Category: Positive psychology

Being true to yourself may protect against the harmful effects of loneliness

A lot has been written about the downward spiral of loneliness. People who crave more social contact often develop behaviours and thinking styles that only serve to accentuate their isolation, such as turning to drink and becoming more sensitive to perceived slights and rejections. Less studied is the question of whether some people have personality traits that give them a buffer against these loneliness-related risks. A new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology finds a promising candidate that appears to fit this description – authenticity, or being true to yourself.

Jennifer Bryan and her colleagues surveyed 537 undergrads (average age 22; age range 18 to 60), nearly three quarters of whom were female. The students filled out questionnaires about how lonely they felt; their mood; any unpleasant physical symptoms they’d experienced in the last month; how much alcohol they typically drank on a daily basis and whether they had a drink problem; and finally their authenticity.

To get a sense of what the researchers really mean by “authenticity” let’s look in more detail at that last questionnaire. It consisted of 45-items in four categories: Awareness, which means how much someone is motivated to understand themselves (points are awarded for agreement with statements like “For better or worse I am aware of who I truly am”); Behaviour, which measures how much the person actually acts in accordance with their values and beliefs; Related Orientations, which is about how open and honest the person is in their relationships; and finally, Unbiased Processing, which speaks to how much someone can accurately evaluate themselves without being misled by what other people say or do. The researchers averaged across these subscales to give their participants an overall authenticity score.

The main result is straightforward. Across the whole group of students, feeling more lonely tended to correlate with being feeling more depressed and anxious; having more physical symptoms and more drink problems. Sadly, this is consistent with prior research on the sequelae of loneliness. But here’s the thing: among those students who scored more highly on authenticity, these associations were all reduced. That is, if you felt lonely but you also scored highly on authenticity, then your depression and anxiety tended to be lower, so too your drink problems and physical symptoms.

This is a cross-sectional study – it only involved taking measures at one point in time – so we need to interpret the results with caution (we also don’t know if the same findings would apply to a different demographic group, such as elderly people). But one hopeful interpretation of these results is that being true to yourself provides a kind of protection against the usual negative effects of being lonely.

Why might this be? Bryan and her colleagues posit a couple of explanations: First, perhaps highly authentic people don’t overanalyse their lonely feelings – they don’t see their loneliness as some kind of indictment of their personality, it’s just the way things currently are. Second, authentic people are likely less inclined to try to get out of their lonely situation by hanging out with people they don’t want to be with, or doing stuff they don’t want to do. Yes, this might increase their isolation at first, but it probably helps prevent them from growing more bitter and resorting to counter-productive coping mechanisms like drinking too much.

Of course there’s a lot of speculation here. We need a replication of the finding with a more robust longitudinal research methodology (that follows people’s changing feelings and traits over time), and to test other demographics. What’s exciting though, is that if the effect proves to be real, then it hints at a useful way to help lonely people – simply encourage them to be true to themselves. “Such an intervention would be uniquely beneficial,” the researchers said, “as it would not require effort from others (who need to interact with the lonely individual).”


Bryan, J., Baker, Z., & Tou, R. (2015). Prevent the blue, be true to you: Authenticity buffers the negative impact of loneliness on alcohol-related problems, physical symptoms, and depressive and anxiety symptoms Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315609090

further reading
Researchers say: Don’t worry what other people think, going out on your own can be fun
A preliminary psychology of “keeping it real”
Hiding negative emotions may take more of a toll on your relationship than faking positive ones, especially if you’re extravert
Your personality can invite loneliness, and loneliness can shape your personality
Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain’s structure and function
Lonely people’s brains work differently

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

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Guilt-prone people are highly skilled at recognising other people’s emotions

It’s not pleasant to feel perpetually that you’re responsible for mishaps and screw-ups, but some people do. Psychologists recognise this as a distinct trait, which they call “guilt-proneness” and now they’ve discovered that it tends to go hand in hand with an enhanced ability to recognise other people’s emotions, at least from their facial expressions.

For the new study published in Cognition and Emotion, Matt Treeby and his colleagues asked 363 people (mostly students; average age 27) to say how they’d feel in 11 hypothetical negative scenarios. For example, one involved making a big mistake on a work project. From the range of answers available, participants who said they’d think “I should have recognised the problem and done a better job” were considered to have shown evidence of guilt-proneness. Another answer participants could choose was “I would feel like I wanted to hide”, and answers like this were taken as a sign of shame-proneness as opposed to guilt-proneness. Although guilt and shame sound similar, the latter is associated much more with uncomfortable thoughts about the self (“what does this misdemeanour say about me?”) whereas guilt is much more focused on the act itself (“how could I have done that?”). Other response options signalled detachment or lack of concern: “Well, nobody is perfect”.

Next, the participants completed an online test that involved looking at photographs of actors displaying different facial expressions of emotion with varying intensities. The participants’ challenge was to label each emotion correctly as either happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger or shame.

The key finding was that guilt proneness tended to correlate with performance on the emotion-recognition test. Guilt-prone people performed better overall across the different emotions, and they also showed extra sensitivity to recognising low intensity emotions. It’s not clear from this research whether being sensitive to other people’s emotions contributes to making someone guilt prone, or if instead being guilt-prone leads one to pay more attention to people’s emotions, and get more practice at recognising them. Either way, it’s an intriguing finding that complements past research showing that guilt-prone people tend to report better than usual psychological adjustment, to avoid anti-social behaviour and have good relationship skills.

The story for shame-prone people was not so rosy. Overall, shame proneness was not related to emotion recognition ability, although there was some evidence that it actually correlated with a poorer ability to recognise other people’s happy facial expressions. This result also fits with previous research that’s shown shame-prone people tend to have poor empathy skills.

The study is not flawless – for example, the facial stimuli were acted and static and in real life we rely on many different cues to emotion, including body language and tone of voice. However, it’s a curious finding that might help guilt-prone people understand that their guilt-proneness is not their fault: it’s quite likely a side-effect of their being so well-attuned to other people’s emotions.


Treeby, M., Prado, C., Rice, S., & Crowe, S. (2015). Shame, guilt, and facial emotion processing: initial evidence for a positive relationship between guilt-proneness and facial emotion recognition ability Cognition and Emotion, 1-8 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1072497

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

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Life is better for people who believe willpower is unlimited

While psychologists continue to debate whether or not willpower is a finite resource, a related strand of research is exploring the implications for the rest of us depending on whether we personally believe willpower is unlimited. For instance, there’s research showing that people who think willpower is unlimited tend to recover better from tasks that require self-control than those who think willpower is finite, akin to the fuel in a car.

Now a new study, just published in the Journal of Personality, has looked at the broader implications of people’s beliefs about willpower. Katharina Bernecker and her colleagues report that people who see willpower as unlimited tend to be happier with life, and this is at least in part because they’re better able to cope when life gets more demanding.

The researchers began by surveying 258 people (average age 39; 163 women) participating in internet forums about stress and burnout. Those who said they believed willpower is unlimited (they agreed with statements like “Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after a strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it”) tended to score higher on satisfaction with life and positive moods.

Of course you could interpret these initial results as simply showing that happier people tend to believe that willpower is unlimited, rather than the willpower beliefs influence happiness. To shed more light on this, the researchers conducted two more investigations with hundreds of university students, surveying their willpower beliefs and life satisfaction at the start of a university year, and then again six months later, just before exam time.

Not only were beliefs in unlimited willpower associated with more life satisfaction and better moods at the start of the year, but also with more sustained positive well-being as the exam period approached. That is, students who initially endorsed the idea that willpower is finite tended to suffer sharper drops in happiness and mood as exam time drew near, as compared with their peers who said they believed willpower is limitless. Conversely, earlier well-being was not related to later beliefs about willpower, suggesting it’s the willpower beliefs affecting happiness, not the other way around.

Although students who described themselves as having less self-control were more likely to believe that willpower is limited, the link between willpower beliefs and later happiness held even after using statistics to control for the influence of the students’ self-reported levels of self-control. The link between believing willpower is unlimited and greater well-being also held after controlling for the students’ levels of optimism and pessimism, and their “self-efficacy”, which is a measure of how confident they are generally in their own capabilities.

Looking at diaries that some of the students kept during the study, it seems that at least part of the benefit of believing that willpower is limitless came from the fact that students holding this belief were better able to step up their efforts to work towards their personal goals as exam time drew near, and they felt they made more progress towards their goals. In contrast, the students who believed willpower was finite started to struggle to meet their personal goals as university life became more demanding.

These results need to be replicated and other explanations ruled out. For instance, it’s possible some other psychological factor or factors, not measured here, were affecting both willpower beliefs and happiness. However, if the results do hold, they suggest that the significance of the beliefs we hold about willpower could be far-reaching, affecting how we respond to challenging times, and therefore influencing our happiness in general. And if so, this raises the tantalising possibility of whether people can deliberately and permanently (not just over the short term) alter their beliefs about willpower in favourable, beneficial ways.


Bernecker, K., Herrmann, M., Brandstätter, V., & Job, V. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict subjective well-being Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12225

further reading
10 ways to boost your willpower
the first detailed study of daily temptation and resistance

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

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Put more effort into a project and you’ll become more passionate about it

The entrepreneur is one of the archetypes of our age, defined above all – if countless commencement speeches and hagiographies are anything to go by – by the passion they hold for their business, allowing them to devote so much to it. New research by Michael Gielnik and colleagues published in the Academy of Management Journal suggests this common belief has things backwards: in fact entrepreneurs get passionate because they get stuck in.

The first study spent eight weeks surveying 54 German entrepreneurs during the pre-launch period of their budding business opportunity. They answered questions like “In the last week, how much effort did you put into venture tasks beyond what was immediately required?” and rated their agreement with statements like “In the last week, establishing a new company excited me”. Their answers were used to generate ratings of effort and passion. The researchers found that for each entrepreneur, fluctuation in these two ratings could be explained by one relationship: the previous week’s effort influenced this week’s passion, such that more effort led to more passion.

Another study looked at this more systematically, asking 136 students to develop a business idea by answering questions about likely competitors, customers, and the conditions and trends of the market. In the primary condition, participants could choose between twelve possible business ideas or even put forward one of their own. The key question was whether their entrepreneurial passion would be higher following the task than it was prior to it. The experiment established that it was, but only under certain conditions.

Firstly, in a variation in which participants were only given 30 minutes to spend on the task, and told it was an unimportant pilot study (as opposed to being given an hour and told that their efforts would make a real difference), their subsequent appetite for founding a business was unaffected. This suggests investing minimal effort is not enough to boost passion. Secondly, half of the participants received feedback that their analysis was superficial and that they hadn’t advanced the readiness of this business idea. For these participants, it didn’t matter how much effort they invested, their passion didn’t tip upwards. Making an effort without seeing any impact is also not enough to boost passion.

One more factor: in another variant of the study, participants weren’t given free reign to select their entrepreneurial goal, but were handed one to work on. In this case, their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.

Although there are undoubtedly character traits that lead some people to find passion more readily, it doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It requires an engagement with the world, an engagement this study suggests has a particular structure. Free choice, results, and genuine effort: the three ingredients that passion needs.


Gielnik, M., Spitzmuller, M., Schmitt, A., Klemann, D., & Frese, M. (2014). “I Put in Effort, Therefore I Am Passionate”: Investigating the Path from Effort to Passion in Entrepreneurship Academy of Management Journal, 58 (4), 1012-1031 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0727

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

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The comforting power of comedy is due to more than just distraction

By guest blogger David Robson

When screenwriter Nora Ephron’s mother was on her deathbed, she had one instruction: “Take notes”. For the family of writers and raconteurs, no event was too painful to be burned in the crucible of their wit. “Everything,” Ephron Senior said, “is copy”. Nora Ephron applied the philosophy religiously with the semi-autobiographical novel and film Heartburn, documenting her husband’s cruel affair with “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb”.

As she explained later: “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

Clearly, it worked for Ephron – with Heartburn, she laughed her way from the divorce lawyers to Hollywood, becoming one of the world’s most successful comedy writers. But how about the rest of us? Recently, Lisa Kugler and Christof Kuhbandner at the University of Regensburg in Germany decided to test whether humour really does offer a valuable form of emotional regulation. They were particularly concerned with the possibility that jokes simply work as a distraction, making you think about something other than your hurt feelings. While that may help in the short term, it could impair your memory, so that you no longer remember exactly why you were upset. That would be a rather counter-productive way to manage our feelings: we all need to learn from our mistakes if we are to protect ourselves from further heartbreak.

If, on the other hand, the value of comedy comes from “reappraisal” – turning yourself from the victim into the hero, as Ephron claimed – then the memory should not be weakened, since you are still paying attention to the details. If so, humour should be a particularly effective way of helping you to flourish after upset.

To disentangle these two possibilities, Kugler and Kuhbandner opted to perform a carefully controlled lab study, to compare the effects of humour with a form of “rational appraisal” – a technique in which you try to detach yourself from an event and look at it logically, while distancing yourself from the emotional pain it brings.

Sixty-three undergraduates looked at a set of negative emotionally charged pictures, some of which were accompanied by a sentence that was either a straight, “rational” appraisal, or a joke. For instance, next to a scary picture of a snake bearing its mouth, the subjects either saw a straight, factual sentence explaining that this snake couldn’t bite because it didn’t have any teeth, or a funny quip about the snake’s glare: “When eggs are sold out in her favourite supermarket, Henrietta can get very angry”. Other negative images included a wounded child, a bomb, a hurricane, and a crying soldier, among others, all with either an accompanying factual and reassuring explanation or a joke.

The students rated how negative or positive they found each image, and whether they felt emotionally aroused by it or not, and then, a few minutes later, they had to note down details of as many of the pictures as they could remember. As a further test of the students’ memory, Kugler also showed them another set of images, which included some of the previous pictures, and the students had to report whether or not they recognised the images.

As Ephron might have predicted, the students seeing the humorous stimuli found the negative images considerably less upsetting, even compared to those viewing the rational facts that helped put the pictures in a less disconcerting perspective: clearly, laughter does soothe distress. What’s more, humour did not seem to impair memory any more than rational reappraisal: in fact, viewing the humorous comments even made the students slightly quicker to recognise the negative images later on. In other words, it didn’t seem that the jokes were distracting participants from the details of the images themselves and the value instead came from reinterpreting their content in a less negative light.

From these findings, you could conclude that humour really is the best medicine when it comes to heartache, even more than sober detachment and re-interpretation. But we should be a little reluctant to read too much into the experiment, with its rather restricted set-up. Viewing slightly upsetting pictures is a far cry from discovering a spouse’s betrayal! What’s more, the rational reappraisal process in the study was more passive than in real life: it’s far easier, but perhaps less effective, to read a pithy picture caption, compared to finding a sober way to re-evaluate our real-life tribulations.

On the other hand, this study could have underestimated the power of humour. Participants completed the tasks alone, but laughter is most often a social activity. As Sophie Scott at University College London and others have found, we are far more likely to laugh when we’re with other people, particularly people we like. It’s likely that hearing others laugh could itself be cathartic and help to heal our wounds.

More realistic research is clearly needed to build on this lab study. Still, the findings are certainly consistent with the idea that, if nothing else, laughter may be the chink of light that reminds us even the darkest days will end eventually. As Ephron put it: “My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.” And that’s enough to bring anyone comfort, the next time we face tragedy (or simply slip on a banana skin).


Kugler L, & Kuhbandner C (2015). That’s not funny! – But it should be: effects of humorous emotion regulation on emotional experience and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 6 PMID: 26379608

further reading
Locating the “sweet spot” when jokes about tragedy are seen as funny
Psychologist magazine special issue on humour and laughter

Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. David is BBC Future’s feature writer.

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Hiding negative emotions may take more of a toll on your relationship than faking positive ones, especially if you’re extravert

Handling your emotions in a close relationship is often a balancing act. You want to be true to yourself and open with your partner, but there are also times when it seems necessary to exert some emotional control – to hide your frustration, for example, or to feign happiness at their news (perhaps your partner is thrilled about a work trip, which in truth you’d rather they didn’t take).

A new study, published recently in the Journal of Psychology, is among the first the explore the toll of these two emotional strategies: hiding negative emotions and faking positive ones. Specifically, Tali Seger-Guttmann and Hana Medler-Liraz wanted to find out how the use of the two strategies in a relationship affects people’s satisfaction with that relationship, and whether this varies depending on whether someone is introvert or extravert.

The researchers surveyed hundreds of male and female Israeli participants (average age 32), all of whom were in a relationship of at least six months; half of them were married, the others were living with their partner or dating. The participants answered questions about their levels of extraversion; how often they hid negative emotions like nervousness, hate and anxiety in their relationship; how often they faked positive emotions like happiness, concern and love; and they answered several questions about their relationship satisfaction and also how often they experienced health problems such as fatigue and headaches.

Overall, hiding negative negative emotions was more strongly associated with poorer relationship satisfaction than faking positive emotion. But importantly, this link was moderated by the participants’ personality. Hiding negative emotions was linked much more closely to poor relationship satisfaction for extraverts than introverts. Faking positive emotion more often was also, but to a lesser extent than hiding negative emotion, linked with poorer relationship satisfaction, and this was equally true for both introverts and extraverts.

“The fact that both strategies [were] significantly related to less satisfaction with intimate relationships links our results to previous research on the importance and significance of authenticity in close relationships,” the researchers said.

Turning to the scores for health problems, there was evidence that hiding negative emotions was linked to more health symptoms for extraverts, but not for introverts, presumably because concealing emotions in this way comes somewhat naturally for introverts but not for extraverts. On the flip side, faking positive emotions was less strongly associated to health problems for extraverts than for introverts – again, perhaps because faking positive emotions is more consistent with an extraverted personality.

Unfortunately, like any cross-sectional research that only surveys people at one point in time, this study requires us to make assumptions about the causal direction between the factors that were measured. The researchers believe that hiding and faking emotions are probably affecting relationship satisfaction and health, but of course it’s likely the influence is at least partly in the other direction – when a relationship is going well, censoring our emotional displays is probably not so necessary.

Despite this shortcoming, this is the first study to explore links between hiding and faking emotions and personality, and the researchers say it could “help therapists and counsellors develop a deeper understanding of the interplay between emotional regulation styles (hiding and faking emotions) and personality style, and hence contribute to improving the quality of couples’ relationships.”


Seger-Guttmann, T., & Medler-Liraz, H. (2015). The Costs of Hiding and Faking Emotions: The Case of Extraverts and Introverts The Journal of Psychology, 1-20 DOI: 10.1080/00223980.2015.1052358

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

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Here’s a technique that helps self-critical people build confidence from a taste of success

The directed abstraction technique acts a springboard,
allowing the timid to gain confidence from initial success

Last week Kathleen finally put aside her fears about public speaking to give a presentation… and it went pretty well! But when you caught her at lunch today and asked if she wanted future opportunities to present, you found she was as pessimistic about her ability as ever.

This story reflects an unfortunate truth: people with low self-belief are liable to hold onto negative assumptions about themselves despite concrete evidence of the contrary; that is, they fail to “generalise from success”. Thankfully, in a new paper, psychologist Peter Zunick and his colleagues describe a technique, called directed abstraction, that can help the self-critical change their mindsets.

Direct abstraction means stopping to consider how a specific success may have more general implications – this is the abstraction part – and also ensuring this thinking is directed towards how personal qualities were key to the success. Let’s see what this means in practice.

In a first study, 86 students guessed the number of dots flashed up on screen, and were given fake but convincing positive feedback on their performance. Half the students were then asked to explain how they completed the task, which kept their thoughts on a very concrete, specific level. The other half were prompted to engage in directed abstraction by completing the sentence: “I was able to score very high on the test because I am: … ” This query is not about how, but why – a more abstract consideration – and also focuses on the individual’s own qualities.

Engaging in directed abstraction appeared to give a particular boost to those participants who’d earlier reported believing they have low competence day to day:  afterwards, they not only had more confidence in their estimation ability (than similarly self-critical control participants), they also believed they would do better at similar tasks (like guessing jelly beans in a jar) that they faced in the future.

In another experiment, Zunick’s research team sifted through hundreds of students to find 59 with low faith in their public speaking skills. Each of them was given a few minutes to prepare and then make a speech to camera on the topic of transition to college life, a fairly easy one to tackle. Each participant then watched themselves on video, with the experimenter offering reassuring feedback and implying that they did surprisingly well.

The same participants then engaged in directed abstraction (or the control “how” query) before being thrown once more into the breach with a second speechmaking experience, this time on a tough topic, with no coddling feedback afterward – this was the real deal. Did the directed abstraction participants gain confidence from their early success that could survive a rockier second round? They did, reporting more confidence for future public speaking than their peers.

The technique seems to be appropriate for a range of settings, although obviously it’s only useful to use it following an event that can be reasonably seen as a success, otherwise it could backfire. And it’s simple to use to help a friend or yourself, just by taking the time after a success to think through what it owes to your personal qualities. Then confidence can follow.


Zunick PV, Fazio RH, & Vasey MW (2015). Directed abstraction: Encouraging broad, personal generalizations following a success experience. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109 (1), 1-19 PMID: 25984786

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

New research challenges the idea that willpower is a "limited resource"

A popular psychological theory says that your willpower is
a “limited resource” like the fuel in your car, but is it wrong?

When we use willpower to concentrate or to resist temptation, does it leave us depleted so that we have less self-control left over to tackle new challenges? This is a question fundamental to our understanding of human nature and yet a newly published investigation reveals that psychologists are in open disagreement as to the answer.

The idea that willpower is a limited resource, much like the fuel in your car, is popular in academic psychology and supported by many studies. In their recent report What You Need To Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-control, the American Psychological Association states “A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.”

This view was backed by an influential meta-analysis published in 2010 [pdf] that looked at the results from nearly 200 published experiments. But now a team led by Evan Carter at the University of Miami has argued that the 2010 study was seriously flawed and they’ve published their own series of meta-analyses, the findings of which undermine the limited resource theory (also known as the theory of ego depletion).

Many psychology studies on willpower follow a similar format: one group of participants is first asked to perform an initial challenging task designed to drain their willpower, before completing a second “outcome” task that also requires willpower. For comparison, a control group of participants performs the outcome task without the first challenge. Superior performance by the control participants (on the outcome task) is taken as evidence that the willpower of the first group was left depleted by the initial challenge, thus supporting the theory that willpower is a limited resource.

The new meta-analyses and the 2010 effort both consider the combined results from many studies following this format, but the new analyses are far stricter in that they only consider studies that used tasks well-established in the literature as ways to challenge willpower, including suppressing emotional reactions to videos and resisting tempting food, and that also used established tasks as outcome measures, including persistence on impossible anagrams, food consumption and standardised academic tests (such as the graduate record exam). The 2010 analysis, by contrast, included a far wider range of studies including those that stretch the definition of a willpower challenge to its limits, including darts playing and purely hypothetical temptations.

Another key difference between the 2010 study and the new analyses is that Carter and his team trawled conference reports to find unpublished studies on willpower. This is important because in this scientific field, as with most others, it’s likely there has been a bias in the literature towards publishing positive results (in this case, those consistent with the popular idea that willpower becomes depleted with repeated use).

When Carter’s team analysed the evidence from the 68 relevant published and 48 relevant unpublished studies that they identified, they found very little overall support for the idea that willpower is a limited resource. The one exception was when the outcome measure involved a standardised test – here performance did appear to be diminished by a prior self-control challenge.

But for other outcome tasks such as resisting food, the combined data from published and unpublished experiments either pointed to no effect of a prior self-control challenge, or there was worrying evidence of a publication bias for positive results, as was the case, for example, when the outcome challenge involved impossible anagrams or tests of working memory. The new meta-analyses even found some support for the idea that self-control improves through successive challenges, a result that’s consistent with rival theories such as “learned industriousness“.

This new series of meta-analyses should be not be taken as the end of the theory of willpower as a limited resource. Proponents of that theory will likely respond with their own counter-arguments, including questioning the use of unpublished work by the new study. However, the results certainly give pause. “We encourage scientists and non-scientists alike to seriously consider other theories of when and why self-control might fail,” Carter and his team conclude. It’s worth noting too that this message comes after the recent doubts raised about a related idea in willpower research – specifically, the notion that depleted self-control is caused by a lack of sugar in the body.

Carter, E., Kofler, L., Forster, D., & McCullough, M. (2015). A Series of Meta-Analytic Tests of the Depletion Effect: Self-Control Does Not Seem to Rely on a Limited Resource. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/xge0000083

further reading
Self-control – the moral muscle. Roy F. Baumeister outlines intriguing and important research into willpower and ego depletion

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

Why it’s a mistake to seek control of your life through solitude

Many seek freedom in solitude, but new
research suggests feelings of control
come from social belonging. 

The true story of Christopher McCandless, dramatised in the 2007 film Into the Wild, is a search for radical independence that culminates in McCandless’ solitary existence in the wilds of Alaska. It speaks to a powerful belief: to feel you control your life, stand alone. But new research suggests otherwise: to feel control, stand together.

If committing to a group feels like surrendering control, reasoned Katharine Greenaway and her collaborators, we might expect some impact on wellbeing, as humans and animals alike thrive from autonomy and are distressed when they lose it. But group membership is robustly associated with life satisfaction, and while other researchers have sought to explain this as owing to social support or boosts to self-esteem, Greenaway’s team suspected that identifying with a group actually makes people feel more in control. After all, personal control means more than not being interfered with, it includes the capacity to do what matters. Greenaway’s team predicted that merely identifying as part of a group may make people feel more capable.

To test this, they collected data shortly after the 2012 US election, asking 129 American adults who they voted for, how strongly they identified with that candidate’s party and how much control they felt they had over their own lives. After Obama’s victory, Obama voters who had a stronger bond with his Democratic party felt more in control of their lives. Little surprise perhaps: their man had won. But voters with a strong Republican identity also experienced a post-election increase in their sense of personal control. Although the Republicans had a case to feel disempowered, simply being in bed with something bigger made them feel more capable than voters with a weaker collective identity.

Another much larger study looked at how 62,000 people across 47 countries identified with their local community, national group, or as part of the human race. Whichever level the researchers looked at, feeling part of a group was associated with feeling more personal control, and this effect was associated with higher levels of wellbeing.

Finally, an experiment involving 300 American adults showed that momentary manipulations of how we feel towards a larger group influences feelings of personal control and wellbeing. Half the participants were led to connect with their national identity by asking them to assess statements about America that were either positive and reasonable (therefore easy to endorse) or negative and unreasonable. These participants went on to report significantly greater feelings of personal control and greater life satisfaction in that moment. They also reported lower depression in the past week suggesting either that the effect can time-travel, or that their view of the past was coloured by a rush of national pride.

The notion of individualism is actually a fairly recent development for humanity, an exquisitely social species that owes its success to our capacity to collaborate and coordinate actions (this may even be the reason we developed conscious awareness). This new research suggests our group identities are a continued source of our sense of agency and control. A life alone on the Alaskan tundra may offer many things, but we can find our own forms of freedom right here among the people we know.


Greenaway, K., Haslam, S., Cruwys, T., Branscombe, N., Ysseldyk, R., & Heldreth, C. (2015). From “We” to “Me”: Group Identification Enhances Perceived Personal Control With Consequences for Health and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000019

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

People are overly optimistic about the benefits of optimism

“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” The sentiment articulated here by psychology pioneer William James is currently in vogue, if its preponderance in self-help books, motivational posters, and memes is anything to go by. But are we pinning too much on positive thinking?

A research team led by Elizabeth Tenney asked participants to guess how much a given task is affected by optimism, then compared this to how people actually fared when they were feeling more or less optimistic. So in one instance, “task completers” attempted a maths task, having been given false feedback that told them, based on their training performance, they were likely to do well or poorly, thus influencing their optimism. “Predictor” participants then guessed how the completers would perform, knowing that these people didn’t differ in calibre, only in the artificial feedback they’d received. Predictor participants expected the optimistic completers to do significantly better than those feeling pessimistic, but the reality is they didn’t.

Another experiment used a “Where’s Waldo?” task where task completers could study each complex image for as long as they wanted as they sought to pick out the figure hidden within. We might expect optimism to deliver results through sheer tenacity, and indeed the optimistic task completers did persist for about 20 per cent longer on the task. But this translated into a scant 5 per cent (statistically non-significant) improvement, not the hefty 33 per cent improvement expected by the predictors. Once again, people were shown to expect optimism to produce results in situations where the reality was otherwise.

A final experiment demonstrated that even when attention isn’t drawn artificially to people’s optimism, we still overrate its importance. Here, nine participants were each asked to estimate how 99 task completers had fared on a task, guided by character profiles of the completers, which included, among a host of other information, their level of optimism. Each profile characteristic gave participants more or less insight into the completers’ true performance: for instance, enjoyment of the test was a good, but not perfect, indicator that the person had performed well on the test. Participants were quite accurate in how much weight they gave to these cues – except for optimism, which they treated as a much more powerful factor than it truly was. This result suggests it wasn’t the way the earlier experiments were framed that led predictors to make too much of optimism; they are happy to do that all on their own.

This work doesn’t suggest that optimism is ineffective as a broad strategy for approaching life, or at helping us fulfil objectives at a broad scale. But it does suggest that we put more on the shoulders of optimism that it can bear. If you do badly at a test, rather than fretting that the cause was your negative mental attitude, it might be better to simply focus on your knowledge and approach.


Tenney, E., Logg, J., & Moore, D. (2015). (Too) optimistic about optimism: The belief that optimism improves performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108 (3), 377-399 DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000018

further reading
Optimism and pessimism are separate systems influenced by different genes

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