Why do some men insult their partners?

Men who habitually insult their wives or girlfriends do so, somewhat paradoxically, as part of a broader strategy to prevent them from leaving for someone else – what evolutionary psychologists call 'mate retention'.

Steve Stewart-Williams and colleagues asked 245 men (average age 29 years) to report how many times in the last month they had insulted their partner using one or more examples from a list of 47 insults, arranged into 4 categories: physical insults, insults about personal value or mental capacity (e.g. “I called my partner an idiot”), accusations of sexual infidelity, and derogating their value as a person (e.g. “I told my partner she will never amount to anything”).

The men were also asked to report their use of 104 mate-retention behaviours, such as whether they became jealous when their partner went out without them, and whether they checked up on where their partner said they would be at a given time.

The men who insulted their partners more also tended to engage in more mate-retention behaviours. A similar association was found in a second experiment in which a separate sample of 372 women were asked to say how often their partners insulted them, and how often they engaged in mate-retention behaviours. The researchers said insults might serve a mate-retention function, by making a “woman feel that she cannot secure a better partner, with the result that she is less likely to defect from the relationship.”

Past research has shown that men who engage in mate-retention behaviours are more likely to be violent towards their partners. This study appears to support that research by showing that such men are also more likely to use what might be considered verbal violence.

The researchers said that future research should also focus on the extent of women's use of partner-directed insults and the function they serve.

McKibbin, W.F., Goetz, A.T, Shackelford, T.K., Schipper, L.D., Starratt, V.G. & Stewart-Williams, S. (2007). Why do men insult their intimate partners? Personality and Individual Differences, 231-241.

Link to related Digest item.
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Behind the news

Behind the news is a new, additional service from the BPS Research Digest helping connect you with the the science behind the news. Now every fortnight, we'll provide you with direct links to the scientific journal abstracts (full text if possible) and lead authors behind the psychological studies that have been filling column space in the mainstream press.

1. 'Girls, a friendly chat won't cheer you up' (The Times).
'Talking over a problem "makes teenage girls more unhappy"' (Daily Mail).

Here's the journal source and the lead researcher.

2. 'Phone mast allergy all in the mind' (BBC).
'Phone mast malaise all in the mind, study finds' (The Times).

Here's the journal source and the lead researcher. Full-text available via Bad Science.

3. 'Study: Men talk as much as women' (Time magazine)
'Study explodes myth of the gossipy woman' (Telegraph)

Here's the journal source and the lead researcher.

4. 'Cannabis doubles risk of psychosis'(The Guardian).
'Cannabis users "are taking huge risk of psychotic illness"' (The Times).

Here is the journal source and the lead author. Update: The Lancet have made the full-text freely available if you register (hat-tip Bad Science) and they interview one of the study's authors in their podcast.

What do you think of our new Behind the News feature: really useful, or a waste of time? Please use comments to let us know.

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Verbal reassurance can dull the effect of pain, but only if it's from someone we identify with

The physical effect of pain can be alleviated by verbal reassurance from another person but only if they are someone we identify with. The new finding by Michael Platow and colleagues at the Australian National University demonstrates the significant role of social psychology in pain perception and could have important implications for placebo treatments.

Fifty-four science students held their hand in icy water for as long as they could, up to a limit of 130 seconds, imposed for ethical reasons. Then a confederate of the researchers appeared, posing as either a science or arts student who had done the experiment earlier. They told the participants that the second go at the ice bath was 'much easier'. A control group didn't receive any reassurance. The participants then held their hand in the icy water for a second time.

After reassurance from another student, the pain of the second ice bath provoked far less physical arousal in the participants (as measured by the sweatiness of their dry hand) than it had done the first time around, but only if that reassurance came from another science student, not if it came from an arts student. The control group didn't show any reduction in arousal.

The reassurance didn't have any effect on how long the students were able to hold their hands in the water for, but that is probably because so many of them were able to keep their hand in the water for the entire 130 second limit, even on the first exposure.

“Our research suggests that the relative success of verbal communications, such as placebo communications, is likely to obtain primarily, if not solely, when administered from in-group members,” the researchers said.

Platow, M.J., Voudouris, N.J., Coulson, M., Gilford, N., Jamieson, R., Najdovski, L., Papeleo, N., Pollard, N. & Terry, L. (2007). In-group reassurance in a pain setting produces lower levels of physiological arousal: Direct support for self-categorisation analysis of social influence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 649-660.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
BELL, Sir Charles (1774-1842) Sir C. Bell, the anatomy and philosophy of expression as connected with the fine arts. London: John Murray, 1844. Page 157 - pain.
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So that's what eyebrows are for...

Why do we have a line of hair sitting caterpillar-like above each of our eyes? Forget such mundanities as dust protection or ornamentation, a new study suggests our eyebrows serve to control how easily other people can tell where we are looking.

Four participants looked at hundreds of photos of the eye region of people who were facing forwards, gazing either to the left or right of the camera. The photos varied in size (a substitute for what, in real life, would be viewing distance), how long they were shown for and whether the eyebrows were neutral, lowered or raised.

The participants' accuracy in judging gaze direction from the photos was unaffected by photograph size up to a critical point after which accuracy suddenly plummeted. Roger Wyatt and colleagues at Stirling University who conducted the research said this pattern of results suggests we determine a person's gaze direction by comparing the amount of white eyeball visible on either side of the dark iris.

Crucially, the position of the eyebrows affected the size of photo beyond which accuracy was affected. In other words, if the eyebrows were raised, the participants were able to judge gaze direction with smaller photos than if the eyebrows were lowered. Viewing time affected accuracy regardless of photo size.

The researchers said the effect of eyebrow position was suggestive of a social function for the hairy tufts, and helped explain the 'eyebrow flash' – the convention for people to raise their eyebrows at each other from a distance in a gesture of acknowledgement. “It may make the eye gaze direction of the sender briefly visible to the receiver. Since that eye gaze direction is at the receiver, it results in the receiver being given a brief 'I am looking at you signal', which would communicate recognition,” they said.

Watt, R., Craven, B. & Quinn, S. (In Press). A role for eyebrows in regulating the visibility of eye gaze direction. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
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Gerald Edelman's neural Darwinism applied to the moral debate surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. "This Nobel prize-winning scientist says he has discovered how human souls are made."

Edelman interviewed in Discover magazine.

The psychology of rejection.

Thoughts projected in 3D using visualisations of EEG readings.

Ten important differences between brains and computers. "Appreciating these differences may be crucial to understanding the mechanisms of neural information processing, and ultimately for the creation of artificial intelligence."

Preventing suicide and self-harm among prisoners. "Instead of self-harming or bullying others, we help prisoners to talk about their problems. They are not used to that. Quite often we ask 'how are you feeling?' and it will be the first time they will have ever been asked that question. Basically we are helping them to manage their feelings."
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The Special Issue Spotter

Elder issues (Behavioural Sciences and the Law). A neglected area, this issue deals with things like how Alzheimer's Disease affects people's capability to make legally binding decisions, and how stereotypes about the elderly might affect legal decision makers.

Evidence-based practice in clinical psychology: Education and training issues (Journal of Clinical Psychology). This issue aims to answer questions like What is evidence-based practice in clinical psychology? Why is it important? What do you need to know?

Education and Pedagogy with Learning Objects and Learning Designs (Computers and Human Behaviour). E-learning meets psychology and pedagogy.

Behavioral and Economic Perspectives in Drug Abuse Research (Drug and Alcohol Dependence). How drug abuse is affected by economics, market forces and social environmental phenomena such as drug trafficking and distribution, gang activities, family disruption and neighborhood structure and dysfunction.
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The health costs of a hostile disposition

Here's a great scientific reason to be nice. American psychologists have shown that having a hostile attitude could be bad for your health, especially if you are someone judged by society to be of lower social status.

Benita Jackson and colleagues measured the hostility and lung function of 4,629 healthy participants aged between 18 and 30 years, living in Minneapolis, Birmingham, Chicago or Oakland, USA.

Reduced lung function is a risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – the sixth most common cause of death worldwide. Greater lung capacity in youth is known to provide protection from the illness later in life. Meanwhile, hostility is associated with immune functioning and hormonal activity, and it's via these biological pathways that the researchers predicted hostility might have an adverse effect on lung function.

Lung function was gauged by asking participants to wear a nose clip and blow into a machine. Hostility was measured by participants' agreement with statements like “I am easily angered” and “I strongly defend my own opinion as a rule”.

Those participants who were more hostile in nature also tended to have relatively poorer lung function, regardless of whether they were a smoker or not. This could leave these participants at greater risk of pulmonary disease later in life.

“It appears that hostility hurts, insofar as it is associated with lowered pulmonary function,” the researchers said.

The association held true for black men and women, and white women, but did not quite reach statistical significance for white men. The researchers surmised this could be because black people and white women who have a hostile demeanour are chastised by society for their attitude, thus causing them harmful stress. By contrast, a hostile demeanour in white men might be treated by society as a sign of authority.

The cross-sectional nature of the research means a causal link between hostility and lung function has not been irrefutably established. It's possible, though intuitively unlikely (given the levels talked about here), that poorer lung function causes hostility, and it's also possible that one or more unknown factors have a concurrent effect on both lung function and hostility.

Jackson, B., Kubzansky, L.D., Cohen, S., Jacobs Jr., D.R. & Wright, R.J. (2007). Does harbouring hostility hurt? Associations between hostility and pulmonary function in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in (young) Adults Study. Health Psychology, 26, 333-340.
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Brain scan helps identify children likely to have reading problems

Psychologists in America report brain scanning could help identify those children who are at greatest risk of having later reading problems.

At the start and end of a school year, John Gabrieli and colleagues tested the phonological skills of 64 children (aged between 8 and 12 years) – that is, their ability to convert letters into sounds – a skill that is known to be key to effective reading. They did this by asking the children, all of whom had been identified as poor readers, to read nonsense words aloud.

Also at the start of the year, the researchers gave the children a comprehensive battery of traditional reading tests, plus a brain scan, during which they had to say whether words rhymed with each other.

Performance on the traditional behavioural reading tests predicted 65 per cent of the variance in the children's phonological skills at the year end, whereas patterns of activity revealed in the brain scans predicted 57 per cent of the variance. In particular, greater activation in the left temporal lobe and more right-frontal activation were both predictive of superior phonological skills.

So, used in isolation, the traditional tests beat the predictive power of the brain imaging. But the key finding is that using both the behavioural measures and brain scanning data together predicted 81 per cent of the variance in end-of-year phonological skills.

“The significantly greater predictive accuracy of the combined behavioural-neuroimaging model than either model alone shows that neuroimaging is measuring brain functions and structures relevant to reading that are not fully measured by their behavioural correlates in standardised testing,” the researchers said.

In the future, a combination of neuroimaging and behavioural measures could help target early, intensive reading interventions at those children who need it most, the researchers said.

Hoeft, F., Ueno, T., Reiss, A.L., Meyler, A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Glover, G.H., Keller, T.A., Kobayashi, N., Mazaika, P., Jo, B., Just, M.A. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2007). Prediction of children's reading skills using behavioural, functional, and structural neuroimaging measures. Behavioural Neuroscience, In Press.
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People who are dogmatic have poorer working memory

People who are narrow-minded and dogmatic have a poorer working memory capacity, which is what makes it harder for them to process new information. That's according to Adam Brown who tested 212 university students on a verbal working memory task.

The students listened to several sentences that had a word missing at the end, then after hearing all the sentences they had to propose words to fill in the gaps, in the right order.

They also completed a measure of dogmatism which gauged their agreement with statements like: “When it comes to differences in opinion in religion, we must be careful not to compromise with those who believe differently than the way we do.”

Brown found that the poorer a student's performance on the working memory task, the more likely they were to be dogmatic. Other measures such as their college admission exam performance (SAT), their age or gender didn't make any difference to this relationship.

“I predicted that it may be reasonable to expect differences in verbal working memory capacity, and this may directly affect one's ability to effectively process new information, especially if it is complex,” Brown said. “The results support this prediction.”

Brown, A.M. (2007). A cognitive approach to dogmatism: An investigation into the relationship of verbal working memory and dogmatism. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 946-952.
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I'm sorry some readers have had problems with the links in their latest Digest email newsletter (issue 96), particularly in the extras section. The correct links are given below.

Memories for sexual trauma are not repressed, rather they are associated with greater vividness and sensory detail.

Personality, not job satisfaction, is the key predictor of job performance.

Mirror-touch synesthesia: the feeling of being touched when you see someone else touched.
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Why, when we're distressed, do we sometimes smile?

You might have found yourself doing it: smiling when really you're upset or distressed. Why do we do it? It's a question that has divided psychologists. Is it to camouflage our true feelings from others? Or is it because smiling comforts us and protects us from our distress?

Matthew Ansfield of Lawrence University in America believes his new findings argue strongly in favour of the latter explanation. He videoed 80 men and 80 women while they watched disgusting videos, either alone or in the company of someone else. The more disgusting the video, the more distressed the participants said they felt and the more they tended to smile. Moreover, the more they smiled during the video, the less distressed they reported feeling after the video had finished – consistent with the idea that smiling during the video had shielded them from its distressing effect.

Of course this doesn't rule out the idea that the participants may also have been smiling to hide their disgust from others – to appear macho or stoical, perhaps. Indeed, the participants smiled more when they viewed the video with someone else compared with when they viewed it alone. However, Ansfield believes this is because a reluctance to reveal their emotions in the company of others actually made watching the disgusting videos even more distressing, thus providing an even greater need to find comfort in a smile. Consistent with this, those participants, especially the men, who reported feeling more uncomfortable and self-conscious during the disgust video also tended to be the ones who smiled more.

Finally, Anfield argues, if we smile when distressed for social reasons - to hide our negative emotions from others - then how come the participants who smiled during the disgusting videos, were judged less likeable, and deemed to have responded inappropriately, by other participants who saw footage of them? This suggests it wouldn't make sense for us to smile when distressed for social reasons.

Ansfield, M.E. (2007). Smiling when distressed: When a smile is a frown turned upside down. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 763-775.
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Do children understand God's mind before they understand other people's?

If you use a torch to show a three-year-old child that there is a red brick inside a dark box, they will mistakenly assume that everyone else, even without looking, also knows there is a red brick in the box. It's only when they reach the age of about five that they realise other people need to see or be told about the brick to know that it is in there.

That same three-year-old will (appropriately, from a theological perspective) also assert that God knows there is a red brick in the box. Together with other observations, this has led some researchers to conclude that children start out with an understanding of what a god-like, all-knowing perspective is like, and that for several years they mistakenly apply this to other people.

But now Greek psychologists Nikos Makris and Dimitris Pnevmatikos have challenged this idea. They presented 120 Christian children aged between 3 and 7 years with a box that had something rattling around inside it, which they weren't able to reach or see (7 children were earlier excluded because they didn't know who God was). All the age groups correctly stated that another person wouldn't know what was in the box either. In the case of the younger kids, this is simply because they were again assuming that other people's perspective is the same as their own. Crucially, however, only children from about the age of five and up said that God would know what was in the box.

This turns everything on its head. Rather than having an understanding of a god-like perspective which they apply to everyone, the finding suggests three and four-year-olds have an inability to represent the perspective of other people, which in certain contexts, gives the false impression that they understand the idea of an all-knowing god-like mind. Actually, this study shows it's only when they get older, as they begin to understand the perspective of other people, that they also start to truly understand the idea of a supernatural, all-knowing mind.

Makris, N. & Pnevmatikos, D. (2007). Children's understanding of human and supernatural mind. Cognitive Development, 22, 365-375.
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