Category: In Brief

Randomised controlled studies find tea enhances divergent creativity

GettyImages-670040428.jpgBy Alex Fradera

A study in the journal Food Quality and Preference suggests that tea-drinking benefits divergent thinking, a key element of creativity that’s associated with generating ideas or identifying patterns. The researchers from Peking University greeted their initial 50 student participants with a cup of either hot water or black Lipton tea, before asking them to use children’s building blocks to make the most attractive design they could. Independent raters, blind to the study purpose and condition, rated the tea-drinkers designs as more creative, in terms of factors like aesthetic appeal, innovativeness and grandness.

In a second study, 40 more participants proposed names for a ramen noodle shop, and judges considered the names produced by tea-drinkers to be more innovative (but no more playful).

Tea drinking has already been tied to enhanced convergent thinking – coming up with the single correct answer to a problem – but the researchers claim theirs is the first study to find a relationship with more open, explorative thinking. The reasons for the effect aren’t clear: no significant improvement in arousal or positive mood was observed in the tea drinkers, nor did the participants prepare tea themselves, a ritual that some have speculated could help shift mindset. It’s possible that the effect is simply due to relaxation – so why not sit back and enjoy a brew with your next brainstorm.

Drinking tea improves the performance of divergent creativity

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

Flowers, apologies, food or sex? Men’s and women’s views on the most effective ways to make up

giphyBy Christian Jarrett

You and your partner have had a tiff. Of all the things they could do to try to make up with you, what would be the most effective? A group of evolutionary psychologists recently put this question to 164 young adults. They presented them with 21 categories of reconciliatory behaviour, including giving a gift, cooking a meal and communicating better (derived from an earlier survey of 74 other young adults about ways to make up).

Men and women agreed that the most effective reconciliatory behaviour of all is communicating (for instance, by talking or texting). To varying degrees, both sexes also rated apologising, forgiving, spending time together and compromising as among the things their partner could do that would most likely heal wounds.

But some behaviours men thought would be more effective for making up than women, and these were their partner performing nice gestures (such as chores, favours and compliments), and offering sex or sexual favours. On the other hand, women thought their partner apologising or crying would be more a more effective way for their partner to make up than did the men.

Joel Wade at Bucknell University and his colleagues said these differences are in line with the predictions of evolutionary psychology, namely that thanks to sex differences in mating strategies shaped through our deep ancestral past, men are generally more concerned about opportunities for sex whereas women are more concerned about emotional commitment. The findings also complement past research, in the same vein, that’s found men are more likely to end a relationship if their partner is sexually unavailable, while women are more likely to end the relationship if their partner is emotionally distant.

“Evolutionary theory predicts a number of sex differences in mate selection, mate retention, and mate expulsion,” the researchers wrote in Evolutionary Psychological Science. “The present research expands this literature by documenting systematic differences in which actions men and women perceive as most effective in promoting conflict reconciliation within romantic relationships.”

Sex Differences in Reconciliation Behavior After Romantic Conflict

Image via

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

A psychologist noticed this cool chair illusion in his office

10.1177_2041669517752372-fig1.gifBy Alex Fradera

A short paper in the journal i-Perception presents a disconcerting visual illusion spotted “in the wild”: how stackable chairs, viewed from a certain angle, mess with your head. This is an unedited image, but your mind resists accepting it could be real. The illusion was first noticed in the office of lead author Nick Scott-Samuel at the University of Bristol, who notes in the paper that “it obtains in real life as well as in images, even when sober”.

The cause of the trick appears to be the two “edges” seen coming up from the near-base of the stack – marked AD and BC in the annotated version of the image below – which “suggests a change in depth along those lines which does not actually exist” and makes it seem as if the bars that run from one “edge” to another compose an outward face.


160px-Penrose-dreieck.svg.pngIt misleads us a little like the Penrose triangle (see right), but whereas the triangle is actually impossible, the chairs only appear to be so – as demonstrated in this video where you can see the effect dip in and out. Scott-Samuel and his colleagues experimented with the chair stack and it appears that you need at least four chairs to create the effect.

You know the angles, you know the number: turn up to the meeting room early next time and use that recipe to astound even the most jaded eyes.

Stacking Chairs: Local Sense and Global Nonsense

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

Men with higher testosterone levels are less into classical music and opera

Screenshot 2018-02-05 10.46.01.png
Salivary testosterone was inversely correlated with preference for “sophisticated” music in men but not women (via Doi et al, 2018)

By Christian Jarrett

What counts as music to one person, sounds to another like a headache. Some of the difference is explained by our personalities (for instance, more open-minded people prefer classical) and our thinking style (systematisers prefer heavy metal more than empathisers). What’s not been examined before now, according to a paper in Personality and Individual Differences, is the biological basis of our musical tastes.

Continue reading “Men with higher testosterone levels are less into classical music and opera”

Politicians – when you dodge the question, it makes you look dodgy

Party Leaders Appear On Live Televised Show 'May v Corbyn Live: The Battle for Number 10'
The research also suggested that we’re more likely to notice evasions by politicians whom we distrust

By Alex Fradera

Evasive politicians tend to pay for their slipperiness, according to new research in Journal of Language and Social Psychology. To study the art of the dodge, David Clementson of Ohio State University created videos of a male politician with no obvious party affiliation (he was played by an actor, but the participants thought he was a real politician), who was quizzed on a number of topics by a news reporter. In some versions of the video the politician played it entirely straight, but in others he dodged one of the questions, either by switching topics, or by giving a terse “no comment”. Either evasion led to the politician being rated as less trustworthy, both by a young group of 200 American university students, and a more seasoned group of 200 US citizens with an average age of 57.

Continue reading “Politicians – when you dodge the question, it makes you look dodgy”

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