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We are witnessing a renaissance in psychology

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The future looks bright

By Christian Jarrett

There’s been a lot of talk of the crisis in psychology. For decades, and often with the best of intentions, researchers have engaged in practices that have made it likely their results are “false positives” or not real. But that was in the past. The crisis is ending. “We do not call the rain that follows a long drought a ‘water crisis’,” write Leif Nelson at UC Berkeley and Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn at the University of Pennsylvania. “We do not call sustained growth following a recession an ‘economic crisis’”.

In their paper, due for publication in the Annual Review of Psychology, the trio observe that had any psychologists been in hibernation for the last seven years, they would not recognise their field today. The full disclosure of methods and data, the pre-registration of studies, the publication of negative findings, and replication attempts – all of which help reduce risk of false positives – have increased immeasurably. “The improvements to our field have been dramatic,” they write. “This is psychology’s renaissance.”

As well giving the field of psychology a pep talk, their paper provides a useful review of how we got to this point, the reasons things are getting better, and the ongoing controversies.

The crisis before the renaissance

Nelson and his colleagues believe that starting in 2011, several key developments led to psychology entering a period of self-reflection about its methods. First, a weird, controversial study was published in a prestigious journal. It applied widely used statistical methods to demonstrate “transparently outlandish” effects (our regrettably gullible coverage at the time: “Dramatic study shows participants are affected by psychological phenomena from the future“).

The same year there were several fraud scandals. There was also Nelson and his colleagues’ own influential paper demonstrating how easy it was to use selective reporting and strategic data analysis to extract a ridiculous positive result from random data (in this case, listening to music was shown to decrease your age). They called this approach p-hacking, which is a reference to the fact that psychologists frequently use a statistic known as the p-value – specifically whether it is below 0.05 – to determine whether their result is statically significant or not. Not long after, a survey of psychology researchers showed that “questionable research practices” indicative of p-hacking were commonplace.

Nelson and his colleagues believe that p-hacking helps explain how for several decades psychologists have used underpowered studies with too few participants, and yet  succeeded in publishing countless positive results. “P-hacking has long been the biggest threat to the integrity of our discipline,” they write. Researchers have prodded and pushed their results, dropping participants here, running new trials there, selectively reporting just those conditions that seemed to work. For years, the prevailing ethos was that to succeed you do what you can to extract a positive finding from your experiments.

P-hacking could explain why so many famous findings in psychology have failed to replicate, often when tested under more rigorous conditions. But this is open to debate, and in some cases ill-tempered argument (the authors of past studies that haven’t replicated have sometimes bristled at the suggestion that they did not conduct their studies robustly enough, or that their findings are not real).

Nelson and his colleagues believe all sides can agree that most researchers are honest and well-intentioned. As self-confessed former p-hackers, they write that “p-hacking is not categorised as such by the researcher who is doing it. It is not something that malevolent researchers engage in while laughing maniacally.” Regardless of how frequent p-hacking has been, Nelson et al. hope that everyone recognises that it’s better to reduce p-hacking. Or put differently, that it’s better to do science in a way that reduces the risk of false-positives.

The renaissance begins

Fortunately, a consensus seems to have emerged around this position. Amidst all the drama, a revolution is underway. A key player is the psychologist Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia who helped launch the Open Science Framework, an online platform that makes it easy to share methods and data online, and then in 2013 he co-founded the Center for Open Science (read our coverage of some of the large-scale replication efforts organised by the Center).

Other positive changes include key journals such as Psychological Science and Social Psychological and Personality Science implementing the requirement for researchers to disclose all of their measures and manipulations. Even better, pre-registration of methods (publishing your planned methods and hypotheses before you collect your data) is becoming easier and more widespread (two key sites for this are AsPredicted.org and the Open Science Framework), and an increasing number of journals now publish “registered reports”, a cause championed by psychologist Chris Chambers in the UK.

“We expect that in 3-5 years, published pre-registered experimental psychology studies will be either common or extremely common,” write Nelson et al. Some have complained that pre-registered stifles scientific exploration, but Nelson’s team counter “it does not preclude exploration, but it does communicate to readers that it occurred”.

There has also been a welcome “surge of interest” in replicating previous studies – one of the main ways to uncover and address the possible effects of p-hacking on previously published research (according to the CurateScience database, 96 per cent of over 1000 replication attempts have been conducted since 2011). With regard to the debates that often ensue after a failed replication attempt (such as whether the replication was similar enough to the original), Nelson et al propose a compromise: “the burden of proof is on the researcher espousing the least plausible claim”.

For instance, if the author of the original finding complains that the replication study took place on a different day of the week (and that’s why it didn’t work), it’s beholden on her or him to demonstrate why day of the week should moderate the effect that they originally claimed to have uncovered. On other hand, if the replicators used an obviously inferior manipulation (e.g. in a study testing the effects of hunger, they used just a few minutes without food to induce hunger), it’s up to them to show that the lack of effect persists when hunger is induced in more robust fashion. “Neutral observers often agree on who has the burden of proof,” write Nelson et al.

Another issue for psychology’s renaissance is how to categorise a replication attempt as a success or failure. In fact, Nelson et al explain how this is often not straight forward and in many cases it is more fair and accurate to interpret unsuccessful replications as inconclusive.

Ongoing debates

Other issues going forward include finding optimal ways to check the veracity of collections of prior studies, such as through using a statistical technique known as “p-curve analysis”. No one approach is flawless. More also needs to be done to check for innocent errors (which are extremely common) and outright fraud (thankfully rare, although Nelson’s team say that “for every case of fraud that is identified, there are almost certainly may more that are not”).

One of the simplest solutions is simply to require researchers to post their data and materials online. “Public data posting not only allows others to verify the accuracy of the analyses, but also incentivises authors to more carefully avoid errors,” write Nelson and his colleagues.

Some readers may be surprised that Nelson et al don’t welcome all the efforts at reform in psychology. For instance, many have called for a greater emphasis on meta-analyses, in which the findings from many studies are combined. But Nelson’s group argue that this can make matters worse – for instance, biases in the studies can accumulate rather than cancel each other out. “The end result of a meta-analysis is as strong as the weakest link; if there is some garbage in, there is only garbage out.”

Nelson’s team are also sceptical of those who say psychology should ditch p-value based significance testing for other metrics, such as confidence intervals and Bayesian results. “It is not the [particular] statistic that causes the problem, it is the mindlessness [with which they are relied upon].”

“The Enlightenment is just around the corner”

These are healthy debates and they will continue for years to come. For now though, let’s join Nelson and his co-authors in recognising the positive and welcome changes underway in psychological science. “Practices that promise to increase the integrity of our discipline – replications, disclosure, pre-registration – are orders of magnitude more common than they were just a short time ago. And although they are not yet common enough, it is clear that the Middle Ages are behind us, and the Enlightenment is just around the corner.”

Psychology’s renaissance [Our coverage is based on an early version of this paper published at SSRN, the final published version may differ]

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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People who think they exercise less than their peers die earlier, regardless of their actual activity levels

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Adjusting for actual physical activity, individuals who perceived themselves as less active than others were up to 71 per cent more likely to die in the follow-up period

By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths around the world annually. Readers of this blog need no convincing that it’s important to be active every day. But is spending more time on it enough to reduce the risk of early death? Not necessarily. How we perceive this activity turns out to be just as important. We learn of this from the authors of an intriguing study in Health Psychology devoted to physical activity and mortality.

Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum at Stanford University were inspired by an earlier experiment involving hotel room attendants who completed a 20-minute intervention informing them that their daily work satisfied exercise recommendations and highlighting the benefits of this active lifestyle. This intervention not only shifted room attendants’ perceptions, but also resulted in health improvements including lower blood pressure and reductions in weight and body fat.

Zahrt and Crum examined data from 61,141 Americans (selected to be representative of the general population) to determine whether the way we think about our own physical activity could be of major and long-term significance for health. The data came from the US National Health Interview Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which included questions assessing how much exercise individuals think they get compared with their peers. The surveys also asked respondents detailed questions about actual physical activity they had undertaken. The researchers cross-checked these survey data against the National Death Index records as they stood 21 years after the exercise surveys had been completed.

As the researchers expected, perceived physical activity relative to peers was closely associated with risk of dying. Even after adjusting for actual levels of physical activity, individuals who perceived themselves as less active than others were up to 71 per cent more likely to die in the follow-up period than those who perceived themselves as more active. One can say with confidence that individuals’ perceptions about their level of physical activity were strongly related to their longevity, even after accounting for the effects of actual physical activity and other known determinants of mortality such as smoking or obesity.

There are a few potential explanations. A convincing one is that perceptions can affect motivation. For instance, a room attendant’s awareness that she is getting exercise at work might increase her confidence and commitment to a healthy lifestyle, and motivate her to act on this “active” identity. Conversely, longitudinal research shows that individuals who perceive themselves as unfit compared with their friends are less likely to exercise a year later.

Another potential mechanism is that perceptions can have emotional consequences. Public health messages often warn of the “life-threatening consequences” of physical inactivity. A person’s perception that she/he is inactive might thus lead to fear and stress about not getting enough exercise, with harmful consequences for health.

Still another explanation is that our positive beliefs and expectations can directly induce physiological responses, even following inert treatments, as shown by the placebo effect (similarly, negative expectations can lead to a harmful “nocebo effect”). Following this logic, participants in the current research who failed to realise that they were getting good exercise may not have experienced its full physiological benefits. Conversely, negative expectations related to the belief that one is not getting enough exercise could have become self-fulfilling because of nocebo-like effects.

Today we are not able to give a conclusive answer to the question of which of these mechanisms is most important. Perhaps a constellation of them? Or maybe there is another, unknown process involved.

Whatever the mechanisms at play, what do these results mean for mere mortals, and for those who are involved in promoting an active lifestyle? Instead of working out, should we stand in front of the mirror and repeat to ourselves “I’m an active and physically fit person”? To be clear, the authors warn that their findings don’t mean exercise is unimportant. Separate from the influence of our perceptions, physical activity continues to be a crucial determinant of health. However, a more thorough understanding of these results could help us optimise public health messages, finding the happy medium between highlighting that people need to exercise more, but not to the extent that they become downhearted about the exercise they do get.

Further studies will doubtlessly bring us more answers, but before that happens, let’s get up, walk away from the desk, and look at our activity with friendlier eyes than before.

Perceived physical activity and mortality: Evidence from three nationally representative U.S. samples

Post written by Dr Tomasz Witkowski for the BPS Research Digest. Tomasz is a psychologist and science writer who specialises in debunking pseudoscience in the field of psychology, psychotherapy and diagnosis. He has published over a dozen books, dozens of scientific papers and over 100 popular articles (some of them in Skeptical Inquirer). In 2016 his latest book Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy was published by BrownWalker Press. He blogs at http://ift.tt/2futFR5.

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Men and women interpret the sexual intent behind dating behaviours very differently

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Men tend to overestimate the sexual intent behind women’s behaviours on a date

By Alex Fradera

Imagine you’re out one evening with someone you met recently – you take your date’s hand in yours, or compliment your date’s appearance, or you kiss him or her passionately. For each behaviour, how likely is it that you wanted to have sex with that person for the first time? Researchers have put this question to heterosexual women, then they’ve asked men how they would interpret a woman’s intentions if she had behaved in these ways. The contrast in their answers is striking: men judge woman’s sexual intent as much higher than women do.

We could conclude from this that men read sex into situations where it isn’t there. But another explanation could be that men aren’t far off – it’s just that women under-report their true intentions. Which is closer to the truth? And what about men’s own sexual intentions – do women get those right?

In a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involving hundreds of US participants recruited online, Isabelle Engeler from IESE Business School and Priya Raghubir at New York University shine some light on the different ways men and women interpret the same dating behaviours.

The researchers asked some of their participants what their sexual intent would be if they acted in various ways on a date, and then to estimate the intent of another person of the same or opposite sex if they’d acted in those same ways. Consistent with past research, women’s ratings of their own sexual intention were 23 per cent lower than men’s average estimates of female intent based on the same behaviours and comments.

To find out if this might partly be due to women underestimating their own intentions, the researchers reversed the order of the questions for other participants – they first estimated other people’s sexual intentions based on a given set of behaviors, and only after this, stated their own intentions based on their display of the same behaviours. The idea behind reversing the questions is that you normalise the topic and relax the person into answering more honestly when you turn the focus to them (the researchers reasoned that women in particular might feel under pressure to answer in a socially appropriate manner, especially when the first question was focused on them).

With the question order reversed, women provided higher ratings of their own sexual intent – arguably because they were now answering more honestly. This shrunk the gap between their own and men’s perspective on their intentions to eight per cent. Based on a comparison of women’s answers depending on whether they were asked the question about their own intentions first or second, the researchers’ best guess is that around half of the perspective gap between genders is the result of women underreporting their intent, and the rest due to men’s overestimation.

What about men’s and women’s interpretation of men’s sexual intent? Some past studies suggested that women overestimate male sexual intentions, albeit to a smaller degree than men’s overestimation of women’s intent. In the current research, the standard question sequence reproduced this finding. But in the reversed question sequence, the gap closed, suggesting that any female overestimation of men’s intentions is “entirely (100 per cent) attributable to men underreporting their sexual intentions.” In fact, there was even an indication that women may be underestimating what men really want.

The results suggest that, at least in a heterosexual context in America, both sexes are wary of public revelation of their sexual intentions, and tend to downplay them. But women are fairly accurate at reading what men are really after. Men, by contrast, are prone to overestimate women’s intentions, in line with their own interests. Engeler and Raghubir conclude that “there seems to remain a substantial gap in how women and men interpret dating situations, which could lead to problematic misunderstandings between dating partners’ intentions in actually wanting to have sex.”

Decomposing the Cross-Sex Misprediction Bias of Dating Behaviors: Do Men Overestimate or Women Underreport Their Sexual Intentions?

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Study shows how easy and effective it is for Facebook ads to target your personality

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Examples of ads used in the study: (A) targeted at high and low extraversion users, (B) at high and low openness users. via Matz et al, 2017 / Getty Images

By Christian Jarrett

Last week, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted his concerns that by focusing on social validation, Facebook was designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology”. Added to this, and amidst the current furore around fake news, imagine if adverts on Facebook could be adapted to target your personality, significantly increasing the odds that people like you will click on the ads and then buy the associated products. A timely study in PNAS shows just how easy and effective it is to target web users according to their personality, a technique that the researchers call “psychological persuasion”.

The research, led by Sandra Matz at Columbia Business School, used data previously gathered via the myPersonality.org app. Millions of people took personality tests and agreed for the app to access their history of Likes on Facebook (for instance, whether they had “liked” Lady Gaga or the TV series Battlestar Galactica).

From a subsample of 65,000 users of the app, Matz and her team identified Likes which correlated strongly with scores on one of the main personality traits, but were neutral as regards the others. For example, they found that liking the US rapper Shwayze correlated with extraversion, but not with scores on the other main personality traits, and that liking Stargate SG1 correlated with introversion, but not the other traits.

In an initial study, the researchers then created variations of a professional ad for a beauty product, either designed to appeal to extraverts (e.g. tagline: “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are)”, or to introverts (e.g. tagline: “Beauty doesn’t have to shout”). They then used Facebook’s marketing tool to target the two ads deliberately either at people likely to be introverted (because they had “liked” a page identified earlier as correlated with introversion) or likely to be extraverted (again, because they had liked one of the pages known to be liked more often by high scorers in extraversion).

Results from this ad campaign, which reached over three million users, were clear: when the ad design matched users’ personality, it was 1.54 times more likely to lead to a purchase of the product.

A second study was similar, but this time the researchers looked for Likes that correlated with low or high openness-to-experience, a trait that’s associated with creativity, aesthetic appreciation and a desire to try out new things. For instance, liking the BBC drama The Fall correlated with high openness whereas liking the Farm Town game correlated with low openness. The researchers then created versions of an ad for a crossword app designed to appeal to people with low or high openness-to-experience. In a campaign reaching over 84,000 users, when the ad design matched users’ personality, they were 1.38 times more likely to click the ad, and 1.31 times more likely to buy the app.

Finally, Matz and her team used their approach to target ads for a bubble shooting game at a subsample of Facebook users already signed up to similar games (such as FarmVille). The pattern of likes for this group showed they are likely more introverted than average. The researchers therefore compared an ad designed to appeal to introverts (tagline “Phew! Hard day? How about a puzzle to wind down with?”) with the app company’s standard advertising spiel (i.e. “Ready? FIRE! Grab the latest puzzle shooter now! Intense action and brain-bending puzzles!”). The ad designed to appeal to introverts was more 1.3 times more likely to be clicked on and 1.2 times more likely to be purchased.

The researchers said their results showed the “effectiveness of psychological targeting in the context of real-life digital mass persuasion; tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological profiles of large groups of people allowed us to influence their actual behaviours and choices.”

“Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to- experience level resulted in up to 40 per cent more clicks and up to 50 per cent more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts.”

They added that this approach could be used for good (for example, to boost the effectiveness of public health campaigns) or ill (imagine if online gambling companies started using these techniques).

Ads tailored to your personality could just be the start. As apps and tracking software become more sophisticated (especially via wearable devices), it may be possible to gather data in real-time about users’ current mood or emotional state and then tailor ads accordingly, both in terms of their content, but also their timing. “Hence, extrapolating from what one does to who one is likely just the first step in a continuous development of psychological mass persuasion,” Matz and her team concluded.

Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion

Image: via Matz et al/Getty Images

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Very intelligent people make less effective leaders, according to their peers and subordinates

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Leaders who stand intellectually apart and are prone to complex language may be less inspiring

By Alex Fradera

Highly intelligent people tend to make good progress in the workplace and are seen as fit for leadership roles: overall, smarter is usually associated with success. But if you examine the situation more closely, as does new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, you find evidence that too much intelligence can harm leadership effectiveness. Too clever for your own good? Let’s look at the research.

John Antonakis at the University of Lausanne and colleagues recruited 379 mid-level leaders (27 per cent women, average age 38) at private companies in 30 mainly European countries, working in areas ranging from banking and telecoms to hospitality and retail. Each participant completed a personality questionnaire and a well-validated measure of intelligence, the Wonderlic Personnel Test. Their average IQ was 111 (the average for the general population is 100), with a fairly even spread of scores.

The researchers also had access to third-party ratings of the participants’ leadership performance from eight people: either peers or subordinates of the leader, who rated them on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire, which explores the degree to which the leader demonstrates various leadership styles, some known to be useful (e.g. a “transformational style” which inspires, or an “instrumental” style that removes stumbling blocks), others detrimental (e.g. a passive, hands-off style).

Overall, women tended to employ better leadership styles, and to a lesser extent so did older leaders, but the bulk of the variance was accounted for by personality and intelligence. Like so much previous work, intelligence showed a positive linear relationship with leadership effectiveness, but this association flattened out and then reversed at an IQ of about 120. For leaders with higher intelligence than this, their scores in transformational and instrumental leadership were lower, on average, than less smart leaders; and beyond an IQ of 128, the association with less effective leadership was clear and statistically significant.

Of note is that Antonakis’ team also predicted that very high intelligence would correlate not only with less use of effective leadership methods, but also greater use of harmful leadership styles (such as laissez-faire leadership). The data didn’t bear this out. Very smart leaders weren’t falling prey to bad approaches, they were struggling to use the good ones.

This is one of several recent psychological studies investigating how there can be “too much of a good thing”. For leaders, this can apply to political skills and charisma. Intelligence is perhaps more surprising, given its well-established association with positive outcomes. The new findings can’t tell us why very smart people seem to make poorer leaders, but it’s possible leaders who stand intellectually apart and are prone to complex language are less inspiring, and they may find it difficult to anticipate what will prove a challenge to others, and how to reduce tasks to an appropriate level of simplicity.

We must remember, however, that the issue isn’t whether, on balance, intelligence benefits leadership – it does – but whether it does so at every level of increasing intelligence. Antonakis’ team also speculate that the levels at which a leader’s intelligence delivers diminishing or reversing returns may depend on the relative intelligence of their team members, so these results don’t necessarily tell us the optimal IQ for all leaders. But they do suggest that in a social world, even highly advantageous traits can come with some drawbacks. And they also give defensive managers an excuse for a poor performance review: “I’m too clever for these guys!”

Can super smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? The curvilinear effect of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Moderate alcohol consumption improves foreign language skills

giphyBy Emma Young

Alcohol is not exactly known for its brain-boosting properties. In fact, it impairs all kinds of cognitive functioning, including working memory and the ability to ignore distractions. So it really should make it harder for someone to speak in a foreign language.

However, as Fritz Renner of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, point out in a new paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “contrary to what would be expected based on theory, it is a widely held belief among bilingual speakers that alcohol consumption improves foreign language fluency, as is evident in anecdotal evidence from numerous discussions in social and popular media.” And in welcome news for holiday drinkers (not to mention language students) everywhere, it turns out that, at least at moderate levels, this belief seems to be right.

To test the effect of alcohol on foreign language skills, Renner and his fellow researchers recruited 50 German students in their second year of an undergraduate degree in psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Maastricht is close to the German border and the university attracts many German students, all of whom must pass a Dutch language exam before they can attend.

To begin, the students drank either 250ml of chilled water or 250ml of bitter lemon and enough vodka to generate a moderate blood alcohol concentration of about 0.04 per cent (the precise amount of vodka varied, according to gender and body weight). About 15 minutes after finishing the drink – by which time alcohol would have been absorbed into the bloodstream – the students were instructed to argue either for or against animal testing in Dutch, for two minutes. Two native Dutch speakers, who didn’t know which students had drunk what, rated the students’ language performance in terms of overall quality, understandability, vocabulary, pronunciation, word selection and fluency. Finally, the students completed an arithmetic task.

Renner and his colleagues predicted that while alcohol might increase the students’ perceptions of how well they’d spoken in Dutch, they would in fact perform worse, based on the judges’ ratings, than the students who’d drunk water.

But this isn’t what they found. The vodka drinkers didn’t rate their own language performance any higher than the water-drinkers did. Neither did they do any worse on the arithmetic task. But they did receive better scores for their Dutch language skills, both overall and specifically for pronunciation.

Why might this be? Some people feel nervous when speaking in a foreign language. It may be that the anxiety-reducing effects of a relatively small amount of alcohol improved their performance,  but this needs further investigation.

“The findings of this study need replication in future studies, testing participants learning languages other than Dutch and varying the amount of alcohol that is consumed to further explore the effects of acute alcohol consumption on foreign language proficiency,” Renner and his fellow researchers concluded. At least, it shouldn’t be too tricky to find students willing to volunteer.

As the researchers noted in their paper, however, the amount of alcohol will be important in determining effects. The level in this study equated to a drink or two. As anyone who’s ever drunk more than that knows, at higher levels, slurring sets in.

Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Can evolutionary psychology and personality theory explain Trump’s popular appeal?

GettyImages-632198430.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

One year ago today, Donald J Trump, a man with no political or military experience, defied expectations, winning the election to become the 45th president of the United States. Nearly 63 million voted for him, including, and in spite of his reputation for sexism, over half of all white women. In an open-access paper in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Dan McAdams, one of the world’s leading experts in personality psychology, proposes an explanation for Trump’s popular appeal that is grounded in evolutionary psychology, personality theory and the social psychology of leadership.

Trump encapsulates, and his personality is perfectly suited to, “dominance-oriented leadership”, McAdams explains, in contrast to “prestige leadership”, as exemplified by Barack Obama.

Prestige leadership emerged more recently in our evolutionary history and is grounded in the cultural transmission of ideas and skills. Individuals who acquire expertise, and who have the ability to effectively organize other experts, are respected for their knowledge and wisdom and seen as legitimate leaders for this reason.

In contrast, dominant leadership is based on fear and power and dates farther back in our evolutionary past. To many Americans, Trump’s bombastic style and persona and proclamations have a “primal appeal”. Describing Trump as more “overtly aggressive” than any other political figure, “physically big and dynamic”, “insulting” and “egregiously self-promoting”, McAdams likens Trump’s “incendiary tweets” to the “charging displays” of an alpha male chimp, “designed to intimidate”.

Key to the dominance approach to leadership is the derogation of experts – Trump has previously stated he knows more than military generals and has no need for economists. Related to this is the espousal of an essentialist view that sees some individuals as inherently superior to others. Trump consistently boasts about his superior intelligence and abilities over others. He displays what social psychologists call “hubristic pride” – celebrating who he is (brilliant and powerful, in his view), rather than the work and effort he has invested (upon which “authentic pride” is based).

The dominant leader is especially appealing in a climate of fear. Trump has pushed this view – highlighting the dangers of outsiders, be they Mexican immigrants or Islamist terrorists, while also speaking of the economic “carnage” afflicting the country. Throughout his life, Trump has advocate a Hobbesian view of human culture. Even as long ago as 1981, he said “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat”. Against the enemies he invokes, and in these dangerous times, Trump “confidently assures Americans that he will deliver them from the chaos,” McAdams writes.

Trump’s personality is perfectly suited to this particular approach to leadership, McAdams observes. He has an unusual mix of extremely high extraversion, low agreeableness, and extreme narcissism. The first two traits contribute to his ability and willingness to forge opportunistic, short-term coalitions, but then to drop them as soon as they no longer fulfill his needs, just as alpha chimpanzees do with their potential rivals. Indeed, McAdams observes that “the case of Donald Trump shows how much humans turn out to be like chimps.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s narcissism (and his essentialist view of ability and status) is likely appealing to voters who crave authoritarian rule – that is, submission to a strong leader, adherence to strict rules, and an aggressive, intolerant approach to outsiders and liberals (polls suggest authoritarianism has risen in the US over the last decade). A leader who believes confidently in, and frequently brags about, his own abilities, and strength and power, is highly appealing to these voters who have what social psychologists call a right-wing authoritarian attitude and social dominance orientation, meaning they believe strongly in the superiority of their own group over others, and who want a leader who endorses and represents this superiority.

McAdams concludes by writing that he does not wish to dismiss or denigrate the many other explanations put forward for the rise of a man described by people from all political persuasions as “a serial liar, a sexual predator, a swindler, a narcissist, and a bully”. There are “many reasons” McAdams writes, [but] “the view advanced here is that Trump holds a deep and primal appeal for millions of Americans at this time in our history because of how effectively he channels the psychology of dominance – a way of thinking and feeling about leadership in groups that traces back many millions of years in human evolution, to our primate heritage.”

The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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A 30-minute lesson in the malleability of personality has long-term benefits for anxious, depressed teenagers

GettyImages-155427885.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

There are many effective psychological therapies to help teenagers with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems. Unfortunately, for various reasons, most teenagers never get access to a professional therapist. To overcome this problem, some researchers are exploring the potential of brief, “single-session” interventions that can be delivered cheaply and easily to many at-risk teenagers outside of a clinical context. In The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Jessica Schleider and John Weisz at Harvard University present extremely promising results from their trial of a 30-minute computer session teaching depressed and anxious teenagers that personality is malleable.

To be eligible, the participating teenagers needed to have problematic anxiety and/or depression. Ninety-six teenagers took part, aged 12 to 15, mostly White American. Forty-eight of them were assigned to the 20- to 30-minute session about the malleability of personality. The others, who had the same baseline symptom levels, acted as controls and spent an equal amount of time in a computer-based session of “supportive therapy” learning about emotions and how it’s helpful to talk about them. The idea was this would match the experience of being enrolled in the personality change session in all ways except for the all-important content.

The personality session was self-administered on computer and taught the teenagers about neuroplasticity and the idea that behaviours arise from thoughts and feelings in their brains, and that brains are always changing. They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles to themselves and they wrote notes to younger children about the malleability of personality traits.

The primary message of the intervention, the researchers said, is that “personal attributes are malleable if we systematically – and with appropriate supports – act to change them. Essentially it reinforces beliefs in behavioral control over the kinds of people we are can can become.”

All the teens completed a series of psychological measures before and immediately after whichever session they took part in, and then they took the same measures again three, six, and nine-months later. Their parents also completed some of the same measures about their child. To avoid their own expectations affecting the results, the researchers were kept unaware of which teens were in which condition until the end of the study.

The promising findings include that the teens in the personality change session showed more rapid declines in depression, and nine months later their depression scores had declined more than the control participants’ scores (33 per cent fewer of them now had clinically severe levels of depression, compared with 11 per cent fewer among the control group). These benefits were mirrored in parents’ ratings of their children’s depression.

The results for anxiety weren’t as good, but still showed promise – the personality change intervention led to greater declines in symptoms at nine months based on parents’ reports, although not based on the teenagers’ self-reports.

As hoped, compared with the controls, the teenagers in the personality change intervention reported a stronger increase in their belief that your personality is something you can change. Further clues as to how the personality change intervention helped the teenagers come from measures of their belief in their ability to deal with adversity by controlling their own behavior (e.g. whether they agreed with statements like “I can be popular with kids my age, if I really try”; “I can do well on tests if I try really hard”) and their own emotions (e.g. “I can usually find something good to like, even in a bad situation” or ““When I have a problem that I can’t change, I can do something to take my mind off it.”).

Across the follow-up period, the teens in the personality change intervention showed larger increases in their sense of control over their own behavior, as compared with the control participants (there was no difference in their sense of control over their emotions). This makes sense given the personality intervention’s focus on behavioral control as a means to influence our personalities.

Schleider and Weisz said their “mindset” intervention teaching that personality is malleable is “highly cost-effective and scalable”, meaning it could be delivered to all new pupils arriving at a secondary school, for example. They added “these are the first findings we know of suggesting that a 30-minute, self-administered program may help reduce depression, and to a lesser degree, anxiety, in high-symptom and high-risk youths.” They believe the intervention may have such strong and enduring effects because it focuses on “‘keystone beliefs’ of high developmental relevance to adolescents”.

Another advantage is that for any teens who end up in therapy, the brief personality change session could help lay the groundwork in terms of motivation and helpful beliefs about personal control.

While the results are encouraging, larger trials are needed, the researchers noted, including with teenagers from more ethnically diverse and less affluent backgrounds.

A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and is currently writing a book about personality change

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Contrary to stereotypes, study of hedge fund managers finds psychopaths make poor investors

GettyImages-457803795.jpgBy Emma Young

If you’re a psychopath who’s good with numbers, you could make the perfect hedge fund manager. Your lack of empathy will allow you to capitalise blithely on the financial losses of others, while your ability to stomach high-risk, but potentially high-return, options will send your fund value soaring…. Well, that’s the story that’s been painted by popular media, folk wisdom and Wall Street insiders alike. The problem, according to a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that hedge fund managers with psychopathic tendencies actually make less money for their clients.

Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues analysed videos of semi-structured interviews with 101 hedge fund managers, whose firms each managed between US$40 million and US$1 trillion in assets. This money generally came from institutional investors, such as insurance companies and public and private pension funds.

The videos had been recorded between 2005 and 2015 by an investment advisory firm, to act as a marketing tool, and to give existing clients market updates. They followed a set format with the interviewer asking questions like, “What is your outlook on opportunities in the current market?” and “What is your philosophy on risk management?”

The researchers were looking for non-verbal evidence in the hedge fund managers’ replies of the so-called Dark Triad personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Erratic emotional expression, for example, was taken as a signal of psychopathy. A dominant positioning of the jaw and posture were among the signals of Machiavellianism. Flashy clothes, coy looks, and excessive use of “I” rather than “We”, were among the indicators of narcissism.

Keltner and his colleagues also analysed the financial performance of each manager’s so-called “flagship fund” – usually the largest fund offered by the company, and the one considered to most reflect the individual manager’s investment process – during the ten-year period that the videos were recorded.

Machiavellianism had no bearing on performance. Narcissistic hedge fund managers had to make riskier decisions to make the same returns over a given period compared with a less narcissistic manager; as far as an investor is concerned, this would manifest as greater volatility in the value of their investments.

When it came to psychopathic tendencies, however, the results were more clear cut. For managers who displayed psychopathic tendencies at a level of one standard deviation above the mean, an investment of US$1 million earned US$1,161,694 (15 per cent) less over the course of ten years, on average, compared with a manager who ranked average for psychopathy. More extreme psychopathy led to even weaker returns. For example, the same US$1 million investment by a manager who rated two standard deviations above the mean for psychopathy earned 30 per cent less, on average.

This is the first time that the Dark Triad traits have been investigated in the context of hedge fund performance, and unfortunately the study doesn’t reveal the reasons for the counterintuitive results. It may be that, while the individual managers led the hedge funds, innovative ideas from team members are important for effective financial investing – and the more bullying style of managers with more psychopathic traits could have stifled this kind of creative, collaborative thinking.

While the findings suggest that investors would be wise to avoid managers with psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies, there are some limitations to be mindful of. The financial data were from a period that included the Global Financial Crisis and the researchers can’t rule out the possibility that Dark Triad traits may be advantageous in other, less financially disastrous, contexts. Also the non-verbal coding procedure – although it’s a valid measure according to earlier research – provides only a rather coarse indication of personality traits.

It’s worth noting that the results tally with another recent study (on which Dacher Keltner was also a co-author), that found US senators with psychopathic tendencies received less support for bills they had proposed. “These two studies, clear examples of real-world performance, cast doubts upon the efficacy of a Dark Triad-based approach to wielding power,” Keltner and his team concluded.

Hedge Fund Managers With Psychopathic Tendencies Make for Worse Investors

(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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The deactivation effect: What 15 minutes device-free solitude does to your emotions

GettyImages-493659014.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Psychology research has tended to portray solitude as an unpleasant experience. Studies conducted in the 1970s and 1990s suggested a clear pattern: people usually felt less happy when alone as compared with having company. More recently, researchers showed that their volunteers preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit in silence with their own thoughts. However, in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a research team led by They-vy Nguyen at the University of Rochester explains the shortcomings in this earlier research and presents a more nuanced picture, showing how 15 minutes solitude can have beneficial effects on our emotions. Their results suggest that if you want to lower the intensity of your emotions, positive and negative, time spent alone may be just the ticket.

The research from the 70s and 90s measured emotion on a scale from positive to negative, overlooking the possibility that our positive and negative emotions can fluctuate independently, and that both positive and negative emotions can be either high arousal (such as excitement or anger) or low arousal (such as calmness and loneliness). Meanwhile, the electric shock research involved volunteers being instructed that they must actively think, which may have been aversive as compared with simply being in solitude without more specific instructions.

For their new paper, Nguyen’s team first asked 75 student participants to spend 15 minutes sitting alone in a comfortable chair at the psych lab, away from their digital devices and without engaging in any activity. For comparison, 39 other students spent the same time chatting with a research assistant. Before and after this 15 minute period, all the students completed a questionnaire measuring their “high arousal” positive and negative emotions (examples being excited, interested, scared, distressed). The results were clear: the participants in the solitude condition, but not the comparison group, showed reductions in their positive and negative emotions – what the researchers described as a “deactivation effect”.

A follow-up study with more students found the same deactivating effect of 15 minutes of solitude on high arousal emotions, but also added in a measure of low-arousal positive and negative emotions (such as calm, relaxed, sad, lonely) and found that these were increased by time alone. The same pattern was found for a comparison group who spent the time alone reading a moderately interesting article rather than in their own thoughts, suggesting that complete mental disengagement from an external task is not necessary for solitude to have its emotional effects.

What you think about when you’re alone surely has some bearing on the emotional effects of solitude: the researchers investigated this in another study, as well as looking into whether it matters whether you choose the tone of your thoughts or follow someone else’s instructions. Choosing the content of one’s own thoughts, rather than following instructions, was preferable in terms of reducing high arousal negative emotions and boosting low arousal positive ones. However, it’s also true that time alone with positive thoughts – whether by choice or through following instructions – was advantageous, as compared with having neutral thoughts.

Finally, the researchers asked 157 students to keep an evening diary for two weeks to track their emotions. Half the students were instructed to spend 15 minutes in device-free solitude daily during the first week; the other half of the students did this in the second week. Again, the de-activation effect was observed: the week that the students spent time in solitude, they tended to show reduced high arousal positive and negative emotions. There was also an apparent deactivation spill-over into the second week for those who completed the solitude exercises in the first week.

It’s worth clarifying that these findings pertain to relatively brief moments of solitude as distinct from prolonged loneliness, which is known to be associated with a host of unwelcome physical and psychological effects.

Nguyen and his colleagues said more research needs to be done, but that the “take-home message is that there are benefits and detriments of solitude.” They added their studies suggest “that people can use solitude, or other variations on being alone, to regulate their affective states, becoming quiet after excitement, calm after an angry episode, or centred and peaceful when desired.”

The new results may be seen as a complement to a paper published two years ago that made the case that people generally enjoy going out on their own in public more than they think they will.

Solitude as an Approach to Affective Self-Regulation

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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