The persistence of happiness

When healthy people imagine the quality of life they would have with a chronic illness, their estimates are much more negative than reports from people who actually have a chronic illness. This suggests people tend to be much better able to cope with illness than we might think. But it could also be due to responses biases - for example, ill people might overestimate their mood for the benefit of their carers, or they might overly focus on positive aspects of their life as a coping strategy.

Jason Riis (University of Michigan) and colleagues sought to overcome this problem by asking patients and healthy controls, for one week, to rate their mood when prompted every 90 minutes or so by a pocket computer. This procedure, known as 'ecological momentary assessment', is thought to minimise the possible influence of biased recall. The 49 patients had end-stage renal disease and received a 3-hour-long hemodialysis treatment three times per week.

The average mood ratings made on the pocket computer were equally positive among both the patients and healthy controls. Yet when interviewed, the healthy participants predicted their mood would be negative most of them time if they had a chronic kidney illness. And the patients predicted their mood would be much more positive if they'd never had a kidney illness. That is, both groups of participants appeared to underestimate the resilience of people's mood to illness.

"For most of us, it would take a lot more than we think to make us permanently miserable", the authors said. And this has important implications for policy-makers: "...consideration of the moods experienced by patients may influence policy priorities between serious conditions such as, for example, paraplegia and depression."

Riis, J., Loewenstein, G., Baron, J., Jepson, C., Fagerlin, A. & Ubel, P.A. (2005). Ignorance of Hedonic Adaptation to Hemodialysis: A study using ecological momentary assessment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 3-9.
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Looks matter most when it comes to a fling

by Anita Gay at Totton College

Is your partner fit, rich, beautiful and kind? No? Well, individuals who are a perfect 10 in every mating dimension are extremely rare, if they exist at all! So how do we choose which mate characteristics are most important to us when looking for a partner?

Participants chose their preferred partner from descriptions of six pairs of potential mates. Each potential partner had varying levels of warmth/trustworthiness, attractiveness/vitality and status and resources. For each pair, one trait remained constant (e.g. warmth/trustworthiness), whereas the remaining two traits were reversed in positivity across the two partners. For example, one partner was described as: warm and trustworthy, fit and attractive, but poor, with a low status job; whereas the other partner was described as: warm and trustworthy, unattractive and unfit but rich and with a high status job. Participants indicated their preference in three scenarios - a fling, casual date and a long-term relationship.

Both men and women overwhelmingly chose positive levels of warmth/trustworthiness when pitted against status/resources (with levels of attractiveness/vitality kept constant) regardless of whether long-term or short-term liaisons were considered.

However, when attractiveness/vitality was contrasted with warmth/trustworthiness, the results were much more stereotypical! Men desired much higher levels of attractiveness/vitality for both a fling and long-term relationship than women did.

Both men and women tended to maintain or even increase the importance given to attractiveness and vitality when shifting from long-term to short-term relationships, but to lower the importance assigned to warmth and trustworthiness.

"The results were generally as expected", the authors said, "...the sex differences were marked for both long-term relationships and short-term flings; however, unexpectedly, sex differences disappeared when respondents were considering a casual date".

Fletcher, G. J. O., Tither, J.M., O'Loughlin, C., Friesen, M. & Overall., N. ( 2004). Warm and homely or cold and beautiful? Sex differences in trading off traits in mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 659-672.
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What on Earth...?

Children's drawings of the Earth as flat, or hollow with people inside, have led some psychologists to believe children develop naive, but coherent, mental models of what the planet is like based on their own observations. Such accounts predict that teaching science to children will be difficult because these entrenched beliefs must be overcome first.

But there are problems with interpreting children's drawings. They might draw a flat Earth because it's easier, for example. So Gavin Nobes and colleagues at the University of East London used a different technique. They asked 62 children, aged from 5 to 10, to put 16 cartoon-style pictures of the Earth in order of how much they looked like the Earth. The pictures varied systematically along three dimensions - the Earth's shape, the location of people, and the location of the sky.

All the children consistently ranked the spherical depiction of the Earth as most realistic. Two thirds of the 7 to 10 year-olds also showed a clear preference for pictures showing people and the sky all around the Earth. The 5 to 6 year-olds showed no consistent preference for the location of the sky and/or people. None of the children ranked the pictures in a way consistent with an alternative, naive mental model of the Earth (as flat, with people and the sky only on top, for example).

"These findings indicate that even young children have some knowledge of the scientific view of the Earth", the authors concluded, adding: "The only theory that children acquire is the scientific theory that culture communicates, presumably through linguistic and visual means by school, parents and the media".

Nobes, G., Martin, A.E. & Panagiotaki, G. (2005). The development of scientific knowledge of the Earth. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 47-66
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Judging your worth

How happy we are with our salary depends on how much we think other people earn. More specifically, Paul Sweeney and Dean McFarlin (University of Daytona) predicted, it is how much we think people similar to us earn - others with the same job, or who work at the same company. Their prediction was based on Leon Festinger's 'social comparison theory'.

To their surprise, however, Sweeney and McFarlin found that people's pay satisfaction was more widely affected, being predicted not only by whether they thought people with the same job in their own company earned more or less than them, but also by their sense of how much people earned doing different jobs from their's, either in the same or a different company.

So why isn't a person's satisfaction affected more by 'similar others' as psychological theory would predict?

"Similarity is in the eyes of the beholder", the authors said. "Perhaps respondents who are mobile and in a well-defined industry with clear competitors identify more with their counterparts in other organisations than with co-workers doing the same job".

Regarding comparison with people in different kinds of work, the authors suggested "such comparisons might provide workers with a sense of how their jobs 'stack up' with respect to other occupations...It may be that pay level is the most overt marker of one's status...if this plays an important role in defining the self in our society then our findings become more understandable".

"It may also explain an apparent obsession in today's world with lists of the richest people", they added.

The researchers surveyed 235 engineers at an American public utility company, 31,645 employees of the U.S. Federal Government, and 1,387 people with a range of different occupations.

Sweeney, P.D. & McFarlin, D.B. (2005). Wage comparisons with similar and dissimilar others. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78, 113-133.
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Despite the risks, an estimated 250,000 people go skydiving in the UK every year. Common sense suggests they're doing it for the buzz; an adrenaline shot in a sterile, safety-obsessed world. But what about those people for whom it becomes a regular past-time - does the kick never fade?

Ian Price and Claire Bundesen (University of New England, Australia) asked 105 skydivers with varying experience to rate how much they were feeling 33 emotional states before and after completing a jump. The participants also completed the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, and a tailor-made measure of how 'addicted' they were to skydiving.

The principal emotions felt by the skydivers were anxiety before a jump followed by happiness afterwards. This contrast was most striking for novices and was far less pronounced for experienced divers (those who'd made more than 500 jumps). "More experienced skydivers have minimised anxiety and maximised the positive emotions of fun, happiness and pleasure" Price and Bundesen said. "(they) will increase access to
skydiving stimulation in order to achieve something like the original experience...more mid-air manoeuvres, night jumps, freefall..."

The experienced jumpers also tended to score low on neuroticism. "People high in neuroticism may find the concerns raised by skydiving too much to bear and hence select themselves out of continued involvement" Price and Bundesen said.

Skydivers who reported signs of being addicted to jumping, tended to be the least anxious before a jump. Having one's calmness recognised by others in the skydiving community "when others are feeling life-endangering fear and panic might be a major reinforcing factor", the authors concluded.

Price, I.R. & Bundesen, C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203-1211.
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Give and take

Most of us have had the experience of opening yet another present of socks or hankies from a well-intentioned older relative. But even among friends, why is it that people giving presents so often get it wrong? Norwegian psychologists Karl Teigen, Marina Olsen and Odd Solas investigated.

They wondered whether people playing the role of giver overestimate the importance of exclusivity, not realising that the person they're giving to will appreciate quantity and practicality just as much, if not more. Their initial findings seemed to support this hypothesis. They asked hundreds of students to choose between gift alternatives (e.g. one expensive bottle of wine, or two cheap bottles), either from the perspective of a giver or a receiver. This showed that givers prefer to buy others gift vouchers, expensive wine and new dictionaries, whereas recipients said they'd prefer cash to vouchers, more (cheaper) wine, and larger, better second-hand books.

However, this difference all seemed to come down to whether we evaluate things in isolation, or in comparison with something else. So when Teigan's team asked people to rate from 1-10 how much they would like to receive certain gifts - two cheap bottles of wine, say - then exclusive or more expensive gifts received higher ratings every time.

"Positive attributes like quantity are harder to evaluate without a comparator", the authors said. "Exclusive, spotless items are ideal gifts whereas quantitatively superior items need to be compared with something else to be fully appreciated [...] Accordingly, the art of successful gift giving consists of selecting items that can
be appreciated even when they are presented on their own".

Teigen, K.H., Olsen, M.V.G. & Solas, O.E. (2005). Giver-receiver asymmetries in gift preferences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 127-148.
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Helping yobs

New Home Office research suggests one in four boys aged 14 to 17 could now be classified as a "prolific or serious offender" (but see link). Claire Nee and Tom Ellis at the University of Portsmouth tested the effectiveness of a new intervention for young offenders - the Persistent Young Offender Project.

The project involves one-to-one mentoring on anger management and group work on things like antisocial behaviour, problem solving, and interpersonal skills. There are also workshops on music, art and drama, as well as outdoor activities. The authors said a key novel feature of the intervention is "responsivity", to "constantly refine and change the level and types of individual intervention".

Nee and Ellis compared 41 young offenders aged seven to sixteen enrolled on the project, with 19 age and behaviourally-matched control participants. Of the 41 project participants, 40 were male, 36 had been excluded from school, half had thieved, a third had committed criminal damage or assault, and six had raped or committed indecent assault.

After six months, participants on the project were judged to be at significantly less risk of offending using an established inventory (the LSI-R). This showed more participation in organised activity, more engagement with education, including improved attitudes to authority figures at school, and improved attitudes to crime. In contrast, the offending risk of the control group had increased. Moreover, the project participants' police charges had dropped whereas the control participants' had risen.

"Now we know the Persistent Young Offender Project works, it now remains for us to establish why", the authors said.

Nee, C. & Ellis, T. (2005). Treating offending children: what works? Legal and Criminological Psychology, 10, 133-149.
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Last but definitely not least

Here's a tip - if you're applying for a new job or place at university, try to be the last one interviewed. Research suggests that when people judge successive performances, they tend to give progressively higher ratings to later performers.

Wandi Bruine de Bruin at the University of Technology in Holland checked back through scores given over 47 editions of the Eurovision Song Contest from 1957-2003. Over that time the scoring system has varied, sometimes each nation's judges have scored every song at the end of the contest; other years they scored songs one-at-a-time, after each performance. Regardless of the scoring system, and controlling for known national biases and other confounds, the later a singer appeared in the contest, the higher the score they tended to receive. Don't tell Terry.

de Bruin then analysed scores given during past European and World Figure Skating Championships. Again, despite skaters being scored one-at-a-time, those performing later tended to receive higher ratings. Moreover, judges tended to give later performers more extreme scores - perhaps because they gave early performers medium scores in the absence of anything to compare them by.

So why do judges give later performers higher scores? "Watching a sequence of performances, each new one may become more salient...positive features may have received more attention than shared ones, and made candidates seem better than earlier ones", de Bruin suggested. Of course it's possible that later performers were actually better - perhaps spurred on by the earlier performances. Either way, de Bruin, said, performers and candidates awaiting their turn should keep in mind "The Drifters' 1961 hit song - 'save the last dance for me'".

de Bruin, W.B. (2005). Save the last dance for me: unwanted serial position effects in jury evaluations. Acta Psychologica, 118, 245-260.
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The brain can't ignore angry voices

We're highly tuned to emotional signals. So whereas most of the information bombarding our brain is filtered, emotion-related signals seem to strike home regardless. Take fearful faces - research has shown these trigger the same activity in a fear-sensitive brain region, the amygdala, regardless of whether we're paying attention to them. This is in contrast to how the brain normally works. For example, a face will trigger a different amount of activity in the brain's fusiform gyri – a kind of face-processing module - depending on whether that face is being attended to. Didier Grandjean and colleagues at the University of Geneva wanted to find out whether the brain treats emotional sounds with the same priority as emotional sights.

Fifteen participants had their brains scanned while they were played two meaningless but word-like utterances to both their ears at once. These utterances were either neutral in their stress, tone and timing or they could convey anger. The participants' attention was always directed to one ear at a time by a task which required them to identify the gender of the voice at either their left or right ear.

An angry utterance at one ear triggered the same enhanced activity in the right middle superior temporal sulcus, regardless of whether a person was paying attention to that ear. "This suggests the right superior temporal sulcus...(is) finely tuned to extract socially and affectively salient signals from conspecficis (others of the same species)", the authors said. Together with past research, this points to a system that prioritises "orienting towards significant stimuli even when these are not the focus of attention".

Grandjean, D., Sander, D., Pourtois, G., Schwartz, S., Seghier, M.L., Scherer, K.R. & Vuilleumier, P. (2005). The voices of wrath: brain responses to angry prosody in meaningless speech. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 145-146.
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Why exercise helps depression

Many studies have suggested exercise can help alleviate depression. Lynette Craft (Michigan State University) wanted to find out the psychological mechanisms that might underlie this benefit.

Nine women with moderate depression underwent a nine-week exercise programme. Two days per week the participants undertook moderate-intensity (30mins) exercise on cycles and treadmills, and were taught stretching, and how to monitor their heart rate. One day a week they exercised at home. To facilitate a 'mastery experience', they were gradually given greater control over their exercise.

A control group of 10 depressed women did not complete the exercise programme. Both the control and exercise participants were on antidepressant medication, and had been for an average of 47 months.

A self-report assessment of depression symptoms (BDI-II) showed the exercise group's depression was significantly reduced both at three weeks after the programme start, and at the programme end. By contrast, the control group's depression symptoms remained unchanged.

'Coping self-efficacy' is a measure of a person's belief that they can cope with their depression. Craft found that the exercise participants' coping self-efficacy was increased at three and nine weeks into the programme, and that it correlated with their reduced depression symptoms, thus suggesting a possible mechanism for the exercise's beneficial effect. "Learning and mastering new health-related skills may have given them the confidence necessary to master new techniques to deal with their symptoms", Croft said. The exercise participants had also stopped thinking about their worries so much (i.e. ruminating) but this didn't correlate with their depression symptoms.

Craft, L.L. (2005). Exercise and clinical depression: examining two psychological mechanisms. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 6, 151-171.
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