Debate about how much a person’s character can and can’t change have occupied psychologists for decades, but a growing consensus is beginning to emerge. While our traits are relatively stable, they are not fixed.
Change is often passive – that is, experience leaves its mark on personality. But excitingly, initial findings suggest that we can also change ourselves.
What prior research has so far not addressed, however, is whether simply desiring to change is enough (perhaps by triggering automatic, subtle shifts in our identity and behaviour), or whether we must take deliberate, active steps to change. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this question. The results show once again that wilful personality change is possible, but they also indicate that the mere desire to change is not sufficient. In fact, failing to support one’s goals with concrete action appears to backfire, leading to personality drift in the opposite direction to what was desired.
Among the many paradoxes of human nature is this: while many of us spend great time and energy trying to avoid negative emotions, like fear and disgust, there are others who, in an apparent act of emotional masochism, pay good money deliberately seeking out those same unpleasant feelings. Like the visitors to the Basement immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, who spend $31 to “enjoy” being hooded, mildly electrocuted, stabbed (in a simulated fashion), and locked in a coffin, among other delights.
A team of researchers, led by Margee Kerr at the University of Pittsburgh, believe they may have resolved the paradox, although they caution that their findings are exploratory. For their new paper in Emotion, they set up a temporary EEG (electroencephalography) lab in a closet in the Basement attraction and found evidence that for many people who willingly submit themselves to an intensely frightening experience, the reward is a boost to their mood and energy, accompanied by a reduction in their neural reactivity. Taken together these effects could be indicative of a beneficial recalibration of their emotions – after you have been scared witless, the mundane travails of life are a breeze.
Depression is a chronic, recurrent, lifelong condition. Well, that’s the current orthodox view – but it is overstated, argues a team of psychologists led by Jonathan Rottenberg at the University of South Florida. “A significant subset of people recover and thrive after depression, yet research on such individuals has been rare,” they write in their recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science. They propose a definition for “high functioning after depression” (HFAD); argue that the advice given to people with depression need not be so gloomy; and lay out key areas for future research.
Let’s start with a quick multiple-choice test about multiple-choice tests: when designing them, should you a) avoid using complex questions, b) have lots of potential answers for each question, c) all of the above or d) none of the above? The correct answer is (a), though as we’ll see, this was not a very well-crafted multiple-choice question.
The issue of how best to design multiple-choice questions is important since they have been popular in both education and business settings for many years now. This is due to them being quick to administer and easy to mark and grade. Furthermore, many students often report preferring them over other test formats.
As well as being a useful assessment tool, if they are well-designed they can also aid learning. This is because of the Testing Effect – the way that retrieving knowledge helps consolidate it in memory.
Thankfully in a recent paper in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition Andrew Butler of Washington University in St. Louis has reviewed the parallel literatures on how best to design multiple-choice tests for learning and assessment, and from this he’s recommended six evidence-based tips:
Focus and concentration, while normally considered beneficial attributes, can stymie creativity – especially the generation of novel ideas. This has led some to wonder whether people with “leaky attention“, and especially those with ADHD – who have what Holly White, writing recently in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, calls “chaotic minds” – might have a creative advantage when it comes to breaking free from prior examples. White, who is based at the University of Michigan, has tested this possibility, and though she acknowledges her new study is small, she believes her findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that “ADHD may be advantageous for certain types of creative thinking; specifically, divergent, unconstrained creative cognition.”
Listening to a story is known to be cognitively demanding, in part because the listener has to pay close attention to, and remember, plot and character detail in order to understand what’s going on. Attention and memory are both diminished in people living with dementia. Might regularly reading aloud to such people help, then, to train their attention and memory, and function as a treatment? A new study of people with various kinds of dementia, published in Psychology and Neuroscience, suggests that it could.
In chronic pain, the pain system is locked in to a high-alert mode. One of my colleagues describes it as replacing your alarm system after a burglary, but with one so sensitive it goes off when a fly goes through the room. Mere touch may now be experienced as pain. The pain is real, it isn’t “just in the head”, but nor is there a hidden injury to fix or illness that can be cured. It’s a system that needs retuning, and that calls for participation from the body itself.
According to a new paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology one particularly promising way that psychologists can help with this is by encouraging self-compassion: a practice of recognising one’s own suffering, accepting this is part of a shared human experience, and not over-identifying with the suffering.
Psychology as a scientific field enjoys a tremendous level of popularity throughout society, a fascination that could even be described as religious. This is likely the reason why it is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in European and American universities. At the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter the firm opinion that psychology in no way qualifies for consideration as a science. Such extremely critical opinions about psychology are often borrowed from authorities – after all, it was none other than the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who, in a famous interview in 1974, compared the social sciences and psychology in particular to a cargo cult. Scepticism toward psychological science can also arise following encounters with the commonplace simplifications and myths spread by pop-psychology, or as a product of a failure to understand what science is and how it solves its dilemmas.
According to William O’Donohue and Brendan Willis of the University of Nevada, these issues are further compounded by undergraduate psychology textbooks. Writing recently in Archives of Scientific Psychology, they argue that “[a] lack of clarity and accuracy in [psych textbooks] in describing what science is and psychology’s relationship to science are at the heart of these issues.” The authors based their conclusions on a review of 30 US and UK undergraduate psychology textbooks, most updated in the last few years (general texts and others covering abnormal, social and cognitive psych), in which they looked for 18 key contemporary issues in philosophy of science.
According to the Mindset Theory, if you tell a child repeatedly that they’re smart, it makes them less willing to push themselves when they get stuck on an intellectual challenge, presumably because failure would threaten their self-image of being a “smart kid”. For this reason, effort-based praise – rewarding kids for “working hard” rather than “being smart” – is widely recommended (though it’s not the same for adults). But does a similar effect occur in the social sphere? What if you ask a child – as so many parents and surely teachers do – to “be a helper” as if it’s a category that you either belong to or you don’t?
Earlier research has found that young kids are more likely to try to help others when they are asked to “be helpers” instead of “to help”. But as Emily Foster-Hanson and her fellow researchers at New York University note, “Setbacks and difficulties are common features of children’s experience throughout development and into adulthood,” so it’s important to examine the effects of category labelling – like “being smart” or “being a helper” – when things go wrong for the child. And in their new paper, published in Child Development, they find that setbacks are more detrimental to a child labelled “a helper” than a child asked “to help”.
Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin, our hero’s love rival, the evil Jafar, discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp. Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth.
What follows next is a lingering, close-up of Jafar’s body. He leans forward, fists clenched, with an almost constipated look on his face. He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape. For many millennials growing up in the 1990s, it is an archetypical evil laugh.
A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in the Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this might be. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is well placed to provide an answer having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.