Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The psychology of first impressions - digested

Piercings convey low intelligence and greater creativity, according to research
You’ll have had this experience - you meet a new person and within moments you feel good or bad vibes about them. This is you performing “thin slicing” - deducing information about a person based on “tells”, some more obvious than others.

Psychologists have studied this process in detail. For example, they’ve shown that we form a sense of whether a stranger is trustworthy in less than one tenth of a second. With some accuracy, we can also deduce rapidly more specific information such as their intelligence and sexual orientation.

This post delves into our archive and beyond to digest the science of first impressions:

People who make more eye contact are perceived as more intelligent
Psychologists at Northeastern University asked participants to watch five-minute videos of strangers chatting to each other in pairs, and then to rate the strangers' intelligence. People in the videos who made more eye contact with their conversational partner, especially while talking, and to a lesser extent while listening, tended to be perceived as more intelligent. Other research has found that people who avoid eye contact are judged to be insincere and lacking in conscientiousness. Don't go too far with the eye contact though - if you lock on and don't let go, people will likely assume you're a psycho

White men with brown eyes are perceived to be more dominant than their blue-eyed counterparts, according to a 2010 study. However, a blue-eyed man looking to make himself appear more dominant would be wasting his time investing in brown-coloured contact lenses. The study by Karel Kleisner and colleagues at Charles University in the Czech Republic found that brown iris colour seems to co-occur with some other aspect of facial appearance that triggers in others the perception of dominance.

Back in the 70s, researchers created over fifty synthetic voices and played them to participants at various speeds. Increasing speech rate led participants to assume the owner of the voice was more competent. Similarly, in another study conducted during the same decade, researchers played their participants recordings of male interviewees, either slowed down by 30 per cent or at the normal rate. The participants who were played the slowed-down tapes rated the interviewees as less truthful, less fluent, and less persuasive. Other research has shown that people who “um” and “ah” a lot are assumed to not know what they're talking about.

Last year researchers asked participants to rate the same man who was shown either wearing an off-the-peg suit or a bespoke suit. When seen wearing the bespoke suit, the man was rated as more confident and successful. Other research has shown that people assume that the same job candidate in formal wear will be more likely to earn a higher salary and win promotion, as compared to when he looks more scruffy.

A study at Tilburg University showed that people wearing a luxury branded shirt (Tommy Hilfiger or Lacoste) were perceived as wealthier and higher status (than people wearing a non-branded or non-luxury shirt); more successful at getting passers-by to complete a questionnaire; more likely to be given a job; and more successful at soliciting money for a charity. But crucially, all these effects depended on the assumption that the shirt wearer owned the clothing.

In this research observers discerned correctly that more agreeable people tended to wear shoes that were practical and affordable (pointy toes, price and brand visibility were negatively correlated with agreeableness); that anxiously attached people tended to wear shoes that look brand new and in good repair (perhaps in an attempt to make a good impression and avoid rejection); that wealthier people wear more stylish shoes; and that women wear more expensive-looking, branded shoes.

Research in 2012 involved observers rating pictures of men and women who were depicted with various numbers of facial piercings. As the number of piercings went up, the ratings of intelligence went down. On the other hand, a 2008 study found that a woman was judged to be more artistic and creative when she was shown with more piercings. 

Researchers at the University of Liverpool presented undergrads with line drawings of women that varied in the number of visible tattoos. "Results showed that tattooed women were rated as less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers than untattooed women, with more negative ratings with increasing number of tattoos." A more recent study found that men were more likely to approach a woman lying on a beach when she bore a tattoo on her back, and to do so more quickly. Men also estimated they would have more chance of dating or having sex with a woman when she had a tattoo on her back. 

When researchers at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, photoshopped pictures of men, so that they appeared to have shaven heads, the men were judged to be "more dominant, taller, and stronger than their authentic selves."

In 2012, researchers analysed point-light videos to identify what cues participants used to make judgments about a walker's personality. This led to the identification of two main factors - one was related to an expansive, loose walking style, which participants tended to interpret as a sign of adventurousness, extraversion, trustworthiness and warmth; the other was a slow, relaxed style, which the participants interpreted as a sign of low neuroticism. Although linked with these observer perceptions, the two walking styles were not in fact associated with walkers' actual personalities.

A 2011 study found that participants made many assumptions about people based on their style of handshake, but that the only accurate judgments concerned conscientiousness. The researchers' explanation was that conscientiousness is a trait that reflects how successfully a person can learn any complex behaviour, be that a musical instrument or a handshake. "The ubiquitous handshake may not be as ritualized or as precise as the Japanese tea ceremony," they said, "but it certainly requires some knowledge of the prevailing social norms and some interpersonal coordination."

This post is the first in a new series in which we attempt to digest the research on a given topic, or pertaining to a particular question. If there are any topics or questions you'd like us to digest, please let us know by commenting on this post or contacting the Digest editor.   

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

Study of dynamic facial expressions suggests there are four basic emotions, not six

New research suggests that humans recognise facial emotional expressions in a dynamic way. We search for urgent signals first, before seeking out more nuanced information. The University of Glasgow researchers also argue their data show there are four basic facial expressions of emotion rather than the widely accepted six.

Rachael Jack and her colleagues developed computerised 3-D faces that began neutral and relaxed before transforming over one second into a random expression, created through a combination of different facial muscle movements. These standard facial actions were digitised from recordings of real people, then tweaked to create variants with different speeds of transformation (see video, above).

Sixty Western Caucasian participants (31 women) then categorised each random expression as either: happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger or sadness. When observers agreed in their categorisations it meant something was signalling emotional information, and a technique called reverse correlation was applied across all the expressions to establish which muscle movements were associated with which emotions, and when. Many of these were expected, such as perceiving happiness in a raised upper lip and a wide mouth, but other findings were more surprising.

Whereas happiness and sadness were identifiable early on, other emotions took time to be distinguished. For example, for both surprise and fear, the same two early facial signals were involved early - dropping of the jaw and raised eyelids. It was only with the later appearance of raised eyebrows that surprise was distinguished from fear. A similar pattern was found with anger and disgust, with facial actions common to both (wrinkled nose, funnelled lips) appearing early, and the differentiator (a sneered upper lip for disgust) appearing later. It is thanks to the researchers’ unique dynamic stimuli that these unfolding processes have been uncovered for the first time.

Jack and her team argue that the four emotions that take time to be distinguished (fear, surprise, anger and disgust) fall into two categories: a “what the heck” avoidance response to a sudden fast-approaching threat, and a “something needs dealing with” approach response to an interest or problem within our midst. They see each of these categories as a single basic emotion, with the later distinction (fear or surprise; anger or disgust) adding social information to the more fundamental biological signal. Their argument would suggest there are four basic human emotions (approach, avoidance, happiness, sadness), contradicting the existing emotion framework, which states there are six basic emotions.

The debate over the precise number of basic human emotions is likely to run for a while yet. For example, another taxonomy, based on analysis of voice, touch, and posture, claims that there are several basic forms of happiness, even before counting varieties of the other emotions.

  ResearchBlogging.orgJack, R., Garrod, O., & Schyns, P. (2014). Dynamic Facial Expressions of Emotion Transmit an Evolving Hierarchy of Signals over Time Current Biology, 24 (2), 187-192 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.064

Thanks to Rachael Jack for permission to use the video and image from the study.
Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, 21 July 2014

It's time for Western psychology to recognise that many individuals, and even entire cultures, fear happiness

It's become a mantra of the modern Western world that the ultimate aim of life is to achieve happiness. Self-help blog posts on how to be happy are almost guaranteed popularity (the Digest has its own!). Pro-happiness organisations have appeared, such as Action for Happiness, which aims to "create a happier society for everyone." Topping it all, an increasing number of governments, including in the UK, have started measuring national well-being (seen as a proxy for "happiness") - the argument being that this a potentially more important policy outcome than economic prosperity.

But hang on a minute, say Moshen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies - not everyone wants to be happy. In fact, they point out that many people, including in Western cultures, deliberately dampen their positive moods. Moreover, in many nations, including Iran and New Zealand, many people are actually fearful of happiness, tending to agree with questionnaire items like "I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness".

Looking into the reasons for happiness aversion, Joshanloo and Weijers identify four: believing that being happy will provoke bad things to happen; that happiness will make you a worse person; that expressing happiness is bad for you and others; and that pursuing happiness is bad for you and others. Let's touch on each of these.

Fear that happiness leads to bad outcomes is perhaps most strong in East Asian cultures influenced by Taoism, which posits that "things tend to revert to their opposite". A 2001 study asked participants to choose from a range of life-course graphs and found that Chinese people were more likely than Americans to choose graphs that showed periods of sadness following periods of joy. Other cultures, such as Japan and Iran, believe that happiness can bring misfortune as it causes inattentiveness. Similar fears are sometimes found in the West as reflected in adages such as "what goes up must come down."

Belief that being happy makes you a worse person is rooted in some interpretations of Islam, the reasoning being that it distracts you from God. Joshanloo and Weijers quote the Prophet Muhammad: "were you to know what I know, you would laugh little and weep much" and "avoid much laughter, for much laughter deadens the heart." Another relevant belief here is the idea that being unhappy makes people more creative. Consider this quote from Edward Munch: "They [emotional sufferings] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me ... I want to keep those sufferings."

In relation to the overt expression of happiness, a 2009 study found that Japanese participants frequently mentioned that doing so can harm others, for example by making them envious; Americans rarely held such concerns. In Ifaluk culture in Micronesia, meanwhile, Joshanloo and Weijers note that expressing happiness is "associated with showing off, overexcitement, and failure at doing one's duties."

Finally, the pursuit of happiness is believed by many cultures and philosophies to be harmful to the self and others. Take as an example this passage of Buddhist text: "And with every desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own well-being as if it were their enemy." In Western thought, as far back as Epicurus, warnings are given that the direct pursuit of happiness can backfire on the self, and harm others through excessive self-interest. Also, it's been argued that joy can make the oppressed weak and less likely to fight injustice.

There's a contemporary fixation with happiness in the much of the Western world. Joshanloo and Weijers' counterpoint is that, for various reasons, not everyone wants to happy. From a practical perspective, they say this could seriously skew cross-cultural comparisons of subjective well-being. "It stands to reason," they write, "that a person with an aversion to expressing happiness ... may report lower subjective wellbeing than they would do otherwise." But their concerns go deeper: "There are risks for happiness studies in exporting Western psychology to non-Western cultures without undertaking indigenous analyses, including making invalid cross-cultural comparisons and imposing Western cultural assumptions on other cultures."

  ResearchBlogging.orgJoshanloo, M., & Weijers, D. (2013). Aversion to Happiness Across Cultures: A Review of Where and Why People are Averse to Happiness Journal of Happiness Studies, 15 (3), 717-735 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-013-9489-9

--further reading--
What's the difference between a happy life and a meaningful one?
Other people may experience more misery than you realise

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

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Link feast

Our pick of the best psychology and neuroscience links from the past week:

The Trouble With Brain Science
The problem, argues Gary Marcus, is that we've yet to achieve a breakthrough that bridges psychology and neuroscience.

Head of White House “Nudge Unit” Maya Shankar Speaks about Newly Formed US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team
News broke last summer that the US was planning to follow the UK by setting up its own "Nudge Unit". Here the PsychReport brings us fresh details of the recently formed unit, based on recent public engagements by Shankar.

Psychological treatments: A call for mental-health science
"Clinicians and neuroscientists must work together to understand and improve psychological treatments" - Nature comment article by clinical psychologist Emily Holmes et al.

When Work Becomes A Haven From Stress At Home
"Cortisol levels didn't spike when the volunteers were at work. They soared when the volunteers were home."

Oh! You pretty things
Cast aside your preconceptions - the data show that today's youth are more polite and better behaved than ever.

Young people explain psychosis on film
The BBC introduces us to John Richardson, the film-maker behind a new video in which people who've had psychosis share their experiences.

Babies’ Brains ‘Rehearse’ Speech Months Before They Talk
Report includes link to adorable video of babies having their brains scanned.

Can science explain consciousness?
Guardian Science podcast revisits a classic episode from its archives.

How Becoming a Father Changes Your Brain
"Before now, nearly all human research on the neural effects of parenting has been focused on mothers."

How to choose?
When your reasons are worse than useless," writes Michael Shulson, "sometimes the most rational choice is a random stab in the dark."
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Students say men are more attractive when they take risks, but only risks relevant to our hunter-gatherer ancestors

A willingness to take risks enhances men's sex appeal. This much we know from past research. What's not clear, is whether this is because of cultural beliefs about traditional gender roles, or if it's an evolutionary hang-over (or perhaps both). John Petraitis and his colleagues have put these two explanations to the test by drawing a distinction between risk-taking behaviours that reflect the challenges faced by our ancestors, and contemporary risks based around modern technology.

Over two-hundred undergrads (average age 22; 143 women) studied 101 pairs of behaviours - one high risk, the other lower risk - and in each case they indicated which would make a man a more attractive dating partner for a typical young woman. The task was then repeated but in relation to the attractiveness of a woman as a dating partner for a typical young man (some participants completed the questionnaires in the reverse order).

Crucially, some of the pairs of behaviours pertained to risks relevant to our hunter-gatherer ancestors - such as "rock climbing at a health club" (low risk) vs. "rock climbing in the back-country" (high risk) and "being a scientist who studies alligators in the wild" (high risk) vs. "being a scientist who studies birds in the wild" (low risk). These hunter-gatherer risks all related in some way to "situations where death, disease or injury could be found in drowning, weather extremes, falling, foods, other species, members of different clans, physical conflict with other people, and simple psychoactive substances available for more than 1000 years."

The remaining pairs of behaviours were based around modern technology or contexts, such as "driving a car while wearing a seat-belt" (low risk) vs. "driving a car without wearing a seat belt" (high risk); or "updating virus software" (low risk) vs. "not bothering to update virus software" (high risk). The complete list of modern risky behaviours pertained either to media piracy, academic plagiarism, electricity, the internet, chemicals, mobile phones, identity theft, or modern psychoactive substances.

The young male and female participants agreed that the sex appeal of both sexes was boosted by engaging in risky behaviours relevant to our hunter gatherer ancestors. However, this attractiveness enhancement was far more pronounced for men, than for women. In contrast, men and women agreed that the sex appeal of both sexes was actually diminished by engaging in risky behaviour based on modern technology or contexts.

Petraitis and his colleagues believe their findings support an evolutionary interpretation for why men's sex appeal is enhanced by engaging in risk-taking behaviour. Men are continuously fertile through most of their adult lives whereas women's fertility is restricted to specific times during a limited portion of their lifespan. This creates an asymmetry, the researchers explained, whereby women are selective in their choice of partners, while men must compete with each other for a limited supply of potential mates. The new findings support the idea that one way men (especially low status young men) advertise their genetic fitness to women is by displaying their willingness to take risks, just as a peacock parades his tail. The new findings support the evolutionary interpretation by showing that only hunter-gather risks relevant to our ancestors have this attractiveness enhancing effect, at least according to the perceptions of young Americans.

The researchers acknowledged that their category of hunter-gatherer risks also happens to take in activities that today tend to be considered "cool" or otherwise positive, whereas the modern category of risks are seen mostly as stupid or otherwise negative. This is consonant with a cultural explanation of the findings, but the researchers remind us that men's attractiveness was boosted by risk-taking more than women's, and they said these cultural perceptions might well exist because "contemporary cultures are shaped by prior evolution." They added: "[W]hat nature and evolution create, nurture and culture might exaggerate."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Petraitis, J., Lampman, C., Boeckmann, R., & Falconer, E. (2014). Sex differences in the attractiveness of hunter-gatherer and modern risks Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (6), 442-453 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12237

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

Thursday, 17 July 2014

How your mood changes your personality

Participants scored higher on neuroticism & lower on extraversion when they were sad
Except in extreme cases of illness or trauma, we usually expect each other's personalities to remain stable through life. Indeed, central to the definition of personality is that it describes pervasive tendencies in a person's behaviour and ways of relating to the world. However, a new study highlights the reality - your personality is swayed by your current mood, especially when you're feeling down.

Jan Querengässer and Sebastian Schindler twice measured the personality of 98 participants (average age 22; 67 per cent female), with a month between each assessment. Before one of the assessments, the participants either watched a ten-minute video designed to make them feel sad, or to make them feel happy. The sad clip was from the film Philadelphia and Barber's Adagio for Strings was also added into the mix. The happy video showed families reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall, together with Mozart's Eine klieine Nachtmusik. Before their other personality assessment, the participants watched a neutral video about people with extreme skills.

When participants answered questions about their personality in a sad state, they scored "considerably" higher on trait neuroticism, and "moderately" lower on extraversion and agreeableness, as compared with when they completed the questionnaire in a neutral mood state. There was also a trend for participants to score higher on extraversion when in a happy mood, but this didn't reach statistical significance. The weaker effect of happy mood on personality may be because people's supposed baseline mood (after the neutral video) was already happy. Alternatively, perhaps sad mood really does have a stronger effect on personality scores than happiness. This would make sense from a survival perspective, the researchers said, because sadness is usually seen as a state to be avoided, while happiness is a state to be maintained. "Change is more urgent than maintenance," they explained.

These results complement previous research suggesting that a person's personality traits are associated with more frequent experience of particular emotions. For example, there's evidence that high scorers on extraversion experience more happiness than lower scorers. However, the new data highlight how the relationship can work both ways - with current emotional state also influencing personality (or the measurement of personality, at least). We are familiar with this in our everyday lives - even our most vivacious friends can seem less friendly and sociable when they're down. With strangers though, it's easy to forget these effects and assume that their behaviour derives from fixed personality rather than temporary mood.

Although this research appears to challenge the notion of personality as fixed, the results, if heeded, could actually help us drill down to a person's underlying long-term traits. As Querengässer and Schindler explained, "becoming aware of participants' emotional state and paying attention to the possible implications on testing could lead to a notable increase in the stability of assessed personality traits."

  ResearchBlogging.orgQuerengässer, J., & Schindler, S. (2014). Sad but true? - How induced emotional states differentially bias self-rated Big Five personality traits BMC Psychology, 2 (1) DOI: 10.1186/2050-7283-2-14

--further reading--
Why are extraverts happier?
Situations shape personality, just as personality shapes situations

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

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

What does it feel like to be depressed?

We're used to reading about depression as a checklist of symptoms. These lists have their uses, but arguably they miss the human story of what depression truly feels like. Now the psychologists Jonathan Smith and John Rhodes have published their analysis of the first-hand accounts of seven therapy clients, (three women and four men) about what it's like to be depressed for the first time. The participants had an average age of 44, and all had been referred for therapy in London.

The first theme to emerge from the interviews was the feeling of being "depleted" - in one's relationships, bodily, and in respect to the past and future. Ravi (names have been changed), who'd recently lost his job and separated from his wife, described his "relational depletion" like this:
You get into a state I think mentally where, you're just like out on an island ... You can see from that island another shore and all these people are there, but there's no way that you can get across [ ] or there is no way that you want to get across.
The idea of bodily depletion was conveyed by Sally, whose son had recently been imprisoned for nine years. "It's like part of you gone, your heart, I don't know. Perhaps half my heart has gone away." Later she adds: "I don't feel like I'm part of my body when I'm down. [ ] It's like something's gone inside me and swept my happiness away."

The feeling of the past and future being depleted (what the researchers call "temporal depletion") was captured by Paul: "I feel that everything I do, everything has been a waste." Pamela, who had been suspended from work, shared a similar sentiment:
I feel like sometimes my life is on hold. [ ] I'm going to be out of a job and that's my life over because [ ] [the company] has been my life for 20 years, you know, I've, I don't know anything else.
The second key theme to emerge from the interviews was of "being shaken" - including experiencing overwhelming emotions ("I was waiting for that fearfulness to come on like a wave," said Paul); frenzied thinking ("It feels like my brain is just racing all the time and I'm trying to think all the time," said Ravi); and the sense of an uncertain self. Regards this last point, Stewart (who'd lost access to his son after a divorce), put it like this:
Depression for me is not liking yourself, having no confidence in yourself, seeking reassurance, hanging onto anything that you can, pretty much anything emotionally, get your hands on. Lacking courage.
Reflecting on their analysis, Smith and Rhodes said it was clear that all the interviewees had in common that they felt alone, empty and that they had no future. The picture, the researchers explained, was not of a "steady, flat, fixed-state" but of a "fluctuating see-saw between long periods of descents into emptiness and moments of explosive emotion."

The authors summed up: "To feel oneself as not in relation, as not having a body and as not having a life or a future means that one is either lacking or questioning the very taken for granted qualities of human experience. This helps illuminate depression as a very powerful phenomenon which makes aberrant the most basic existential features of life."

The pair hope the insights from their research may have therapeutic implications - for example, they said an open discussion with clients of what depression entails could reassure them that their experiences are shared by others, and help to "make links between what is being felt now and what has happened to the person."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Smith, J., and Rhodes, J. (2014). Being depleted and being shaken: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of the experiential features of a first episode of depression Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice DOI: 10.1111/papt.12034

--further reading--
What's it like to have OCD?
Recovering patients describe their battles with an "anorexia voice"
A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens
What clients think CBT will be like and how it really is

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

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

It's possible to "forget" unwanted habits

New research shows that we can weaken and even undo practised habits by deliberately deciding to forget them.

Gesine Dreisbach and Karl-Heinz Bäuml from Regensburg University first instilled new habits in their participants by presenting them with German words and training them over many trials to make the same response to each word - a left-handed key-press for half of them, a right-hand response for the remainder.

Later, participants had to categorise the same words by gender, with key-presses again used to make the categorisations. Crucially, half the words called for the same key-presses as had been trained for those words earlier, whereas the others required a key press that was the opposite to the earlier training. Reaction time differences between matched and mismatched trials tell us how much the earlier learned habit interfered with the current task (a similar philosophy to the well-known Stroop test).

Half the participants were run normally through this process and showed interference in the gender task – making key responses that were against the grain of the earlier training slowed them down, as you’d expect. The other half of the participants, once they'd completed the initial training, were confronted with an apparent computer crash and an apologetic experimenter told them to forget all about what they'd done so far. This group weren't held back by habits on the later task: in fact, interference from the earlier training was totally eliminated.

A second experiment was similar, but this time habits were formed in a less arbitrary way. Instead of words, participants categorised numbers from one to nine as low (left key) or high (right key) in size: this left-right, low-high mapping is how we naturally consider numbers in space. In the follow-up task, which this time involved odd/even categorisation, participants in the forgetting condition did show some interference on mismatched trials, but significantly less than the other participants. Dreisbach and Bäuml suggest that habits may be harder to forget when they are formed using meaningful constructs, whereas fully arbitrary ones can be shed more easily.

This research demonstrates an intriguing proof-of-concept, suggesting that we can decide at will to forget newly-formed habits (just as we can do to some extent with episodic memories). It’s possible that this could translate to more ingrained habits such as biting nails or picking your nose. After all, we know that our implicit memories are re-writable, making them open to interventions that weaken them. A big question for future research is whether directed forgetting will also be effective for habits that are pleasurable.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Dreisbach, G., & Bauml, K. (2014). Don't Do It Again! Directed Forgetting of Habits Psychological Science, 25 (6), 1242-1248 DOI: 10.1177/0956797614526063

--further reading--
Can we deliberately forget specific parts of what we've read?
Repression redux? It is possible to deliberately forget details from our past
How to form a habit
Less is more when it comes to beating bad habits

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