Category: In Brief

Psych students score substantially lower on “dark” traits than business and law students

By Christian Jarrett 

There are lots of stereotypes about the kind of people in different professions. Lawyers and business people are often caricatured as ruthless and self-interested, especially when compared to the kind of folk who enter professions usually seen as caring, such as nursing or psychology. To test the truth of these stereotypes, a new study in Personality and Individual Differences surveyed the “Dark Triad” and “Big Five” traits of hundreds of Danish students enrolled to begin studying either psychology, politics, business/economics or law.

The rationale was that by testing students’ personalities after they’d chosen their subject, but before they’d begun their studies, or careers, the researchers would uncover evidence for whether people with certain kinds of personalities are drawn to particular professions, as opposed to, or as well as, those professions shaping their personalities.

Anna Vedel and her colleagues found that psychology students scored “substantially” lower on Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) than business and law students. Business/economics students scored the highest of all on the Dark Triad. Law and politics students’ scores were very similar to each other: lower than business but higher than psychology. In terms of the Big Five personality traits, psychology students scored “much higher” than the other student groups of Agreeableness and Openness and Neuroticism (replicating a study published last year). These subject differences remained even when comparing just male students, or just female.

“The choice of academic major and career is a complex decision involving many different factors, but the present study suggests that personality traits are at least part of this decision process,” the researchers said.

The Dark Triad across academic majors

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

People who feel connected to nature are more prone to “electrosensitivity”

Radiation from mobile phone lead to brain damage.By Christian Jarrett

In the TV series Better Call Saul, Saul’s brother Chuck believes that electromagnetic signals from mobile phones and other devices make him seriously ill. He lives as a recluse and uses a foil blanket to protect himself. By some estimates, millions of people – around 5 per cent of the population – believe that they too suffer from “electrosensitivity” or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. Though they may not suffer as much as Chuck, these individuals claim that wi-fi and other signals make them ill, triggering headaches and other symptoms.

The medical consensus based on double-blind trials (in which neither researcher nor test subject knows when a test device is real or pretend) is that while the experience of electrosensitivity-related symptoms may be real, they are not caused by electromagnetic fields. More likely is that the symptoms arise from a “nocebo effect” – a strong belief that the fields are harmful.

A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology sheds new light on electrosensitivity by suggesting that it is people who feel especially connected to nature – normally considered a positive trait – who may be particularly likely to suffer from electrosensitivity, probably because their love of nature is accompanied by a heightened negative attitude to anything they consider artificial.

Zsuzsanna Dömötör and her colleagues surveyed 510 people online, 74 of whom described themselves as electrosensitive. The electrosensitive participants tended to score higher than the others on modern health worries in general (related to things like pollution and tainted food), on sensitivity to bodily symptoms, and nature relatedness (measured by agreement with items like “I always think about how my actions affect the environment” and “My ideal vacation spot would be a remote, wilderness area”). What’s more, nature connectedness interacted with the other variables: people prone to modern health worries were especially likely to complain of electrosensitivity if they also felt a connection with nature.

Nature relatedness is connected with modern health worries and electromagnetic hypersensitivity

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Taking a selfie could dent your self-esteem, unless you share it

dog selfie in bedBy Alex Fradera

Taking selfies makes us feel self-conscious and sends tremors through our self-esteem, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences. One group of undergraduates at Yonsei University in Seoul used their phone’s camera to take a selfie, while a control group photographed a cup on a desk. Afterwards selfie takers showed signs of increased social sensitivity, at least according to a test that involved detecting the direction of arrows on a computer screen. The arrows appeared in locations previously occupied by the features of a face and the idea was that participants would be more focused on these facial features, and thus quicker to detect the arrows, if they were in a socially vigilant state.

The fact that selfie takers showed enhanced social sensitivity (they were quicker to detect the arrows) is consistent with the way that our social sensitivity goes up when we are in front of a mirror or when someone else points a video camera at us, making us acutely aware of the imperfections we have on show.

The researchers, graduate students at the university, used this indirect measure to assess social sensitivity because they thought people might not respond honestly if they were simply asked how they were feeling.

In a similar vein, the researchers used an indirect measure to test if taking a selfie affected participants’ self-esteem, specifically whether it shrunk their written signature compared to its size at the start of the study (past research has linked bigger signatures with greater self-esteem). It did, but only for selfies not posted to social media, but simply saved to the phone. The authors speculated that the act of taking a selfie hurts self-esteem by bringing feelings about personal imperfections to the fore, but this wound can be salved through the self-promotional aspect of sharing your image to the wider world. On this reading, selfie-taking is a self-esteem rollercoaster, one that might put you back more or less where you started.

Selfie and self: The effect of selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

Textbook fail: Rosenhan’s classic “On Being Sane In Insane Places” covered without criticism

16373344899_be8f8a89e1_bBy Christian Jarrett

Back in the 1970s, eight mentally well people, including psychologist David Rosenhan, presented themselves at psychiatric hospitals, where they showed signs of mild anxiety and complained of auditory hallucinations, specifically words like “empty” and “hollow”. All were admitted and either diagnosed with schizophrenia or, in one case, manic depression, and, despite acting “normal” after arrival, they were kept in hospital for an average of 19 days. On discharge all were described as having schizophrenia (or depression) “in remission”.

This was Rosenhan’s classic study “On Being Sane in Insane Places” which he claimed showed the stigmatising power of psychiatric labels and the inability of psychiatric staff to distinguish normality from supposed abnormality, as have many others since.

But from a methodological perspective, the study was problematic for a number of reasons and Rosenhan’s interpretation has been hotly disputed. In their highly regarded book on psychology myths, Scott Lilienfeld and his co-authors discuss the problem with Rosenhan’s study at length, such as the fact that in the 70s “in remission” was a very rare discharge diagnosis that actually showed psychiatric staff had realised the “pseudo patients” were mentally well.

Ultimately, Lilienfeld et al argue that it is a myth that “psychiatric labels cause harm by stigmatising people” and that the overly gullible interpretation of the Rosenhan study has helped propagate this myth. Others may disagree, but it’s at least fair to say that Rosenhan’s study had serious issues and that not all psychologists agree that psychiatric labels are in themselves harmful (consider too research that’s found that while clients say psychiatric labels can be difficult to deal with, they can also be beneficial in some ways, in terms of helping them understand their experiences and helping them to access appropriate treatments).

So, how is this classic study covered in textbooks relating to clinical psychology and mental health (the sub-discipline usually referred to on university courses as “abnormal psychology”)? In a new survey of 12 contemporary abnormal psych textbooks in the journal Teaching of Psychology, Jared Bartels and Daniel Peters found that half of them still give space to Rosenhan’s flawed study, but only two include any criticism or alternative interpretation of it at all.

This is a small survey and we’re not told the titles of the books, but the findings suggest that the problem of uncritical textbook coverage of social psychology’s classic, myth-like studies, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s “obedience research”, may also extend to the realm of classic mental health-related research. Is it that textbook authors are unaware of the criticisms of the Rosenhan study? Possibly, although Bartels and Peters surmise that perhaps authors know of the issues and alternative interpretations, but that these “shortcomings … are considered less important than the edifying message of the stigmatising effect of labels”.

Coverage of Rosenhan’s “On Being Sane in Insane Places” in Abnormal Psychology Textbooks

Image via Flickr/Freaktography

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

 

Feeling awe can sometimes be awful

Tornadic supercell in the American plainsBy Alex Fradera

Most research into the emotion of awe – a response to something vast or overwhelming – has focused on its positive upsides, classing it alongside delight or pleasure. But the University of California’s Greater Good research programme recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the first full investigation of what they call “threatening awe” defined as a strong feeling of wonder and fear.

Amie Gordon and her team looked at times where people felt awe in response to overwhelming stimuli like huge storms or the vastness of the universe, or were exposed for the first time to accounts of historical horrors such as the Vietnam war. Skin conductance and heart rate measures showed that feeling the threatening version of awe activated the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which is associated with negative emotional states. The data also suggested that feeling threatening awe rather than the positive kind may be influenced by thoughts which make us actively feel powerless – the prospect of being trapped on the pitiless ocean – rather than simply small, such as reflecting on the vastness of the cosmos.

Whereas previous work has shown awe to be associated with wellbeing and life satisfaction, one of the new experiments involving 603 participants found that an ominous video with swirling tornadoes, associated with threat-based awe, produced lower wellbeing compared to a positive awe-filled video and even a neutral one. Gordon’s team pointed out that the word awe produces two offspring with very different connotations: awesome and awful. Gazing into the face of God, or the vastness of the cosmos, isn’t a sunshine and kittens experience: awe exists in the “upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”.

The dark side of the sublime: Distinguishing a threat-based variant of awe

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

US politicians differed from the public on each of the five main personality traits

Portrait of a Man Wearing a Full SuitBy Christian Jarrett

Many of us get the sense that our elected politicians are out of touch, that they are somehow different from the everyman or woman on the street. A new study in Personality and Individual Differences offers at least part of an explanation. Richard Hanania at the University of California, Los Angeles, emailed a personality questionnaire to thousands of US state politicians. Two hundred and seventy-eight of them sent their answers back and Hanania compared their average scores with the averages recorded by 2586 members of the US public, matched with the politicians for age, and who’d completed the same questionnaire online. Continue reading “US politicians differed from the public on each of the five main personality traits”

Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?

31586456614_4a06b4b872_kBy Christian Jarrett

When all around us feels like chaos, it’s human instinct to cling to the rocks of dogma, and woe betide anyone who tries to loosen our grip. Previous studies, usually involving strong religious believers, have shown how dogmatic beliefs allay the anxiety brought on by feelings of uncertainty. In turn, any groups with opposing views are treated with suspicion and prejudice. A new study in the British Journal of Psychology broadens this out, showing these processes aren’t unique to religious believers. Dogmatic atheists too seem to be motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty, and they too are prejudiced towards threatening groups, especially during times of uncertainty. The researchers at Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, suggest their findings have interesting implications for understanding political orientations and prejudices. The world feels especially unpredictable right now. Are we all, whatever our politics, clinging to our rocks more strongly than ever?

Continue reading “Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?”

If you like sick jokes, maybe it’s because you’re just so smart

By Christian Jarrett

Understanding jokes requires a certain amount of mental agility, psychologists tell us, because you need to recognise a sudden shift in meaning, or appreciate the blending of odd contexts that don’t normally go together. A new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has tested whether intelligence plays the same role in the appreciation of sick or black humour: the kind of jokes that make light of death, illness and the vulnerable. Consistent with past research linking intelligence with joke appreciation, the participants who most liked cartoons based on black humour also scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ.

Continue reading “If you like sick jokes, maybe it’s because you’re just so smart”

Why conservatives like to use nouns more than liberals do

Noun conceptBy Christian Jarrett

Our political leanings to the right or left reveal a fundamental aspect of our psyche: how much we’re drawn to stability and security versus change and uncertainty. This manifests in our attitudes and personality traits. For instance, on average, conservatives tend to prefer established hierarchy and are more conscientious. Liberals favour equality and are more open to new experiences. Now in the journal Political Psychology a group led by Aleksandra Cichocka at the University of Kent has extended this line of work by showing the link between political orientation and desire for certainty is reflected at even the most basic of levels: how much we like to use nouns.

Across two initial studies, featuring Polish-speaking survey participants in Poland and Arabic-speaking participants in the Lebanon, the research showed that people with more socially conservative leanings tended to favour nouns over adjectives. For instance, participants with a conservative orientation were more likely to say they’d choose to end the sentence “Magda had no doubts about the success of her business. Magda …” with the noun phrase “is an optimist” than with the adjective phrase “is optimistic”.

This fits with the established link between having a conservative orientation and desiring stability because using a noun to describe someone implies more certainty and permanence about their state of being (past research has shown that even five-year-olds infer more permanence from noun descriptions than adjectival descriptions). Indeed, in the new surveys, the link between conservatism and noun preference seemed to be explained by participants’ relative “need for structure” with high scorers on this measure expressing a dislike of ambiguity.

Cichocka and her colleagues, including John Jost at New York University who is responsible for much of the research in this field, also analysed 101 key speeches delivered by 13 US Presidents, from Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address through to Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2014. They found speeches by Republican presidents featured a greater proportion of nouns compared with their Democrat counterparts.

Overall, the researchers said their results “are compatible with previous work suggesting that language reflects, among other things, the individual’s goals and motives, including his or her political goals.”

On the Grammar of Politics—or Why Conservatives Prefer Nouns

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Men think women will be impressed by a tattoo, but they’re not – Polish study

Shirtless man in tattoo looking over shoulderBy Alex Fradera

Men with tattoos are likely to provide serious competition for a woman’s attention, at least in the eyes of other guys, but women themselves actually aren’t that impressed. That’s according to research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, where 2584 heterosexual men and women from Poland viewed photos of shirtless men, sometimes digitally modified so that their arm was emblazoned with a smallish black tattoo depicting a generic symbol. The 215 men among the participants rated the inked bods as more attractive than tattoo-free comparison models, which presumably reflects in part what they think women are looking for in an ideal male partner. But the female participants didn’t rate the tattooed gentlemen as more attractive; moreover, they considered them worse prospects as partners and parents.

Women did rate tattooed men as healthier, which researchers Andrzej Galbarczyk and Anna Ziomkiewicz think might be because tattooing is a costly signal of strong health, involving as it does a painful experience and risk of infection. Normally, perceived health correlates with perceived attractiveness, but this positive connotation of the tattoos might have been counteracted by the fact the women also associated the tats with masculinity and aggression: not such a positive thing if you consider that another marker of masculinity, high testosterone, is known to be associated with affairs and higher risk of assault on a partner. All in all, the women’s judgments were swayed by the (admittedly small) tattoos far less than were the male participants’ judgments. Heterosexual men who are planning a trip to their local tattoo parlour might be surprised to learn from this research that their new ink is likely to cause a bigger stir among the gentlemen than the ladies.

Tattooed men: Healthy bad boys and good-looking competitors

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest