Category: The self

Psychologists uncover a new self-serving bias – if it’s my theory, it must be true

By Christian Jarrett

If you look at the research literature on self-serving biases, it’s little surprise that critical thinking – much needed in today’s world – is such a challenge. Consider three human biases that you may already have heard of: most of us think we’re better than average at most things (also known as illusory superiority or the Lake Wobegon Effect); we’re also prone to “confirmation bias”, which is favouring evidence that supports our existing views; and we’re also susceptible to the “endowment effect” which describes the extra value we place on things, just as soon as they are ours.

A new paper in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by Aiden Gregg and his colleagues at the University of Southampton extends the list of known biases by documenting a new one that combines elements of the better-than-average effect, confirmation bias and the endowment effect. Gregg’s team have shown that simply asking participants to imagine that a theory is their own biases them to believe in the truth of that theory – a phenomenon that the researchers have called the Spontaneous Preference For Own Theories (SPOT) Effect.

Continue reading “Psychologists uncover a new self-serving bias – if it’s my theory, it must be true”

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

A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself

Friends cheering their friend while throwing bowling ballBy Alex Fradera

Whether we’re testing our mettle on a video game, on the golf course, or at the bowling alley, it’s good to have a realistic sense of our ability, so we attempt things that are feasible – and don’t accept unwise bets. But how accurate are we at judging ourselves in this way? In a new study in Neuron, researchers from Oxford University have shown that our sense of our own ability is coloured by the other players around us. Specifically, their findings suggest that when we’re competing with a strong player, we tend to downgrade our own ability. Conversely, when that player is on our team, we see ourselves as better than we really are. Continue reading “A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself”

Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?

Most of us have unwanted thoughts and images that pop into our heads and it’s not a big deal. But for people with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) these mental intrusions are frequently distressing and difficult to ignore. A new article in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy explores the possibility that the reason these thoughts become so troubling to some people is that they play on their fears about the kind of person they might be. Continue reading “Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?”

No, being kind to yourself does not make you weak or immodest

People who are kinder to themselves tend to be happier, healthier and to cope better when bad things happen. There’s also some evidence that training to be more self-compassionate is beneficial. Overall, self-compassion seems to be a sensible practice, so why are some of us averse to it?

In their new study in Self and Identity researchers from Canada, Germany and the USA predicted that people averse to self-compassion think it will make them feel bad about themselves – for example, that they’ll feel more selfish – and also that they hold different values from their more self-compassionate peers, such as believing more strongly in the importance of success. They’d probably agree with motivational speaker Zig Ziglar who said:  “When you are tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easier on you”.

Kelly Robinson and her colleagues surveyed 161 young adults about their tendency to be self-compassionate or not, the importance they ascribed to different values from prosperity to equality, and then asked them to imagine two scenarios of personal failure, one in which they treated themselves with self-compassion and forgiveness, and one in which they were hard on themselves and self-critical. Finally, the participants said how they’d feel about themselves after these two scenarios, based on 18 different character dimensions.

The less self-compassionate participants tended not to have different values from the self-compassionate, and they also agreed that self-compassion is good for well-being. But the less self-compassionate said they’d see themselves differently after showing care and tenderness towards themselves. Specifically, they said they would feel less industrious, ambitious, responsible, modest, careful, and competitive as compared with the participants who practised more self-compassion in their lives. Also, after being self-critical, the less self-compassionate participants said they would feel stronger and more responsible.

Overall, the results suggest that people who differ in self-compassion are just as interested in success and achievement, it’s just that the less self-compassionate think that being kind to themselves will hinder their ability to achieve because they associate self-kindness with being weak and less responsible and ambitious. The findings have implications for self-care interventions – those of us who struggle with self-compassion don’t just need to learn ways to be kind to ourselves, but we also need help challenging the negative assumptions we have about showing a little TLC to me.

Resisting self-compassion: Why are some people opposed to being kind to themselves?

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

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Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test

There’s a simple and fun way to test a toddler’s self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it.

This is called the “mirror self-recognition test” (it’s used to test self-awareness in animals too) and by age two most kids “pass” the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased. Using a more physical and social self-awareness test, Josephine Ross at the University of Dundee and her colleagues actually find more precocious performance in a non-Western (Zambian) group of toddlers.

The researchers tested 33 mother-child pairs in Ikelenge, Zambia (a rural culture that emphasises the important of interdependence); 31 in Dundee, Scotland (a typical Western culture that emphasises independence and autonomy); and 22 in Istanbul, Turkey (a mixed culture that emphasises both autonomy and interdependence). The children were all aged between 15 and 18 months.

The researchers first filmed the mothers and their children playing and looked for differences in their parenting style: whether it was more “distal” involving more talk and less physical contact, which is typical of Western cultures, or more “proximal”, with more physical contact, which is more typical of non-Western interdependent cultures. During play, the mothers put a red sticker on their child’s head. Then the children were given the mirror self-recognition test. The Scottish children showed the highest pass rate (47 per cent) followed by the Turkish children (41 per cent) and the Zambian children (15 per cent), consistent with past research.

Next, the researchers used a different test of self-awareness that actually originates in the writings of the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. The children were asked to push a toy trolley toward their mother while they were standing on a mat that was attached to the bottom of the trolley. To succeed they must realise that their body is holding down the mat and step off it to push the trolley.

Whereas the mirror test is about recognising that the self has a distinct visual identity (a concept consistent with Western notions of an independent, autonomous self), the trolley test is more about realising that the self is a physical object like other objects. There is also a more social, collaborative element to the test because it involves pushing the trolley towards another person. The researchers reasoned that children raised in a more interdependent culture would excel at the task and that’s exactly what they found. Fifty per cent of the Zambian children passed the test, compared with 57 per cent of the Turkish and 23 per cent of the Scottish.

The measures of parenting style that the researchers looked at did not explain much of the cultural variance in performance, but they said that might be because they looked at the wrong things, such as eye contact and physical proximity and future research will need to explore other factors, such as mothers’ attitudes towards teaching their children interdependence versus autonomy.

The Zambian children were less familiar with mirrors than the other children, but they were given the chance to explore one before the self-awareness test, and anyway, past research has shown that performance on the test is not related to mirror experience. The Zambian children were also more precocious walkers than the other children, which you might think would explain their superior performance (compared with the Scottish kids) on the trolley test, but in fact performance on the trolley test was not related to walking ability. In short, the researchers favour the idea that the cultural differences on the two tests are due to the distinct perspectives on the self that are encouraged in the different cultures, rather than to familiarity with the test equipment or simple physical skill.

“Whatever the explanation for the cultural difference,” the researchers said, “this study highlights the necessity of recognising that the measurement of self-awareness is inextricably bound with the context of our development. More care needs to be taken in measuring self-awareness if valid cross-cultural comparisons are to be made.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12387

further reading
Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test
Study uncovers dramatic cross-cultural differences in babies’ sitting ability

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

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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).”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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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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.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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.

Is self-disgust the emotional trigger that leads to self-harm?

To help people who perform non-lethal self-harm, such as cutting and burning themselves, we need a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings that contribute to them resorting to this behaviour. Risk factors are already known, including depression and a history of sexual abuse. However, Noelle Smith and her colleagues wondered if these factors increase the risk of self-harm because they lead people to experience self-disgust. Viewed this way, the researchers believe “self-disgust may serve as an emotional trigger” for self-harm.

Over five hundred undergrads, men and women, answered questions about whether they’d ever intentionally harmed themselves (including cutting, burning and scratching); when they’d last performed such an act; their depression symptoms; any history of physical or sexual abuse; their anxiety; and crucially, their feelings of self-disgust, as measured by 18 items, such as “I find myself repulsive”.

Consistent with the researchers’ predictions, the more self-disgust a student reported, the greater the likelihood that they had previously performed self-harm (statistically speaking, a one standard deviation increase in self-disgust was associated with a two-fold increase in the odds of reporting self-harm).

Levels of self-disgust were the highest in those students who said they’d performed self-harm in the last year. These were also the same students who tended to report depression symptoms and a history of physical or sexual abuse. It’s notable though, that depression was no longer associated with self-harm once self-disgust was taken into account, suggesting that self-disgust is the key mediating factor.

These findings jibe with past research on the more cognitive aspects of self-disgust – for example, there’s evidence that self-harm is associated with being self-critical and having an excessive focus on one’s own mistakes. Other studies have highlighted reductions in self-disgust after acts of self-harm, but also increases. Smith and her colleagues suggested the link could be bi-directional: self-harm may assuage feelings of disgust with self, but performing a self-harming act may then trigger feelings of shame with one’s own actions.

The cross-sectional nature of this study means it can’t shed light on the direction of causality –  whether self-disgust contributes to self-harm behaviours, or if the reverse is true. Self-disgust was also measured as trait, rather than as an acute state of mind. The researchers acknowledged these issues, but they note theirs is the first study to look at the emotion of self-disgust as a precipitating factor for self-harm, and they call for more research. For now, they said their results suggest reducing self-disgust may help people who are at risk of self-harm.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Smith, N., Steele, A., Weitzman, M., Trueba, A., & Meuret, A. (2015). Investigating the Role of Self-Disgust in Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Archives of Suicide Research, 19 (1), 60-74 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2013.850135

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

Want to learn a new skill more effectively? Stop thinking about yourself!

The human mind can be its own worst enemy. When we want to do well in sports, we often intensify attentional focus on bodily movements that are best off left on automatic pilot. The result, even for elite athletes, can be a dire instance of choking. The muscles stiffen or shake. Fluid, expert movement is lost, and the learning of new skills is impaired.

A common assumption is that an internal focus is harmful to performance because it directs unhelpful conscious attention to bodily control. But what if the costs of self-focus are more general and profound than that? Perhaps merely thinking about ourselves in any way is harmful to performance and learning because to do so activates the “self-schema”.

The self-schema is “more than a philosophical construct” argue Brad McKay and his colleagues in a new paper, it is in fact a “functional neural network located anatomically in cortical midline structures.” Their theory is that anything that activates this network – be that over-focus on bodily movements, memories of past performance, or the scrutiny of an audience – will be detrimental to skilled performance and learning.

The researchers began by dividing 36 students (26 men) into two groups and asking them to throw 10 balls underarm at a bulls-eye style target. Throws nearer the target earned more points. Both groups performed equally well. Now one group spent a minute “thinking about their previous throwing experience including their strengths and weaknesses as a thrower”; the other group acted as controls and just waited out the time. Both groups then performed 10 more throws. The students who’d spent time thinking about themselves showed inferior performance compared with their earlier standard; the control group maintained their skill level.

“A simple manipulation designed to activate the self-schema … was sufficient to degrade performance,” the researchers said.

Next, 37 more students were recruited (18 women) and split into two groups. They spent time practising using a bat to hit golf-ball-sized balls, travelling at 25mph, at a target. None of them had played organised baseball or softball in the last year.

Over two practice days, all the students completed a writing task in the various short breaks between hitting. Those in the self-reflective group wrote for one minute either about their experience at baseball; their personal attributes as an athlete; their emotional experiences related to baseball; or their strengths and weaknesses as a hitter (all the different topics were covered during the different breaks). The other group acted as controls – they spent the same breaks writing about objects in the laboratory where the training took place, either focusing on colours or shapes or the names of the objects.

A few days later, the students had a final go at the ball hitting challenge. Adjusting for initial performance differences, the control group significantly outperformed the self-reflective group. The control group also outperformed the self-reflective group when the task was changed slightly by speeding up the delivery of the balls.

McKay and his team said their results were surprising – as one of their participants remarked, you’d think spending time writing about one’s past glory days at baseball would have provided a confidence boost, and maybe rekindled old movement patterns too. Instead, the researchers said their results showed how the “ostensibly innocuous activity of contemplating one’s own experiences, emotions, strengths, weaknesses and attributes, might have activated a lurking neural self-network that interfered with the process of motor learning.”

Critics may feel this study raises as many questions as it answers – with no measures of muscle tension, or mood, or a myriad other possible mediating factors, we’re left in the dark about why writing about the self appeared to be detrimental to motor skill learning.

However, the researchers believe their study has broken new ground. Where previous research has shown instructions to focus on parts of the body can be harmful to performance, McKay and his team said their “experiments are the first to show that self-reflection alone is sufficient to interfere with motor skill activation and performance.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

McKay, B., Wulf, G., Lewthwaite, R., & Nordin, A. (2015). The self: Your own worst enemy? A test of the self-invoking trigger hypothesis The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2014.997765

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