related to the painful situations provoked by the interviewees’ compulsions. One man who house-shared described how he had to scrub the entire bathroom with powerful cleaning product for an hour every day before he could use it. But at the same time, the interviewees explained how they actually feared losing the crutch that the condition provides. “I wish I could do that [stop checking], I wish I could stop,” one man said, adding: “Well, not totally.”
Being labelled as “schizophrenic” feels hugely stigmatising but also unlocks much-needed treatment
In a 2014 study, seven patients diagnosed with schizophrenia described their dilemma: they needed the diagnosis to access treatment, but had also feared and avoided the label because of the stigma associated with it. The interviewees said they tried to hide their diagnosis from people, and they noted how mental health professionals used alternative words like “psychosis” as if aware of the stigma of schizophrenia. “People are always afraid of saying that word to me,” said said one woman, “… because it is a dirty word.” The interviewees also described the chasm between their clinician’s view of the illness as biological (a “chemical imbalance”) and the perspectives of other people in their lives. “My mother … all she said was ‘I told you, it’s because you’re psychic …,” said another interviewee. The researchers said more needs to be done to overcome delays in treatment caused by ill people’s fearful avoidance of a diagnosis.
For many people who self-harm, seeing their own blood makes them feel calm
Among 64 people who self-harm, recruited from a mass screening of 1,100 new psychology students, just over half said that the sight of their own blood was important to them. The most common explanation the students gave was that seeing their blood made them feel calm. Other explanations were that it “makes me feel real” and shows that “I did it right/deep enough”. Those students who highlighted the importance of seeing their blood tended to cut themselves more often than those who didn’t (a median of 30 times compared with 4 times) and they were more likely to say they self-harmed as a way of regulating their own emotions. Another study from 2013 asked self-harming teenagers to carry a digital device for two weeks, in which to record their motives for self-harming as they occurred. Just over half the sample reported self-harming to achieve a particular sensation, the most common being “satisfaction”, followed by “stimulation” and “pain”.
Anorexia starts out feeling like a solution but then takes over
“Anorexia became a friend,” said Natalie, one of 14 people recovering from anorexia who were interviewed as part of a study published in 2011. “When I was alone … I knew that at least I had A.” Eventually though, for Natalie and the others, anorexia became overpowering, almost like a separate entity which they had to fight against for control of their own mind. As Jon, another interviewee, put it: “It’s like there are two people in my head: the part that knows what needs to be done and the part of me that is trying to lead me astray. Ana [his nickname for anorexia] is the part that is leading me astray and dominates me.”
For some people, mirrors are addictive and imprisoning
A diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder is made when someone has a disabling and distressing preoccupation with what they see as their perceived physical flaw or flaws. In upsetting interviews that were published this year, 11 people diagnosed with the condition described their complicated, troubling relationship with mirrors. One woman said she’d once stared into a mirror for 11 hours straight, searching for a perspective where she felt good enough about herself to be able to go out. Another interviewee, Jane, described mirrors as “f*cking bastards” and mirror gazing as a “form of self-harm”. The interviewees also described what they perceived as the ugliness of the person staring back at them. “I look like a monster,” said Hannah. Jenny said she is “truly hideous” and “repulsive”. Lucy said: “Everyone else, everyone is beautiful. I just feel that I am that one ugly person.”
People’s experiences of hearing voices vary hugely
Last year, researchers analysed seven previous studies that had explored people’s first-hand experiences of hearing voices. Taken together, the most striking finding was that to hear voices that aren’t there is not a homogenous condition. While most people described attributing an identity to the voices, they differed in whether they saw the voices as separate from their own thoughts or not, and in whether they felt in control of the voices. Those who subscribed to a biomedical account, believing that their voices were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, tended to feel less in control of their voices. Similarly, heard voices could interfere with social relationships, for example by making critical comments about friends or family. But voices could also play a beneficial role by reducing loneliness. “I have not got many friends … so the only thing I can stay very close to are the voices and I do stay very close to them,” said one interviewee.
Positive change is a gradual process that is realised suddenly
As well as asking people about their experiences of mental illness, psychologists also research what the process of recovery feels like. In 2007, researchers interviewed 18 women and 9 men diagnosed with conditions like depression and anxiety about their experiences of positive change during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. “It was gradual but the realisation was sudden,” one interviewee said. Many of the participants could remember the exact moment: “I could actually hear it,” one said. Other themes in the clients’ descriptions of how change happened were: motivation and readiness (“I was desperate to get back to my old self”); tools and strategies (“It’s the changes in behaviour that I learned”); learning (“I would take a lot of stuff home to read about assertiveness”); interaction with the therapist (“…they don’t judge your character or think they know you”); changes to self-perception (“I am a strong person mentally”); and the relief of talking (“Let me get everything out, let me relieve myself of everything”).
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Right now, mindfulness is a hot topic in psychology and beyond. In 2012, 40 new papers on mindfulness were published every month, a number that has probably risen since. Last September, the Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that a staggering 37 new books had been released on the topic that very week. There are numerous conferences devoted to mindfulness around the world, multiple organisations and even dedicated science journals and magazines. And yet, a dissenting voice in this chorus of enthusiasm, a new book out last month – The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – warned that mindfulness is not harmless. To bring you up to speed in a jiffy, here we digest the psychology of mindfulness:
Continue reading “The Psychology of Mindfulness, Digested”
With over a billion users, Facebook is changing the social life of our species. Cultural commentators ponder the effects. Is it bringing us together or tearing us apart? Psychologists have responded too – Google Scholar lists more than 27,000 references with Facebook in the title. Common topics for study are links between Facebook use and personality, and whether the network alleviates or fosters loneliness. The torrent of new data is overwhelming and much of it appears contradictory. Here is the psychology of Facebook, digested:
Who uses Facebook?
|Extraverts have more friends on FB
but shy people probably use it more
According to a survey of over a thousand people, “females, younger people, and those not currently in a committed relationship were the most active Facebook users“. Regarding personality, a study of over 1000 Australians reported that “[FB] users tend to be more extraverted and narcissistic, but less conscientious and socially lonely, than nonusers“. A study of the actual FB use of over a hundred students found that personality was a more important factor than gender and FB experience, with high scorers in neuroticism spending more time on FB. Meanwhile, extraverts were found to have more friends on the network than introverts (“the 10 per cent of our respondents scoring the highest in extraversion had, on average, 484 more friends than the 10 per cent scoring the lowest in extraversion”).
Other findings add to the picture, for example: greater shyness has also been linked with more FB use. Similarly, a study from 2013 found that anxiousness (as well as alcohol and marijuana use) predicted more emotional attachment to Facebook.
There’s also evidence that people use FB to connect with others with specialist interests, such as diabetes patients sharing information and experiences, and that people with autism particularly enjoy interacting via FB and other online networks.
Why do some people use Twitter and others Facebook?
|High scorers in “need for cognition” prefer Twitter|
Apparently most people use Facebook “to get instant communication and connection with their friends” (who knew?), but why use FB rather than Twitter? A 2014 paper suggested narcissism again is relevant, but that its influence depends on a person’s age: student narcissists prefer Twitter, while more mature narcissists prefer FB. Other research has uncovered intriguing links between personality and reasons for using FB. People who said they used FB as an informational tool (rather than socialising) tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and “need for cognition”. The researchers speculated that using FB to seek and share information could be some people’s way to avoid more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. The same study also found that higher scorers in sociability, neuroticism and extraversion preferred FB, while people who scored higher in “need for cognition” preferred Twitter.
What do we give away about ourselves on Facebook?
FB seems like the perfect way to present an idealised version of yourself to the world. However an analysis of the profiles of over 200 people in Germany and the US found that they reflected their actual personalities, not their ideal selves. Consistent with this, another study found that people who are rated as more likeable in the flesh also tend to be rated as more likeable based on their Facebook page. The things you choose to “like” on FB are also revealing. Remarkably, a study out last week found that your “likes” can be analysed by a computer programme to produce a more accurate profile of your personality than the profiles produced by your friends and relatives.
If our FB profiles expose our true selves, this raises obvious privacy issues. A study in 2013 warned that employers often trawl candidates’ FB pages, and that they view photos of drinking and partying as “red flags”, presumably seeing them as a sign of low conscientiousness (in fact the study found photos like these were linked with high extraversion, not with low conscientiousness).
Other researchers have looked specifically at how personality is related to the kind of content people post on FB. A 2014 study reported that “higher degrees of narcissism led to deeper self-disclosures and more self-promotional content within these messages. [And] Users with higher need to belong disclosed more intimate information“. Another study last year also reported that lonelier people disclose more private information, but fewer opinions.
You might also want to consider the friends you keep on FB – research suggests that their attractiveness (good-lookers give your rep a boost), and the statements they make about you on your wall, affect the way your own profile is perceived. Consider too how many friends you have – somewhat paradoxically, research finds that having an overabundance of friends leads to negative perceptions of your profile.
Finally, we heard about employers frowning on partying photos, but what else do you give away in your FB profile picture? It could reveal your cultural background according to a 2012 study that showed people from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context, while US users were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame. Your FB pic might also say something about your current romantic relationship. When people feel more insecure about their partner’s feelings, they make their relationship more visible in their pics.
In case you’re wondering, yes, people who post more selfies probably are more narcissistic.
Is Facebook making us lonely and sad?
This is the crunch question that has probably attracted the most newspaper column inches (and books). A 2012 study took an experimental approach. One group were asked to post more updates than usual for one week – this led them to feel less lonely and more connected to their friends. Similarly, a survey of over a thousand FB users found links between use of the network and greater feelings of belonging and confidence in keeping up with friends, especially for people with low self-esteem. Another study from 2010 found that shy students who use FB feel closer to their friends (on FB) and have a greater sense of social support. A similar story is told by a 2013 paper that said feelings of FB connectedness were associated with “with lower depression and anxiety and greater satisfaction with life” and that Facebook “may act as a separate social medium …. with a range of positive psychological outcomes.” This recent report also suggested the site can help revive old relationships.
Yet there’s also evidence for the negative influence of FB. A 2013 study texted people through the day, to see how they felt before and after using FB. “The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; [and] the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time,” the researchers said.
Other findings are more nuanced. This study from 2010 (not specifically focused on FB) found that using the internet to connect with existing friends was associated with less loneliness, but using it to connect with strangers (i.e. people only known online) was associated with more loneliness. This survey of adults with autism found that greater use of online social networking (including FB) was associated with having more close friendships, but only offline relationships were linked with feeling less lonely.
Facebook could also be fuelling envy. In 2012 researchers found that people who’d spent more time on FB felt that other people were happier, and that life was less fair. Similarly, a study of hundreds of undergrads found that more time on FB went hand in hand with more feelings of jealousy. And a paper from last year concluded that “people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.” However, this new report (on general online social networking, not just FB) found that heavy users are not more stressed than average, but are more aware of other people’s stress.
Is Facebook harming students’ academic work?
This is another live issue among newspaper columnists and other social commentators. An analysis of the grades and FB use of nearly 4000 US students found that the more they used the network to socialise, the poorer their grades tended to be (of course, there could be a separate causal factor(s) underlying this association). But not all FB use is the same – the study found that using the site to collect and share information was actually associated with better grades. This survey of over 200 students also found that heavier users of FB tend to have lower academic grades, but note again that this doesn’t prove a causal link. Yet another study, this one from the University of Chicago, which included more convincing longitudinal data, found no evidence for a link between FB use and poorer grades; if anything there were signs of the opposite pattern. Still more positive evidence for FB came from a recent report that suggested FB – along with other social networking tools – could have cognitive benefits for elderly people.
And finally, some miscellaneous findings
- These are the unwritten rules of Facebook, according to focus groups with students.
- Viewing your own FB profile boosts self-esteem.
- Emotions are contagious on Facebook (this is the recent study that caused controversy because users’ feeds were manipulated without them knowing).
- Surprise! Both male and female subjects are more willing to initiate friendships with opposite-sex profile owners with attractive photos.
- People publish posts on FB that they later regret for various reasons, including posting when they’re in an emotional state or misunderstanding their online social circles.
- Who needs cheap thrills or meditation? Apparently, looking at your FB account is different, physiologically speaking, from stress or relaxation. It provokes what these researchers describe appealingly as a “core flow state“, characterised by positive mood and high arousal.
That was our digest of the psychology of Facebook – please tell all your friends, on and off Facebook! Oh, and don’t forget to visit the Research Digest Facebook page.
One of the most annoying things you can say to a psychologist is: “Isn’t it all just common sense?”. No it’s not, as the list below demonstrates. But anyway, such a criticism of the field misses the point. Many findings in psychology can seem obvious after the fact, but we can’t know in advance which aspects of folk wisdom will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Striving for the objective truth through empirical testing – that’s what science is for, whether applied to molecules or minds.
That said, it’s always fun to share those findings that clash with received wisdom. So for your reading pleasure (and for the next time someone asks you the “common sense” question), here are 10 particularly counter-intuitive findings from the psychology archives. Please use comments to share your own favourites that we’ve missed.