Using yuk! and weird! to teach children new morals

Some morals - such as it being wrong to hurt others - children learn because they see the distress a particular behaviour causes others, or the harm it can bring upon themselves. But other immoral behaviours don't necessarily have obvious victims. These relate to so-called purity-based morals, such as taboo sexual relations, sacrilegious acts or inappropriate eating behaviours. How do kids learn that these things are wrong, especially if they've never actually encountered them?

A new study shows that children are primed to recognise the immorality of certain behaviours by feelings of disgust and beliefs about unnaturalness, especially when these factors are combined. Joshua Rottman and Deborah Kelemen at Boston University manipulated these factors to provoke 7-year-olds into judging novel behaviours by alien characters as immoral.

"This is the first experimental investigation of a clear-cut case of moral acquisition," Rottman and Kelemen said, "one involving morally naive subjects ... and entirely novel and superficially amoral situations."

Sixty-four 7-year-olds were introduced to the faraway planet "Glinhondo" and its alien occupants. The children were then split into four groups and shown pictures of 12 different scenarios, each accompanied by a short spoken description. The scenarios involved several aliens engaging in behaviours directed at their own bodies (e.g. covering their heads with sticks) or at the environment (e.g. sprinkling blue water into a big puddle). After seeing each scenario, the kids had to say whether the depicted behaviour was "wrong" or if it was "OK".

Children in the "disgust" condition viewed the pictures in a room sprayed with the stinky but harmless joke-shop product "Liquid ASS", and the description of the scenarios also highlighted that the alien behaviours were disgusting. Children in the "unnatural" condition viewed the scenarios in a fresh room, but they saw pictures in which only a minority of aliens performed the behaviours and the description highlighted that what they were doing was "unnatural". Kids in a third group experienced a combination of the disgust and unnaturalness - the room stank and it was a minority of aliens performing the behaviour, which was described as unnatural. Finally, some of the kids formed a control group - the room was fresh, all the aliens performed the behaviours and the description merely said that what they were doing was boring.

Children in the combined disgust and unnaturalness condition judged 65 per cent of alien behaviours as "wrong", compared with just 19 per cent of behaviours judged that way by the control group. "This demonstrates that moral acquisition can occur rapidly and in the absence of direct experience with moralised behaviour," the researchers said. "This also speaks against the idea that the primary mechanism guiding moral acquisition is children's active reasoning about harmful or unjust consequences."

The children in the disgust-only or the unnatural-only conditions also judged more alien behaviours as wrong, compared with kids in the control condition, but in both cases they tended to answer "wrong" about half the time, so there's a possibility they were just alternating their answers at random.

The findings show how visceral feelings of disgust combine with intellectual thoughts about what's "natural" to invoke in children a sense of moral wrongness. Another finding was that environmentally directed actions were more often judged as wrong than self-directed actions. "Ultimately, the degree of plasticity inherent within a young child’s moral repertoire is a crucial area of future exploration, and one that is currently under explored," Rottman and Kelemen concluded. "The implications of such research will be substantial, promising to answer fundamental questions about the horizons of our moral nature."

  ResearchBlogging.orgRottman J, and Kelemen D (2012). Aliens behaving badly: Children's acquisition of novel purity-based morals. Cognition, 124 (3), 356-60 PMID: 22743053

Note: image provided courtesy of Josh Rottman.

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Beat anger by imagining you're a fly on the wall

Anger is "the elephant in the room in mental health" according to The Mental Health Foundation. In a survey they conducted in 2008, a third of respondents said they knew someone with an anger problem. Anger is often made worse by misguided folk wisdom that says it's a good idea to reflect on your feelings and vent them. In fact, past research has shown that ruminating and venting anger make it worse.

A new study tests the idea that anger can be dissipated by mentally distancing oneself from the situation - as if viewing proceedings from the perspective of a fly on the wall. There's evidence that this is beneficial, but before now this was derived from studies that merely asked people to imagine frustrating scenarios. Now Dominik Mischkowski and his colleagues have ramped up the realism levels, deliberately winding up their participants in the lab.

Ninety-four undergrads signed up for what they thought was an investigation into the effects of music on problem solving and creativity. They listened to some intense classical music and attempted to solve a series of anagrams against the clock. Part of the procedure involved them reading back the correct answer to the researchers over an intercom. This is where the wind up began - the experimenter repeatedly said that they weren't speaking loudly enough. After the twelfth anagram he went as far as saying "Look this is the third time I have to say this! Can't you follow directions? Speak louder!"

Immediately after the wind up, the participants were told a second experiment (on the effects of music on feelings) required that they reflect on the previous anagram task - either seeing the situation unfold again through their own eyes, or as if they were watching the situation from a distance, "as if it were happening to the distant to you all over again." A third of the participants acted as controls and were  told to reflect on the anagram task without any specific instructions. Afterwards, all the participants rated their anger levels. The key finding was that the participants in the distancing condition reported feeling less angry and having fewer aggressive thoughts compared with participants in the self-immersion and control conditions.

A second study was similar but this time a new set of participants were given the chance to actually vent their anger. After the wind up and the reflection phase (from a distance vs. immersed in their own perspective) the participants were invited to take part in a competitive anagram task with a partner located in another room. Part of this involved the chance to blast their opponent with loud noise when he/she got answers wrong - taken as a sign of aggressive behaviour. The important result here - participants who reflected on the initial, frustrating anagram task as if from the perspective of a fly on the wall showed less aggression compared with the other participants.

Mischkowski and his team said their findings showed "how people can neutralize aggression while focusing on their emotions and the situation at hand—by adopting a self-distanced perspective." They added that this is important given that distraction is often not possible in real life situations, for example when it's necessary to carry on interacting with the provocateur.


Dominik Mischkowskia, Ethan Kross, and Brad J. Bushmana (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.012

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Tuck into our round-up of the latest psych and neuro news:

All week, Channel 4 broadcast programmes aimed at combating the stigma of mental illness, as part of their 4 Goes Mad Season - available to watch again on 4oD. 

Esteemed psychologist George Miller has left the building. Among many achievements, Miller is perhaps best known for authoring the classic paper: "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" (pdf).

The new August issue of The Psychologist magazine is online and includes open access articles on the psychology of time. Also check out the editor, Dr Jon Sutton's, open access feature on his (and other psychologists') love affair with LEGO.

BBC Radio Three broadcast an essay series this week on Fatherhood and Creativity (available on iPlayer).

Children's author Jacy Brean reflects on a new psychology study showing the benefits of day-dreaming.

Why thinking of others improves our creativity (from the Creativity Post).

From my Psychology Today Brain Myths blog - Two Myths and Three Facts About the Differences in Men and Women's Brains. "Gender brain differences are real, but we should interpret them with caution."

Scientific American summarised findings from a study that suggests we see men's bodies as a whole, but see women's bodies in terms of their component parts.

Writing for the BBC, a British psychologist defended the Rorschach inkblot test. Also, check out this news item from The Psychologist magazine archive on the pros and cons of the Rorschach (and the leaking of the inkblots online).

Misty Harris reported on a forthcoming study that found women in love are less likely to initiate sex.

The Naked Scientists podcast from the recent conference of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies.

The Chronicle reported that a sociologist has been subjected to a witch-hunt after he published some awkward findings about the (adult) children of same-sex parents.

The first annual results are in from the UK government's official national well-being assessment programme. Reflecting on the results for the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman concluded "it could be worse".

Use psychological science to improve your Powerpoint presentations.

Uri Simonsohn has published his data-sleuthing method (here's the background story). Dave Nussbaum provides a summary and some analysis.

Inevitably there was much psychological speculation and reflection about the mass murderer who killed innocent people at a recent US showing of the latest Batman film. According to a Guardian blogger, one mystery is why mass shootings remain at high levels while overall murder rate at its lowest level in decades. Also worth checking out - ace science writer Deborah Blum "A killer without regret". And this interview with forensic psychiatrist Paul Mullen.

The Observer published an intriguing article on the revival of hypnosis research in mainstream neuroscience.

How urban parks enhance your brain (from the Atlantic).

With the Olympics starting today, don't forget to check out the British Psychological Society's Going for Gold sports psychology portal - it's packed full of free resources, including articles, videos and more. The July issue of The Psychologist was also full of Olympics content.

Happy reading - Let the Games begin!
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Repression redux? It is possible to deliberately forget details from our past

Can we wipe material from our memories at will? Evidence that we can would provide some support for Freud's idea of repression, although for him it was mainly a non-conscious process. Such evidence could also stir up the debate about so-called "recovered memories" of long-forgotten abuse. On a positive note, if it could be shown that we can deliberately forget memories, then this might have useful therapeutic implications for helping people with unwanted memories.

Before now, most research on the topic has followed what's known as a "think / no-think" paradigm, in which participants deliberately suppress their memory for certain words. They're shown a cue word and they deliberately don't think about the word it was previously paired with. This research has shown that people go on to have poorer memories for target words that they've deliberately suppressed. At least one study showed that this was especially the case for negatively valenced material; another found the opposite. These studies have provided a proof-of-principle, but deliberately forgetting a few words in a lab has little immediate relevance to real life.

Enter Saima Noreen and Malcolm MacLeod at the University of St Andrews, two researchers who have extended this line of research into the realm of autobiographical memory. They wanted to know if people could be trained to forget, not word pairs, but actual memories from their lives.

Across two studies the researchers used words like "barbecue" to prompt dozens of never-been-depressed students to recall real episodes (shorter than a day) from their lives and to describe them in as much detail as possible in one minute. These episodes were then paired with the initial prompt word and another cue word of the participants' choosing (for example, I'm making this up, but "barbecue/uncle" might have been paired with the memory of the time that the participant's uncle dropped his beer on the barbecue and ruined all the food). This reminiscence procedure was followed 24 times. Afterwards, the researchers made sure, through further testing and rehearsal, that every student had a good memory for all 24 word pairs and their associated autobiographical memories.

Next came the "think / no think" training phase - the students were presented with 16 of the word pairs from earlier, and for some of them they had to describe once again the relevant autobiographical memory in detail for 60 seconds; for others they had to deliberately not think of the relevant memory for four seconds. This procedure was repeated 16 times for each word pair and memory (the remaining 8 pairs and their memories were not part of this process and acted as baseline material).

Finally came the crucial recall phase. The participants were presented with all 24 of the word pairs and this time, for every pair, they had to describe in as much detail as possible the relevant autobiographical memories that went with them. Here's the key finding - the students' memories of the autobiographical memories they suppressed earlier in the "think / no think" phase were less detailed than their baseline autobiographical memories (the ones that were neither thought about or suppressed in that earlier phase). Note, the gist of the previously suppressed memories was unaffected, but they had about 11 per cent less detail on average. In the first variation of this study, this loss of detail was particularly striking for more negative autobiographical memories, but in a follow-up study, the emotional tone of the memories made no difference.

"We have presented clear and novel evidence that systematic forgetting effects can emerge for autobiographical memories by training people to not think about them," the researchers said.

A few further details are worth noting - the participants were surveyed at the end of the studies about whether they'd deliberately withheld details from memories that they'd earlier been asked to suppress, in case they'd feigned forgetting to please the researchers. They said they hadn't, lending further support to the idea that real forgetting had taken place. Moreover, those participants who showed a stronger forgetting effect overall, also tended to be slower at recalling memories that had been suppressed, but which they nonetheless managed to remember in detail later. This is indicative of a partial inhibition of the memories, and lends further support to the central claim of the study.

Important issues for future research to address concern the longevity of the forgetting effect, and the consequences of repeated suppression training. From an applied perspective, Noreen and MacLeod said "an interesting possibility [is that] the kind of forgetting demonstrated in the current study may play a role in bringing about forgiveness and reconciliation through subtle changes in memory that may ultimately lead to changes in associated emotions."


Noreen S, and Macleod MD (2012). It's All in the Detail: Intentional Forgetting of Autobiographical Memories Using the Autobiographical Think/No-Think Task. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition PMID: 22686849

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Not in my gang: Children's and teenagers' reasons for excluding others

It's a fact of life that when kids form friendship groups some would-be members get left out. A lot of psychology research has focused on what it's like to be rejected. But now a new study has taken a more unusual approach, asking children and adolescents to recall times that they left someone out, and to explain their reasons for doing so. Holly Recchia and her team hope the findings could help design better interventions for reducing social exclusion.

Eighty-four children were interviewed: 28 7-year-olds, 28 11-year-olds and 28 17-year-olds. A clear difference emerged with age. The younger children rarely described themselves as having any choice when they'd excluded others. They mostly mentioned practical reasons - "We were playing piggy-back wars ... another kid wanted to play ... we didn't have any more people for him," or peer pressure - "We were playing jump roping and somebody else wanted to play with us, but then my friend said no." Their pleas of innocence contradict behavioural observations showing that young children often leave other kids out deliberately. The 17-year-olds, by contrast, were more up front, most often giving the reason that they disliked the excluded person - "We didn't invite this one girl because she's not open-minded ... ," was a typical comment.

Based on the finding with the younger kids, Recchia and her team said that social inclusion programmes for youngsters may benefit from encouraging them to take ownership over their actions, "given their apparent reluctance or incapacity to do so spontaneously."

On a positive note, when asked to evaluate their reasons for excluding others, even the younger participants showed evidence that they were conscious of the ramifications (for example, the rejected person might not want to be friends with them in the future). It was also clear that the participants sometimes deliberately avoided thinking too much about what they'd done - a strategy that the researchers said "was aimed at numbing their awareness of the emotional consequences of leaving others out." Consistent with this, some of the participants mentioned feeling guilty when they gave in to peer pressure and took part in the exclusion of others.

Even among the 17-year-olds, who mostly treated disliking another person as a valid reason for excluding them, there was evidence that they were aware of the "undesirability" of exclusion. Recchia's team said this was "heartening" and could provide "an initial entree for interventions aimed at helping widely disliked victims of exclusion become reintegrated."

This is the first study to investigate the subjective experience of excluding others across a wide age range of children and teens. The researchers said a "one-size-fits-all" model fails to capture the complexity of their results. "We argue that research on social exclusion could benefit from a fuller recognition of this variability and complexity in young people's subjective construals of their own experiences," they concluded, "thus setting the stage for programmes that may help young people to more critically and deliberately weigh their multiple and varying goals and concerns."

HE Recchia, BA Brehl, and C Wainryb (2012). Children's and adolescents' reasons for socially excluding others. Cognitive Development, 195-203 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2012.02.005

Previously on the DigestChildren's reasoning about when it's okay to reject their peers.
The pain of rejection.
We're better at spotting fake smiles when we're feeling rejected.
Realistic view of their popularity protects children against effects of social rejection.

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Blue Monday does not exist

The weekend is over and a long slog of five days work awaits. No wonder most of us hate Mondays. But are we really at our most miserable at the start of the week, as the Blue Monday myth suggests? A new study conducted in the US claims not.

Arthur Stone and his colleagues made use of data collected by Gallup in 2008. Over 340,000 US citizens were interviewed over the telephone during that year and one of the questions was about their mood the day before. They were asked to say "yes or no" whether they'd felt enjoyment or happiness for a lot of the day, and whether they'd felt worry, sadness, stress or anger for a lot of the day.

A clear pattern emerged, with people reporting far more positive mood and far less negative mood on Saturdays and Sundays, compared with weekdays - an effect that diminished with age and with retirement. Although the contrast with weekdays for them was weaker, retirees still reported being happier at weekends, perhaps because of the availability of friends and family at that time. The pattern of better mood at weekends also held regardless of gender, and regardless of whether interviewees had a partner or not.

Although not as dramatic as the weekend effect, there was also evidence of enhanced mood on Fridays, relative to other days of the week - supporting popular belief in a "Thank God It's Friday!" effect. But comparing mood on Mondays against mood on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays revealed no evidence of a dip.

"Despite our global beliefs about lousy Mondays, we conclude that this belief should, in general, be abandoned," the researchers said. "The perception of Blue Mondays is likely prevalent due to the extreme contrast in mood from Sunday to Monday, even though there is no real difference in mood with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday."

Stone and his team criticised earlier research on this topic for relying on small samples, often made up of student participants. But this new study also had its limitations, as they acknowledged. The methodology was cross-sectional, in that participants only rated their mood at one point in time. This means there's a possibility of a sampling bias - there may have been something different about people who agreed to participate on some days of the week compared with others. Also people may have misremembered their mood from the day before. And the simple yes/no format for the questioning was unusual - studies of this kind usually deploy a sliding scale for answers. On the plus side, the sample was massive and allowed for the first ever examination of demographic factors in relation to day of the week effects on mood.

Are you convinced by this research, or are you certain that your mood is at its lowest on Mondays?


Arthur Stone, Stefan Schneider, and James K. Harter (2012). Day-of-week mood patterns in the United States: On the existence of ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Thank God it's Friday’ and weekend effects. Journal of Positive Psychology DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2012.691980

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Tuck into our round-up of the latest psych and neuro news:

In the wake of the recent social psychology scandals (see earlier Feasts), UK psychologist Chris Chambers offered a 12-step plan for improving practices in psychology research.

The technique used to identify research malpractice in social psychology has been revealed.

"Psychology isn't science" said a misguided LA Times Op-Ed. "Oh yes it is" said Canadian psychologist David Nussbaum.

Can we trust psychological research? asked Time magazine.

"The smartest experiments EVER are, in my experience, found in psychology" said Mark Changizi.

Richard Thaler in the NY Times praised the work of the UK Government's Behavioural Insight Team.

Sports psychologist Jan Burns was among the Olympics scientists profiled in a Nature news feature.

Marissa Mayer appointed as new CEO of struggling internet business Yahoo - an example of the Glass Cliff (the tendency for women to be made leaders in a crisis)?

Holiday season is upon us - prepare yourself with this Psychologist magazine feature from last year on the psychology of holidays.

Brain imaging got another kicking, this time from the Creativity Post.

RIP Shlomo Bentin, the respected Israeli psychologist, who died in a cycling accident.

A new paper in open-access journal PLoS One debunked an NLP claim about links between eye movements and lying.

The Guardian profiled Paul Zak (AKA Dr Love), the oxytocin expert. Ed Yong calls oxytocin the hype hormone, and he explained why in Slate.

The latest Guardian Science podcast featured Sebastian Seung talking about the Connectome and Barry Smith on what happens when the brain's wiring system is compromised.

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme on the psychology of the home advantage (now on iPlayer).

The "Internet is Making Us Crazy" cover story over Newsweek is an embarrassment, said Vaughan Bell for Mind Hacks.

Sitting on a wobbly chair makes you desire stability in your personality relationships, reported The Economist.

Doubts were raised about the "paradox of choice" effect - the idea that we're put off by too many options.

Monolith mag published an interview with Adrian Owen, who uses brain imaging techniques to communicate with vegetative patients.

Polygraph testing of sex offenders is to be rolled out nationally in England and Wales.  Even though the polygraph is unreliable. (see here for Background).
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Humour reduces our resistance to aggressive marketing

Whether it's messages on smartphone Apps or the old fashioned way on billboards, radio and TV, advertisers bombard us relentlessly. Fortunately, our brains have an inbuilt BS-detector that shields us from the onslaught - a mental phenomenon that psychologists call simply "resistance". Ads from dodgy companies, our own pre-existing preferences, and a forewarning of a marketing attack can all marshal greater psychological resistance within us. However, a new study suggests that funny adverts lower our guard, leaving us vulnerable to aggressive marketing.

Madelijn Strick and her team exposed 86 Dutch university students to pictures of 12 foreign peppermint brands, each of which appeared together with one of four types of text: funny; positive but unfunny; distracting neutral (simple maths problems); and non-distracting neutral. Crucially, before they saw the brands and text, half the students were primed to be resistant. They were told that the experiment was being conducted in collaboration with a cunning local supermarket manager who was planning to bombard university students with email and text ads, and that he was even willing to use subliminal messages to make more money.

Three minutes after seeing the brands (during which they completed irrelevant filler tasks), the students completed tests designed to gauge the impact the brands had made on them. They were shown pictures of peppermint brands, some new, and had to say as quickly and accurately as possible whether they'd seen them earlier or not. Another test involved pictures of one of the original brands being flashed on-screen before a positive or negative word, and participants had to categorise the words. Brands with positive connotations would be expected to speed up the recognition of positive words.

As expected, those students who were primed to be resistant tended to perceive the brands as having more negative connotations ... unless that is, the brands were accompanied by distracting text, be that humorous or neutral. The distracting text appeared to interfere with the automatic processes that usually underlie our resistance to aggressive marketing. Separately from nullifying resistance, positive text (humorous or not) led to the brands acquiring positive connotations.

Another study tested whether these effects had any bearing on actual consumer behaviour. A similar procedure was followed but this time the brands were energy drinks and accompanying pictures were used rather than text (as before, these were: humorous; positive but unfunny; neutral non-distracting; and neural distracting). A new batch of students, as well as completing the post-presentation tests, also indicated how many discount coupons they wanted for each brand.

Regardless of whether they were primed to be resistant, students generally preferred brands that had been accompanied by positive images (funny or not). For students primed to be resistant, it was specifically brands accompanied by funny and neutral-distracting images that were more popular. The more resistance the students said they felt, the more they tended to show a favourable bias towards the brands accompanied by a humorous picture.

Strick and her team said that humour has a double effect - because it's distracting, it prevents the formation of negative brand associations, and separately it engenders positive connotations for the brand because of the pleasure of mirth. These effects were implicit in the sense that they occurred regardless of whether participants remembered that a brand had been paired earlier with humour. There was also a cost (to advertisers) of humour - brands were remembered less well if they were accompanied by funny text or pictures, presumably because of their distracting effect.

Taken altogether, the results paint a nuanced picture. "The main contribution of this research is not the overall conclusion that humour in ads 'works'," the researchers said, "but that it sheds light into when and why humour should be preferred over non humorous positive emotions and neutral distractions." For brands that expect to meet resistance in their target audience, humour can help prevent the formation of negative associations. But distraction should be used in moderation - too much and the brand won't be remembered. From the consumers' perspective, beware advertisers bearing jokes - they could be using them to lower your guard.


Strick M, Holland RW, van Baaren RB, and van Knippenberg A (2012). Those who laugh are defenseless: How humor breaks resistance to influence. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 18 (2), 213-23 PMID: 22564085

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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

Human nature and pop culture (Review of General Psychology). Includes the important paper: "Why who shot J. R. Matters: Dallas as the pinnacle of human evolutionary television."

New Thinking: The evolution of human cognition (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B). Includes free introduction.

Emotional methodologies – The emotional spaces of international development (Emotion, Space and Society).

The Genetics of Brain Imaging Phenotypes (Twin Research and Human Genetics). Open access.

Suicide (The Lancet).

Case series in cognitive neuropsychology (Cognitive Neuropsychology). Includes free intro.

20 YEARS OF fMRI (NeuroImage).

Special Section on theory and data in categorization: Integrating computational, behavioral, and cognitive neuroscience approaches. (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition).

Special Section: Social-Constructionist Approaches to Emotion (Emotion Review).

Group Psychotherapy in Public Mental Health Services and the Mental Health Service as a Group (European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling).

Understanding and promoting motivation in gifted students (Psychology in the Schools).

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Prepared to wait? New research challenges the idea that we favour small rewards now over bigger later

The old idea that we make decisions like rational agents has given way over the last few decades to a more realistic, psychologically informed picture that recognises the biases and mental short-cuts that sway our thinking. Supposedly one of these is hyperbolic discounting - our tendency to place disproportionate value on immediate rewards, whilst progressively undervaluing distant rewards the further in the future they stand. But not so fast, say Daniel Read at Warwick Business School and his colleagues with a new paper that fails to find any evidence for the phenomenon.

Studies of hyperbolic discounting have often involved participants choosing between a smaller sooner reward and a later larger reward at two time points. When both rewards are in the distant future, people will pick the larger reward, but when the smaller reward is imminent then it's the one that's favoured.

Read's team criticise these kinds of studies on several counts, including the fact that participants often know that the first decision is hypothetical (thus increasing the chance they'll give the socially desirable answer), and the fact that participants often get to interact between the two decision points, which can lead to social influences.

For the new research, Read and his colleagues tested 128 participants from the LSE and Leeds Business School, sending them four weekly emails each containing several choices. The first Tuesday, the participants indicated in an email whether they'd prefer £20 immediately or £21 in one week; £21 in one week or £22 in two weeks; £22 in three weeks or £23 in four weeks; £23 in five weeks or £24 in six weeks. The following Tuesday they made the same choices, but updated for the progress of time, beginning with £21 immediately or £22 in one week, and ditto for the next two Tuesdays. The participants were told that a random selection of them would receive one of their choices, with the reward coming at the appropriate time, thus lending some reality to the task.

If hyperbolic discounting is real, there should have been evidence of the participants showing a greater preference for smaller sooner rewards the more imminent they became. No such effect was found. The researchers also looked at the ratio of choice switches - when participants favoured one option at one time point, but changed their mind later on - in terms of whether they changed to being more patient or to being more impatient. Contrary to hyperbolic discounting, switches to greater patience (favouring larger rewards later) were just as common as the other way around.

A second study built on these findings with 201 US citizens first making a choice between $20 three weeks from today vs. $21 five weeks from today; and then making the choice again three weeks later, so that the smaller reward was imminent and the slightly larger reward was two weeks hence. Some of the participants were told they were making the choice for real (and they were - the researchers even took turns sleeping so that they could fire back vouchers in timely fashion); others were told there was a chance of their choices being acted on for real.

Once again, no evidence was found for hyperbolic discounting. Just as many participants switched to greater patience at the second choice. And the smaller sooner reward was actually chosen slightly less often at the second choice, when it was immediate.

Read's team recognise that there is widespread evidence for myopic decision making - just think of the times you've vowed that your future self will eat healthy food, but when the choice is imminent you go for short-term flavour over long-term health. But they think there's a big question mark over hyperbolic discounting per se as the explanation for these effects. More promising theories, Read and his colleagues believe, are "visceral arousal theory", in which we're motivated to prioritise our primary needs over longer term aims; and "temporal construal theory", in which we represent distant events more abstractly in terms of superordinate (lofty) goals, whilst seeing the short-term more concretely, in terms of our more basic needs.

If hyperbolic discounting is such a fundamental feature of human thinking, Read and his team conclude, then how come research on regret finds that most people rue, not their overindulgence, but their past failures to indulge?

How do these debates fit with your own experiences? Do you find that you favour immediate rewards, even if you could get a bigger reward by waiting?


Read D, Frederick S, and Airoldi M (2012). Four days later in Cincinnati: Longitudinal tests of hyperbolic discounting. Acta Psychologica, 140 (2), 177-85 PMID: 22634266

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Just good friends? Attraction to opposite-sex friends is common but burdensome

"Every platonic friend I got is some woman I was trying to ****, I made a wrong turn somewhere, and ended up in the friend zone. 'Oh no, I'm in the friend zone!'" Chris Rock.
They were virtually unheard of for most of human history, but today, in many cultures, friendships between men and women are common place. Still, that niggling doubt never seems to go away - is the relationship really entirely platonic?

A new study by April Bleske-Rechek and her colleagues has investigated cross-sex friendships between heterosexual men and women through the prism of evolutionary theory. From a survey of 88 pairs of college students in cross-sex friendships (averaging two years' duration), the researchers found that: men felt more attraction to their female friend than vice versa; that men overestimated how much their friend was attracted to them; and that men's desire to date their female friend was unaffected by whether they (the men) were in a romantic relationship with someone else, whereas females tended to report less desire to date their male friend, if they (the women) were already in a romantic relationship. Male attraction for a female friend was undimmed by the fact their friend had a partner. By contrast women tended to report less attraction for male friends who had partners.

The participants gave their answers after being reassured they'd be kept anonymous, and after agreeing publicly with their friend not to discuss the study afterwards (I bet they stuck to that!).

The pattern of results makes sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective on mating strategies, the researchers said, whereby men have more to gain from short-term sexual encounters, whereas women, who invest more in their offspring (in terms of gestation and child-birth), are more selective.

What about the way people deal with their sexual desires for opposite-sex friends? For a second study, over a hundred heterosexual young men and women (average age 19), and an older sample of 142 men and women (average age 37), answered questions about their cross-sex friendships, including listing the costs and benefits. Among the younger sample, 38 per cent were in a (non-marital) romantic relationship; around 90 per cent of the older sample were married.

Again, the researchers said the findings made sense in terms of evolutionary theory. The older sample, most of whom were immersed in a serious long-term relationship, reported less attraction to their opposite-sex friends than the younger sample did. However, this wasn't case for the older single people - they reported just as much attraction to their opposite-sex friends as the younger participants.

Overall, attraction to an opposite-sex friend was more often seen as a burden rather than a benefit of the friendship. Averaged across both samples, attraction was listed as a cost or complication by 32 per cent of participants - five times more often than it was listed as a benefit or enhancement. For young women, and men and women in the older sample, more attraction to their closest friend was associated with feeling less satisfied with their romantic partner.

Zooming in on gender differences, men more often than women, listed attraction to their female friends as a benefit of the friendship, and they were less likely than women to list it as a cost.

"Our findings offer preliminary support for the proposal that men's and women's experiences in cross-sex friendship reflect their evolved mating strategies," Bleske-Rechek and her team concluded. "Attraction between cross-sex friends is common, and it is perceived more often as a burden than as a benefit." Looking ahead, the researchers said it would be interesting to investigate attraction between homosexual same-sex friends, and whether it's seen by them as a burden or benefit of the friendship.


Bleske-Rechek A.,, Somers, E., Micke, C., Erickson, L., Matteson, L., Stocco, C., Schumacher, B., and Ritchie, L. (2012). Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512443611

Further reading, from the New York Times: "A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?"

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Tuck into our latest round-up of the best psych and neuro links:

Hear hear! Stop bullying the social sciences - LA Times Op-Ed.

Why I am always unlucky but you are always careless - Tom Stafford of Mind Hacks explains.

New book that's worth a look, Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by psychologist Charles Fernyhough (New Scientist described it as "an immense pleasure"). Fernyhough used his blog to reflect on how the book came about.

BBC Four broadcast a trio of excellent documentaries this week, all of which are now available on iPlayer for a limited time: Rupture: Living With a Broken Brain; Blink: A Horizon Guide To The Senses; Heart vs. Mind: What Makes Us Human.

A consummate story teller - check out this video of Jonah Lehrer's talk at this year's 99% conference about the importance of grit for creative success.

Also on the 99%, How your goals and good intentions could be holding you back.

Can you learn to be synaesthetic? asks Neuroskeptic.

Is positive thinking the route to happiness? Oliver Burkeman and Jules Evans discuss on the Guardian books podcast.

Dan Ariely was at the RSA this week discussing the psychology of dishonesty - you can listen to the audio.

Busting the 21 days habit formation myth - great blog post from the UCL Health Behaviour Research Centre.

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Reforming Social Psychology - Dave Nussbaum with intelligent reflections and recommendations in the wake of the scandals that have rocked social psychology lately.

Another social psychologist has resigned after questions were raised about the honesty of his data.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Introducing "inattentional deafness" - the noisy gorilla that's missed

One of the most famous experiments in cognitive psychology (pdf) involved a person in a gorilla suit walking through a basketball game between two teams of players, one dressed in white, the other in black. Told to count passes between the players in white, most people who watched a video of this scene completely failed to notice the gorilla. The experiment provided a dramatic demonstration of what's known as inattentional blindness - our failure to process unexpected visual stimuli that we aren't paying attention to. Now a pair of researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London have provided the first demonstration of prolonged inattentional deafness. Their participants failed to hear a man walk through an auditory scene for nineteen seconds saying repeatedly "I am a gorilla".

Polly Dalton and Nick Fraenkel first created a real auditory scene lasting 69 seconds, in which two conversations about a party took place: one between a pair of women located on one side of the room, the other between a pair of men located on the other. The sounds were recorded via a dummy's head with microphones implanted in its "ears", thus simulating as closely as possible what it would be like for a person to actually hear the scene unfold in real life. Thirty-three seconds into the scene, a man entered from the back of the room and for 19 seconds walked through the scene uttering "I am a gorilla" (listen to the recording).

In an initial study, 40 participants listened to the scene and they were told to pay attention either to the men's conversation or the women's. Afterwards they were asked if they'd heard anything odd. Of the participants who were focused on the men's conversation, 90 per cent noticed the gorilla. In stark contrast, just 30 per cent of participants who were focused on the women's conversation noticed the gorilla.

So, in the same way that tuning out the sight of the basketball players in black led most participants (in the classic research) to miss the sight of an unexpected black gorilla, tuning out the sound of the men's conversation led most participants in this study to completely miss the sound of a male-voiced gorilla.

A potential confound in this new study is that as the auditory gorilla passed through the room, he walked behind the location where the two men were talking. This means that participants focused on the women could have been ignoring male voices and/or one particular side of space. In a second study, the location of the auditory gorilla was reversed so that he passed behind the women. This time 55 per cent of participants focused on the women's conversation still failed to notice the gorilla even though he actually passed on the same side of space that they were focused on.

"The present experiments show that the absence of attention can leave people 'deaf' to a sustained and dynamic auditory stimulus that is clearly noticeable under normal listening conditions," the researchers said, "providing the first ever demonstration of sustained inattentional deafness."
Dalton P, & Fraenkel N (2012). Gorillas we have missed: Sustained inattentional deafness for dynamic events. Cognition PMID: 22726569

Previously on the Digest blog "Change deafness" - the scant attention we pay to the voice on the end of the phone".

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Self-licensing: when you indulge through reason, not lack of willpower

We usually think of over-indulgence in terms of a lack of willpower. I scoff the doughnut because I can't marshal the necessary self-control to resist it. A great deal of psychology research has pursued this particular line, demonstrating, for example, that willpower seems to be a finite resource. Expend it in one situation and you'll have less left over for another.

A new study by Jessie de Witt Huberts and her colleagues at Utrecht University takes a different perspective. They point out that we often over-indulge, not because we can't help it, but because we reason that it's okay to do so. After that half-hour run, we tell ourselves, we deserve the doughnut! de Witt Huberts' team call this self-licensing and they say it's surprisingly under-researched.

Previous studies have shown how self-licensing affects our choices. For example, after working harder, people are more likely to choose a cake over a fruit-salad. But before now, no-one's looked to see how self-licensing might affect actual indulgent consumption.

Before they got started, de Witt Huberts and her team had to confront a complication with researching this topic - the need to separate out the effects of low energy from self-licensing. If someone's been working hard, not only might this encourage them to think they deserve a naughty snack, their lack of energy might also deplete their willpower (indeed, studies have suggested that low sugar levels reduce willpower).

To get around this problem, de Witt Huberts and her colleagues needed a way to trick people into thinking they'd worked hard (inviting self licensing) without actually diminishing their willpower levels. They did this by having participants test-out what they were told was a new screening tool for dyslexia. It involved looking at 200 words on a computer screen, one at a time, and pressing the key on the keyboard that corresponded to the first letter of each word. Crucially, one group of participants did this for five minutes, and were then told they had to do it all over again for another five minutes to check the reliability of the screening tool. The other participants simply had a one-minute break between two 5-minute sessions.

In a pilot study with 106 women, the group who thought they'd had to test the screening tool twice, felt like they'd worked harder than the other group, who thought they'd done it just once (even though both groups had worked for the same length of time). Next, both groups completed the Stroop test, a classic measure of self control that requires people to read colour words (e.g. blue), whilst ignoring the ink colour they're written in. This test confirmed that both groups had the same levels of self control even though one group felt like they'd worked harder than the other.

When it came to the study proper, 39 women were split into two groups - one did the dyslexia screening tool in two phases, to make them feel like they'd worked harder, and the other group did it in one bash. Next, ostensibly as part of a separate consumer research study, all the women taste-tested some crisps, M&Ms, Wine gums and Chocolate chip cookies.

The take-home finding? Both groups said their willpower levels felt the same, but the women who thought they'd worked harder tended to eat more of the naughty food. In the ten minutes available, they consumed an average of 26 grammes of more snack-food, which equated to 130 more calories. As well as feeling like they'd worked harder, they also said they felt more hungry, but this wasn't correlated with the amount they ate. The researchers speculated that the feelings of hunger could have been a further form of self-licensing - "I've worked hard and I'm hungry".

This study is one of the first steps towards uncovering the part that self-licensing plays in giving in to temptation. It's limited in that the sample only included women and the self-licensing was implicit. The women who thought they'd worked harder were more indulgent, but we don't know anything about the way they reasoned with themselves, or if the effect was conscious at all. "Nevertheless," the researchers concluded, "although many questions about self-licensing require further investigation, the current studies demonstrate that sometimes people strategically choose to indulge and that gratification of our desires is not inevitably governed by our impulses."
ESSIE C. DE WITT HUBERTS, CATHARINE EVERS, and DENISE T. D. DE RIDDER (2012). License to sin: Self-licensing as a mechanism underlying hedonic consumption. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.861

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Two chances to win "Social Psychology - Revisiting the Classic Studies"

Thanks for all your entries. This competition is now closed and the winners have been contacted.

We've got two copies to give away of Social Psychology - Revisiting the Classic Studies, kindly provided to us by Sage. Here's what they say about the new book:
"The field of social psychology is defined by a number of 'classic studies' that all students need to understand and engage with. These include ground-breaking experiments by researchers such as Asch, Festinger, Milgram, Sherif, Tajfel and Zimbardo. With the help of international experts who are renowned for work that has extended upon these researchers' insights, this book re-examines these classic studies through careful reflection on their findings and a lively discussion of the subsequent work that they have inspired."
For your chance to win a copy, simply post a comment to this blog post, telling us which is your favourite classic social psychology experiment and why. We'll pick two winners at random on Friday. Please make sure you include an email address for us to contact you. Good luck!
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