Category: Uncategorized

Parents who think failure is harmful to learning have children who think ability is fixed

Children respond better to learning setbacks when they believe that ability and intelligence are malleable – that is, when they have what psychologists call a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset”. This immediately raises the question of how to cultivate a growth mindset in children.

So far, there’s been a lot of attention on how to praise children (it’s better to focus on their effort and strategies rather than their ability), but not much else. Surprisingly, parents’ mindsets (growth or fixed) do not seem to be related to their children’s mindsets. A new study in Psychological Science suggests this is because children can’t tell what kind of mindset their parents have. Rather, children’s beliefs about ability are associated with how their parents’ view failure.

The Stanford University psychologists Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck began by surveying 73 parent-child pairs. Parents’ and children’s attitudes to ability were not related. But parents who saw failure as a chance to learn tended to have children who had a growth mindset, whereas parents who saw failure as more negative and bad for learning tended to have children with a fixed mindset.

Why is parental attitude toward failure seemingly more important than their attitude toward ability? It’s to do with what’s visible to children. Further surveys of more children and their parents suggested that children don’t know whether their parents have a growth or fixed mindset, but they are aware of their parents’ attitudes toward failure. Moreover, children who think their parents have a negative attitude to failure tend themselves to believe that ability and intelligence are fixed.

This seems to be because parents with a negative attitude toward failure respond to their children’s setbacks in characteristic ways, such as comforting them and telling them that it doesn’t matter that they lack ability, that are likely to foster in children the belief that their ability is fixed. Parents with a more positive attitude to failure, by contrast, tend to encourage their children to use failures as a chance to learn or get extra help – approaches that encourage a growth mindset.

A final study tested whether parents’ attitudes toward failure really do cause changes in the way they respond to their children’s failures. Over one hundred parents completed an online questionnaire that was either filled with items designed to provoke in them a negative attitude to failure or items designed to promote a positive attitude to failure. Next, the parents imagined their children had come home with a fail grade and to say how they would think, feel and respond. Parents primed to see failure as harmful to learning were more likely to say that they would respond to their children’s failure in ways likely to cultivate in them a belief that ability is fixed – such as worrying about their child’s ability, or comforting their child for their lack of ability.

“Our findings show that parents who believe failure is a debilitating experience have children who believe they cannot develop their intelligence,” the researchers said. “By establishing these links, we have taken a step toward understanding how children’s motivation is socialised. It may not be sufficient to teach parents a growth mindset and expect that they will naturally transmit it to their children. Instead, an intervention targeting parents’ failure mindsets could teach parents how failure can be beneficial, and how to react to their children’s setbacks so as to maintain their children’s motivation and learning.”


Haimovitz K, & Dweck CS (2016). What Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure. Psychological science PMID: 27113733

further reading
How to praise children
Seven-year-olds’ beliefs about ability are associated with the way they were praised as toddlers
Be careful when comforting struggling students

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

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Are certain groups of people more likely to leave suicide notes?

It is a sad fact that we can never ask of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who take their own lives each year – why did you do it? Instead, psychologists talk to people who have survived suicide attempts, and they also look into the minds’ of suicide victims through the notes that they leave. But in fact only a minority of suicide victims leave notes, and the validity of studying these notes depends in part of the assumption that victims who leave notes are the same as those who don’t. A new analysis, published in Archives of Suicide Research, of all the suicides that occurred in Queensland Australia during 2004, questions this very assumption.

Belinda Carpenter and her colleagues were given access to the coronial files of the 533 suicides that took place that year, and the associated police reports, autopsy reports, and coroner’s findings gave them unusual insight into the background to the victims. This detail also allowed the researchers to look beyond traditional, written suicide notes (left by 39 per cent of the victims) and to also identify instances where victims had made verbal or electronic warnings of their intent (a further 22 per cent had done this).

Matching trends around the world, the majority of the suicide victims in this study were male (83.1 per cent) and the average age at death was 43.8 years. The most common method of suicide was by hanging; just over half of the victims had known mental health issues; and a little over 5 per cent were from Indigenous Aboriginal communities.

Turning to the main question, the researchers found, contrary to the limited prior research on this topic, that women were less likely to have left a note (or made a verbal warning) than men, as were victims from indigenous communities and victims who killed themselves through gassing (by contrast, those who took their lives under a train or in a car were less likely to have left a note).

Among those victims who did leave a note or warning of some kind, women were more likely to leave a written note, as were victims from more affluent areas, while those with known mental health problems were more likely to have made verbal warnings.

The researchers advised that their results be interpreted with caution since some of the subcategories they looked at ended up consisting of very few cases. That said, they concluded that the findings suggest that “there are some significant differences” between suicide victims who leave notes and those who don’t, and that this needs to be taken into account by future research. “This is particularly important for research that uses suicide notes to gain insight into the motivation for suicide more generally,” they said.


Carpenter, B., Bond, C., Tait, G., Wilson, M., & White, K. (2016). Who Leaves Suicide Notes? An Exploration of Victim Characteristics and Suicide Method of Completed Suicides in Queensland Archives of Suicide Research, 20 (2), 176-190 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2015.1004496

further reading
A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens
What’s different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?

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

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Episode 4: The Psychology of Gift Giving

This is Episode Four of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. In this festive episode we explore whether psychology can help us with gift giving.

Our presenter Christian Jarrett and his guests discuss the benefits of giving “giver-centric” gifts; how recipients like to receive gifts on their wish lists; why ethical or pro-social gifts are sometimes not so warmly received; and the two words that can salvage that awkward situation when a gift doesn’t go down too well.

Our guests in order of appearance are Lisa Cavanaugh USC Marshall School of Business, Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University, and Alex Fradera, contributing writer to the BPS Research Digest blog.


The studies discussed in this episode, in order of appearance, are:

Episode credits: Presenter/editor/producer Dr Christian Jarrett. Vox pops Ella Rhodes. Music and mixing Dr Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Jingle Bells vocals Joe Loveday. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
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Previous episodes:
Episode one: Dating and Attraction.
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits.
Episode three: How to Win an Argument

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Routledge Psychology

PsychCrunch Banner April 16

Episode Three: How To Win An Argument

This is Episode Three of PsychCrunch, the new podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. In this episode we explore whether psychology can help you to win an argument.

After our presenter Christian Jarrett tries his luck with an argument about Michael Jackson’s legacy, we find out why convincing people of your point of view is so difficult, and we hear about a paradoxical technique that’s encouraging people to change their own minds about one of the most serious arguments in the world – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We also touch on why neurobabble appears to be so convincing.

Our guests are Dr Jon Sutton (Editor, The Psychologist); Dr Tom Stafford (University of Sheffield); Boaz Hameiri (Tel Aviv University); and Dr Sara Hodges (University of Oregon).

Some of the research discussed by our guests has been covered previously on the Research Digest blog, including how superfluous neuroscience can be so persuasive, and other relevant research is in our archive. Boaz Hameiri’s research on the paradoxical thinking intervention was published last year in PNAS. Tom Stafford’s ebook is available on AmazonFor argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. Further reading from The Psychologist magazine: The truth is out there–a look at belief in conspiracy theories; Are conspiracy theories just harmless fun?; Looking back: Every believer is also a disbeliever; Falling on deaf ears–when people believe psychology is not science.

Episode credits: Presenter/editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Producer Dr Lorna Stewart. Music and mixing Dr Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
Subscribe and download via Stitcher.

Bonus material:
Listen to the entire Michael Jackson argument between Christian Jarrett and Jon Sutton!

Previous episodes:
Episode one: Dating and Attraction.
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits.

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Taylor and Francis

The psychological toll of being off-duty but "on call"

That increasingly common end-of-day feeling: of physically leaving the office, only for it to tag along home. Thanks largely to technology, our availability – to clients, bosses and co-workers – extends into our evenings, weekends and even holidays. Getting a clear account of what this means for us isn’t easy, as jobs that intrude more into leisure time are also distinguished by higher pace and further factors known and unknown, making it hard to pinpoint what harmful effects, if any, are specifically due to our constant availability.

A new study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and led by Jan Dettmers at the University of Hamburg, takes a fresh tack on this, investigating workers who have two types of free-time: on-call periods where they are free to please themselves but must remain available for potential work demands, and other periods where they are truly off-duty. For each individual participant, this set up keeps job-role demands and responsibilities equal while varying the need to be available. The data suggest that extended work availability has a negative effect: dampening mood and also increasing markers of physiological stress.

The 132 participants – mostly men in 13 organisations ranging from IT to transport – spent periods of their calendar on-call, meaning they were available out of office hours to deal with special customer requests or troubleshoot technical emergencies. For the purposes of the study, the researchers focused on a four-day on-call period (including the weekend) and a similar period without on-call responsibilities.

During the study, participants completed morning mood diaries that showed them to be more tired, tense and unwell following an on-call day. The effect remained even after controlling for the number of work calls taken the previous day – suggesting it isn’t explained purely by lengthy and draining interactions. It’s likely that the mere anticipation of interruption, and the resulting loss of control over one’s free time, eats away at the benefits of leisure, even if the interruptions turn out to be minor.

In addition to the diary information, 51 participants provided physiological data in the form of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol can be used as a physiological marker of stress: specifically, the degree of its post-waking climb in concentration, which appears to be a preparation for the anticipated stresses of the day. A larger increase suggests a more stress-oriented state, and Dettmers and his team were able to analyse this from cotton balls that participants chewed on immediately after waking, and 15 minutes and 30 minutes after waking, before popping them into the freezer to await collection. The cortisol awakening response was greater the morning after an on-call day, with this effect also persisting once the volume of the previous day’s interruptions was controlled for.

We already know that use of work technology during free time makes it harder to relax and detach. Here we see further evidence that the mere prospect of work-related interruptions during free time can exacerbate stress. In the organisations researched in this study, on-call periods were formally identified as such and represented just a fraction of the work calendar; an unspoken truth in many organisations is that on-call is the unofficial default mode. In these cases, carving out truly off-call periods that allow people to reclaim control over their experiences is long overdue.


Dettmers, J., Vahle-Hinz, T., Bamberg, E., Friedrich, N., & Keller, M. (2015). Extended Work Availability and Its Relation With Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0039602

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

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Link feast

Our pick of this week’s 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

The Ultimate Psychology Reading List
For more than seven years, The Psychologist has been asking eminent psychologists to recommend books and journal articles.

The Vice Guide To Mental Health
The Canada-based magazine launches a new vertical devoted to mental health.

The People Who Are Lost in Time
At BBC Future, I reported on some of the strange causes and consequences of amnesia.

The Psychologist Annual Conference Special Edition
An exclusive digital edition produced to mark the British Psychological Society’s flagship event, held in Liverpool 5-7 May. It comprises archive material from speakers at this year’s conference.

Cutting The Body to Cure the Mind
The Lancet looks back on the rise and fall of treatments like leucotomy and ovariotomy.

Science Shows Humblebragging Doesn’t Even Work
Better to just brag than “humblebrag”, says new study.

Is Happiness Worth Measuring?
The Guardian hosts a debate on whether the government should be worried about the state of the nation’s wellbeing or should concentrate instead on what makes people feel unhappy.

Madness and Meaning
Depictions of mental illness through history, from the Paris Review

Living With Being Dead
Erika Hayasaki at Medium explores the cotard delusion.

First Results From Psychology’s Largest Reproducibility Test
Nature reports on an attempt to reproduce the findings from 100 psychology studies.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Walking backwards boosts creativity

The established routines and habits of everyday life can stifle our ability to think creatively. That’s according to a new study that’s based on the “embodied cognition” idea that performing bodily movements in a conventional manner encourages the mind to follow suit, and vice versa. The researchers say that by breaking out of physical conformity – such as by walking backwards instead of forwards – we can foster a more creative mindset.

The study began by asking 30 students to spend the morning as they normally would, but with one exception – wherever they went, they had to always walk backwards. A control group of 30 students spent a normal morning walking forwards. At lunch time, all the students were tested on two standard tests of creativity: thinking up novel uses for a brick and drawing pictures of aliens.

Five of the students from the walking backwards group were unable to participate in the lunch-time tests due to minor injury or getting lost, including one man who tripped over his cat in the morning, and a woman who walked into a water feature in the university grounds. However, the remaining walking backwards students outperformed the controls on the creativity tasks, coming up with more original uses for bricks and more outlandish aliens.

To gain real-life support for their ideas, in a follow-up experiment the researchers collaborated with a tech start-up company in London. On one floor of the company offices, all staff were instructed to spend a week walking backwards. In light of the student accidents, lead researcher Eve Errs commissioned the production of a special helmet for these staff to wear, providing head protection, but also featuring rear-view mirrors to help the wearer see obstacles behind them, and a beeping noise that sounds during backward locomotion.

At the week’s end, based on line manager ratings, the work of the backward walking staff was more creative than the work of staff on the other floors. On the negative side, ratings show the backward walking staff had achieved far less. Observational data suggested this was due to the increased time taken for movement around the building, frequent drink spillages, and several instances of uncontrollable laughing fits among the staff.

In the final strand of the research, Errs and her colleagues analysed the creative output of pop star Michael Jackson before and after he started performing his famous backwards Moonwalk. “Jackson’s oeuvre provides a rare historical record of an artist’s creativity both before and after the onset of increased time walking backwards,” the researchers explained. “On tour, he would [moon]walk backwards several times a night, each night, and that’s not to mention all the time he would have spent walking backwards in rehearsals.” The researchers claim their analysis showed that Jackson’s lyrics and musical style showed increased variation and divergent creativity in the 10 years after he first Moonwalked as compared with the 10 years prior.

Errs and her team conclude that the three studies provide converging evidence for the creative benefits of walking backwards. In an email to the Digest, Errs told us this is just the tip of the iceberg and that she is now expanding her research programme into a full “backwards living” movement. “Take any mundane activity, do it in reverse,” she said, “and you encourage your mind to think differently, to shake off the constraints of habit and conformity. Have dinner at breakfast, or have a shower before you exercise, the possibilities are endless.” She says she is already working with film studios to produce movie releases that can be viewed backwards, and she hopes her backwards walking helmet will be available commercially very soon.


Errs, E., Wards, B., & Walk, M. (2015). Thinking in new directions through reverse locomotion. Journal of Creative Studies, 23 (3), 427-436

Update: this post is a fiction written for April Fools’ Day. Eve Errs is an anagram of “reverse”. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk was one product of his creative genius (with a little help from the street dancers he observed), not the cause.

Please note: Joking aside, backwards walking itself is an established exercise with apparent physiological benefits. Many thanks to Gina Jones-Spengler for passing on further information.

–further reading–
Mild intoxication aids creative problem solving
Is group brainstorming more effective if you do it standing up?

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

What recycled sewage water reveals about human psychology

The technology now exists to recycle sewage water safely, but would you drink it?

By guest blogger Sam McNerney

Each year around one million people die from water-related diseases. In most cases, the causes are painfully obvious. Without access to a modern sewage system, people dump their bodily waste into the nearest river or street, which funnels their filthy excrement and urine back into the water supply. It’s a catastrophic problem without a cheap solution.

Until now. A few years ago Bill Gates teamed up with an engineer named Peter Janicki to create an ingenious machine that uses the same ingredient that taints water supplies—human waste—to clean them. The “Janicki Omniprocessor”, which looks something like a miniature power plant, can turn waste from 100,000 people into 86,000 liters of clean water a day while generating enough electricity to power itself. “The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle,” Gates wrote on his blog.

The Janicki Omniprocessor is a major technological breakthrough, but a psychological barrier remains. We know recycled water is clean, we trust the science, and it’s exciting to think about how many lives it will save. And yet, that nasty “Yuk!” feeling persists.

Part of our deeply rooted aversion for tainted water has clear evolutionary origins. Like many animals, we instinctually avoid food and liquid that has touched nasty substances for health reasons. Think of this instinct as Paleolithic germ theory. It wasn’t exactly modern epidemiology, but for the most part, it worked.

Unfortunately, our instincts occasionally play tricks on our judgment. In a somewhat grotesque but captivating area of study, researchers have shown that people refuse to drink orange juice from unused urine collection bottles, eat soup served in a brand-new bedpan, or touch delicious fudge baked in the shape of dog feces. It’s as if there’s some sort of immaterial essence that tarnishes these perfectly edible items.

This brings me to a new survey of over 2,600 Americans conducted by disgust guru Paul Rozin and his colleagues. Participants first read a short passage explaining how recycled water is certified safe and indicated their willingness to drink it. Next, they scored how comfortable they were drinking different types of water, from commercial bottled water, to tap water, to sewage water that had been boiled, evaporated, and condensed into pure water. Finally, they rated how comfortable they felt drinking recycled water if it had spent a certain amount of time in a reservoir or aquifer before it was fed back into the water supply. The purpose of this question was to see if the contagion heuristic—“Once in contact, always in contact”—wears off over time.

Although 13 percent of the sample indicated that they would never drink recycled water, almost half said that they would, while 38 percent remained uncertain. Disgust sensitivity, as measured by a short disgust test, correlated inversely with a willingness to drink recycled water. The more easily someone is grossed out, the less likely he or she will sip water from the Janicki Omniprocessor.

The next finding revealed something important about how the human mind perceives purity. Even though sewage water that is boiled, evaporated, and condensed is purer than tap water, participants overwhelmingly preferred tap water. Furthermore, compared to tap water, participants were more willing to drink bottled water that was filtered from tap water, even though the two are equally pure. It’s like running your clothes through the wash twice—the second wash doesn’t make anything cleaner; it just makes you feel a little bit better.

The scientists also found that participants were more likely to drink recycled water the longer it remained in a reservoir or aquifer, even though feeding recycled water back into a natural system actually decreases its purity. Rozin attributes this quirk in perception to the idea of “spiritual purification.” Just like we’re more willing to wear Hitler’s sweater if it supposedly came in contact with Mother Theresa, we’re more likely to drink recycled water if it was reintroduced into “natural systems.” (Distance also mattered. The further the water travelled, the cleaner it was perceived by the subjects.)

Rozin and his team didn’t stop there. To tease out some of these initial findings, they created a second survey for about 400 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. This time, participants read about four contaminants—a harmless amount of sodium cyanide, a drop containing active HIV (AIDS) virus, a heat sterilised cockroach, and a convicted murderer—then imagined drinking water that had recently come in contact with each contaminant. Not surprisingly, the undergrads vehemently rejected the idea of drinking any of this water. The cyanide provoked the least discomfort, while the HIV virus provoked the most.

So far, so obvious: when deciding to drink water or not, the most important variable to consider is its perceived purity. The most intriguing part of the paper came when Rozin asked the undergrads if they would drink clean water from the same glass, if the contaminated water was poured out and the glass thoroughly sterilised. It’s worth pausing to think about how you would answer this question. Would you drink from a glass if its previous user were a convicted murderer—even if the glass was completely clean?

Rozin found that the undergrads’ behaviour depended on a few key variables. Similar to the first study, those who were more willing to drink recycled water, and who scored low on the disgust scale, were more likely to drink from a recently contaminated glass. On the other hand, the undergrads who tended to distrust standard purification techniques to clean contaminated water were more likely to refuse. “This is particularly striking,” Rozin writes, “because these same people readily consume tap or bottled spring water, which usually have the very same contamination history as the water they reject as contaminated. We can describe these individuals as responding to what we call spiritual contamination.” For these people, even the most thorough sterilisation processes cannot remove the perceived impurities.

And that’s why I find this topic so interesting. Humans pay special attention to the history of objects—where they have been, what they have touched, and who has touched them—because we subscribe to the notion that objects have an underlying reality, an essence. Normally, this piece of mental software is helpful, but sometimes it can lead us astray.  The Janicki Omniprocessor represents a major breakthrough for producing clean water and improving health in the developing world at a low cost. But before we can put it to use, we will have to overcome a bigger obstacle: ourselves.


Paul Rozin, Brent Haddad, Carol Nemeroff, & Paul Slovic (2015). Psychological aspects of the rejection of recycled water: Contamination, purification and disgust Judgment and Decision Making

further reading
Yuk! Unfairness really does leave a bad taste in the mouth

Post written by Sam McNerney (@sammcnerney) for the BPS Research Digest. McNerney is a US writer with a focus on cognitive psychology, philosophy and business. He’s written for Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Fortune, Fast Company, TechCrunch and BBC Focus and maintained a blog on called Moments of Genius. He currently blogs at his website:

10 Fascinating Psychology Studies By Wife and Husband Research Teams

Celebrating psychology’s power couples

The detective work of science can be ridiculously addictive. Connecting with a non-scientist who doesn’t understand this thrill can be tricky, let alone the practical problem of finding time for a loving commitment when you’re married to your work. No wonder that some of psychology’s most successful research teams are made of husband and wife pairings. Here we celebrate these partnerships, providing a digest of 10 great studies by psychology’s power couples:

Helping Married Couples
We begin appropriately enough with the work of Julie Gottman and John Gottman, founders of the Gottman Institute in Seattle. The pair are renowned for their research on the secrets of successful long-term relationships, including the finding that newly wed couples who say more positive things to each other tend to stay together longer (a controversial result). The Gottman’s continue to research together: in 2013 they published a trial of their “Art of Science and Love Workshops” for distressed couples. This was one of the first attempts to disentangle the different components of couples therapy – in this case, deepening friendship and intimacy, and conflict resolution. The Gottmans’ workshop, which combines these components, was found to be more effective than either component in isolation. Also, husbands benefited far more than wives from the friendship component alone; wives benefited more than husbands when conflict resolution was added to the mix.

The Social Cure
Feeling a sense of belonging is incredibly important to our physical and mental health, a principle that the psychologists Catherine Haslam and Alex Haslam – now based at the University of Queensland, Australia – have dubbed “the social cure“. In one of their most recent demonstrations of the effect, the Haslams and their co-authors investigated the consequences of collective decision-making for elderly care home residents. Those residents given the chance to make decisions as a group about lounge refurbishment subsequently showed benefits in terms of cognitive abilities and satisfaction with the home, as compared with residents in a no-intervention control condition, or others who had the decisions made for them. The Haslams believe the benefits of the group work arose from feelings of camaraderie and solidarity.

Self-control as a Limited Resource
For years, the Baumeister and Tice Social Psychology Lab at Florida State University, headed up by the husband and wife team of Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice, has conducted groundbreaking research on the nature of willpower. The couple propose that willpower or self-control is akin to energy: the more you use it up in one situation, the less you have left over for other situations (they call this process ego-depletion). In 1998, for example, the pair published a paper with co-author Mark Muraven, that showed people’s ability to sustain a tight grip was curtailed after they’d suppressed their emotions during an upsetting movie. Aspects of their theory, including the idea that sugar can boost willpower, have recently been challenged.

Money As a Tool
The closest thing we have to royalty in the world of psychology and neuroscience is the partnership of Uta Frith DBE and Chris Frith of UCL, two of the most highly decorated and inspiring researchers you will ever meet. Individually, they have made major findings in the areas of autism and schizophrenia research, respectively. Recently they have begun working together more closely, together with colleagues at Aarhus University in Denmark. A recent study to spring from this more direct spousal collaboration showed how brain regions involved in tool use are activated by the sight of the destruction of money. The Friths and their collaborators said this suggests the idea of money as a tool is more than a metaphor.

Loneliness as a Brain Disease
Before they met, Stephanie Cacioppo and John Cacioppo pursued separate but related lines of research – she studying love and desire, he loneliness. Since marrying, the pair have combined forces at the University of Chicago where they now blend their areas of enquiry and dip into each other’s specialisms. This includes their joint publication of a recent review in which they argued (with co-author John Capitanio) that loneliness is effectively a neurological disease – it directly alters our perception, our thoughts, and the very structure and chemistry of our brains.

Helping People Quit Smoking
With the ear of government, our next pair are two of the most influential health psychologists in the UK. Robert West and Susan Michie of UCL have collaborated in advising the House of Lords on behaviour change, and they both sit on committees on public health for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. A particular focus of theirs is on helping people give up smoking and recently they’ve turned their attention to the effectiveness of electronic cigarettes. Their co-authored study published last year found that users of e-cigarrettes were more likely to sustain abstinence than people using other nicotine replacement products.

The Pull of Anger  
The Oxford University psychologists Kevin Dutton and Elaine Fox will be best known among the wider public for their popular psychology books. Dutton is the author of best-selling The Wisdom of Psychopaths and previously Flipnosis, while Fox is author of Rainy Brain Sunny Brain, which examines the science of optimism and pessimism. Earlier in their careers the pair collaborated on research into the attention-grabbing power of angry faces. For example, in 2000, with colleague Ricardo Russo, the couple showed that we take longer to shift our attention away from an angry face (vs. happy or neutral), and this is especially the case for people who have a more anxious personality.

Reading Children’s Minds
Our next pair are developmental psychologists: Elizabeth Meins at the University of York, whose work has helped inform NSPCC guidelines, and Charles Fernyhough at the University of Durham, who was recently described as “a new kind of academic“, combining as he does university research with the writing of popular science books and fiction, and many other activities. This couple have led the way in researching the concept and consequences of “mind mindedness” – that is, when parents “treat an infant as an individual with a mind, and try to work out what is going on for him or her“. Among their findings, in 2002 Meins and Fernyhough published research that suggested children with mothers who displayed more “mind mindedness” when they were aged just 6 months, tended to show more sophisticated understanding of other people’s mental states when they were tested at around age four years.

Wounds Heal More Slowly When We’re Stressed
Clinical psychologist Janice Kielcolt-Glaser and her husband, immunologist Ronald Glaser, both at Ohio State University, are pioneers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology – how our mental state, especially stress, affects our immune system. Among their many landmark discoveries is the finding, published in 1995, that psychological stress can slow down the healing of wounds, which was demonstrated in the context of people experiencing stress because of caring for relatives with dementia.

How Babies Learn
We end our list with another power couple from the field of developmental psychology: Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, both at the University of Washington, who study the way babies learn. Each of them incredibly prolific, the pair have authored hundreds of studies, books and they make frequent media appearances, including a TED talk by Kuhl. Rewinding to the early 1980s, one of the earliest fruits of their partnership was a study in Science (pdf) that showed infants can lip read, in the sense that they can tell which lip movements are matched to different speech sounds. The finding made an important theoretical contribution to our understanding of language development, showing that infant speech perception is not a purely auditory process.

further reading
The 10 Most Controversial Psychology Studies Ever Published
10 of The Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Who are the most eminent psychologists of the modern era?

A new paper identifies Albert Bandura as the
most eminent psychologist of the modern era.

Twelve years ago the behaviourist B.F. Skinner topped a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, followed by Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. Now a team led by Ed Diener has used their own criteria to compile a list of the 200 most eminent psychologists of the modern era (i.e. people whose careers occurred primarily after 1956).

Here is the top 10: Albert Bandura in first place, Jean Piaget, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Lazarus, Martin Seligman, B.F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky, Shelley Taylor, Amos Tversky, and Ed Diener himself (links are to relevant articles in The Psychologist magazine archive).

What do the authors mean by eminent? They stress the list is intended to reflect psychologists’ recognition by their peers, and is not a barometer of the importance of their work. The metrics they used combine three elements – major awards earned from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Psychological Science; mentions and coverage in five popular US introductory psychology textbooks; and citations, including consideration of the total number of citations and an individual’s most highly cited single paper. For further validation, the authors checked Wikipedia coverage – their higher ranked psychologists tended to have bigger profiles on the site.

With these criteria, this is clearly a US-biased list, although several British psychologists feature, including John Bowlby at 18, Michael Rutter at 45, Hans Eysenck at 46, and Alan Baddeley at 51. What about the distribution of specialisms? The best represented field was social psychology (making up 16 per cent of the list), followed by biological psychology (11 per cent) and developmental psychology (10 per cent).

Diener and his colleagues said the purpose of compiling this list – which they acknowledge is bound to be imperfect and to omit some stars – is to help identify the highest impact contributions in psychology, to discover the characteristics of eminent psychologists, and to identify imbalances in the field. On this last point, the authors raise concerns about the lack of women on the list (they constitute 27 per cent of the 200), especially given that more women now complete PhDs in psychology than men. The highest ranked woman is Shelley Taylor at 8, followed by Susan Fiske at 22. There is also a notable lack of ethnic minority psychologists – just five people are listed who match this description, including Shinobu Kitayama at 159, John Garcia at 112 and Claude Steele at 63.

What other lessons can we take from this exercise? Diener and his team highlighted the fact that the list was positively skewed – that is, the top performers were way ahead of the rest of the pack. These characters had in common that they tended to work in a focused field, rather than on a mix of topics. Most of them dared to defy received wisdom and to propose ideas that were heretical at the time. These eminent high-flyers also tend to be skilled writers and oral communicators.

The authors note that eminence takes time – the youngest person in the top 100 was 58 at the time the list was drawn up; 22 people earned the top APA award in their 70s. And perseverance. Few psychologists on the list gained their place through a handful of high impact of articles. Most were prolific and continued to work late into life. “A student who is motivated by recognition or money rather than the love of research might find it difficult or impossible to keep up this level of productivity for decades,” warn Diener and his colleagues.

One last thing. Of course it’s difficult to prove the direction of causality here, but we note with humility that over the years many of the eminent psychologists listed in this paper have kindly written for the Research Digest. James Coyne, at 200 on the list, wrote for us just a few weeks ago on suicide prevention; Martin Seligman (listed 5) wrote for us about his own self-control; Paul Ekman (15) about death and forgiveness; Michael Posner (29) about his learning difficulties; Jerome Kagan (31) on his obsession with highlighting methodological flaws; Elizabeth Loftus (55) on prestige-enhancing memory distortions; Robert Sternberg (60) on using psychology to find love; Howard Gardner (74) on forming a synergistic team; Paul Rozin (122) on time management; and David Buss (143) on the way we derogate our romantic competitors.


Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Park, J. (2014). An incomplete list of eminent psychologists of the modern era. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 2 (1), 20-31 DOI: 10.1037/arc0000006

further reading
More from and about the listed psychologists over at The Psychologist mag.

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