Month: August 2018

New research reveals our folk beliefs about immortality – we think the good and bad will live on, but in very different ways

GettyImages-821819658.jpgBy guest blogger Dan Jones

When, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony delivers his funeral oration for his fallen friend, he famously says “The evil that men do lives on; the good is oft interred with their bones.” 

Anthony was talking about how history would remember Caesar, lamenting that doing evil confers greater historical immortality than doing good. But what about literal immortality? 

While there’s no room for such a notion in the scientific worldview, belief in an immortal afterlife was common throughout history and continues to this day across many cultures. Formal, codified belief systems like Christianity have a lot to say about the afterlife, including how earthly behaviour determines our eternal fate: the virtuous among us will apparently spend the rest of our spiritual days in paradise, while the wicked are condemned to suffer until the end of time. Yet, according to Christianity and many other formal religions, there’s no suggestion that anyone – good, bad or indifferent – gets more or less immortality, which is taken to be an all-or-nothing affair.

This is not how ordinary people think intuitively about immortality, though. In a series of seven studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kurt Gray at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues, have found that, whether religious or not, people tend to think that those who do good or evil in their earthly lives achieve greater immortality than those who lead more morally neutral lives. What’s more, the virtuous and the wicked are seen to achieve different kinds of immortality.

The new findings complement previous work showing how we see moral character as a defining feature of people, both when they’re alive and when their souls depart. In the new studies, Gray and colleagues extended this, finding that their participants (recruited online via Amazon Mechanical Turk and including atheists and people of different religious faiths), rated historical figures who were extremely good or bad – Martin Luther King or Hitler, for example – as achieving a greater degree of immortality than morally neutral figures, such as Ameila Earhart and Andy Warhol.

Even if both good and evil people are seen to achieve greater immortality than the more morally neutral, might they nonetheless experience different kinds of immortality? For many of the world’s major religions, the answer is clearly yes: perform morally positive acts on earth and you go to The Good Place (Heaven) to enjoy total freedom in a paradisiacal realm, but do evil and you go instead to The Bad Place (Hell) to be tormented for all time.

Casting a wider anthropological net, many smaller, less formal belief systems also posit that good and evil spirits experience immorality in different ways. In particular, it’s common to find the belief that while virtuous spirits enjoy a transcendental freedom, evil spirits are more likely to be trapped or confined in some way, such as the Iroquois belief that they are eternally confined to their homes. Similar ideas crop up in popular culture too. When the evil wizard Voldemort dies in Harry Potter, his soul lives on in magical objects called Horcruxes. But when Obi-Wan Kenobi dies in the Star Wars films, his spirit is able to roam freely through the ethereal realm of the Force.

Gray and his colleagues found their participants held similar intuitive beliefs about the fates of deceased good, bad or neutral historical figures: they were more likely to see good souls as living in a transcendent state, wicked souls as trapped, and neutral souls as slightly less free than good ones but freer than bad ones. 

The reverse inference also held: reading about someone who had recently died and whose spirit had left the earthly realm and moved beyond space and time prompted participants to infer that this must have been a good person, while the converse led them to think the person must have been bad. 

Similarly, participants inferred that spirits inhabiting expansive locations, like hot deserts , arctic tundra or mountaintops, were more benevolent than those living in more confined locations, like a narrow trench,underground cave or tent in the woods, irrespective of how pleasant those locations were deemed.

Such inferences might explain why paranormal events are typically chalked up to malevolent spirits. The researchers asked more participants to imagine being in the house of someone recently deceased and that they felt a strange sensation as their spirit passed by. After reading these stories, people tended to view this spirit as malevolent, as a trapped spirit must be a bad spirit.

In explaining their findings, Gray’s team suggest that seeing good souls as free and transcendent and bad ones as confined and trapped stems in part for a basic desire for justice, with bad souls ending up in a spiritual prison and less able to roam and harm others. Such a desire may also receive a cognitive boost from the fact that notions of good and evil are metaphorically associated with ideas of lightness and airiness, and darkness and constriction, respectively.

The results did not appear to depend on whether participants already held religious beliefs about the afterlife – the same patterns were found regardless of their stated faith or supernatural belief, suggesting that our folk intuitions about immortality tend to overpower any formal belief systems that we claim to subscribe to. “These ways of thinking are very intuitive, and overcoming them takes effort,” says Gray.

One caveat to these studies concerns the fact that the participants were from a Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) society. Psychological insights generated from WEIRD participants do not always generalize to other cultures, and in this case beliefs about reincarnation may have been under-represented. But Gray and colleagues argue that the cross-cultural similarities in the beliefs about the afterlife that inspired the research suggest that the new studies tap into a universal aspect of our psychology.

Gray is currently writing up the results of follow-on studies in which he looked at how the state of someone’s mind at the point of death – say, whether it was at the peak of health or wracked by dementia – affected how participants perceived its prospects for immortality. So while we may not ever be able to achieve literal immortality, at least we may soon know what it takes for others to think we’re immortal.

To be immortal, do good or evil

Image: Milton’s Paradise Lost – Hell at last, Yawning. Vintage engraving by Gustave Dore, from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hell at last, Yawning, received them whole.

Post written by Dan Jones (@MultipleDraftz) for the BPS Research Digest. Dan is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK, whose writing has appeared in The Psychologist, New Scientist, Nature, Science and many other magazines. He blogs at

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Chess grandmasters show the same longevity advantage as elite athletes


Red and blue lines show the ratio of the yearly survival rates for Olympic medallists and Chess grandmasters, respectively, relative to the general population (flat dashed line). Shaded areas show confidence intervals. Via An Tran-Duy et al, 2018

By Christian Jarrett

It’s well established that elite athletes have a longer life expectancy than the general public. A recent review of over 50 studies comprising half a million people estimated the athletic advantage to be between 4 and 8 years, on average. This comes as little surprise. One can easily imagine how the same genetic endowment and training necessary to develop physical prowess in sport might also manifest in physical health. Now for the first time, a study published in PLOS One (open access) shows that athletes of the mind – chess grandmasters – show the same longevity advantage as athletes of the body.

An Tran-Duy at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues obtained data on over 1,200 chess grandmasters, mostly men, from 28 countries in three world regions, including whether or not they survived each successive year after receiving their title, all the way up to the beginning of 2017. From this, the researchers calculated the average yearly survival rates, adjusting for region, age and sex, which allowed them to come up with estimated life expectancies for grandmasters of different ages in different years. They did the same with data for over 15,000 olympic medalists.

There was no difference in the average life expectancy of the athletes and the chess grandmasters, but both groups showed a sizeable life expectancy advantage compared to the general population. For instance, in 2010, the average life expectancy of a chess grandmaster aged 25 was 6.3 years longer than the average for a 25-year-old member of the public. For a 55-year-old chess grandmaster, life expectancy was 4.5 years longer.

The study can’t tell us anything about why chess grandmasters live longer than the public. It’s possible some of the causes are indirect, such as the grandmasters possibly having higher average IQ (which is itself associated with longevity); elite chess players are also known to take more care of their physical fitness than the general population; and the social and economic benefits of becoming a grandmaster, especially notable in Eastern Europe, may have health benefits. Chess may also have direct health benefits, including via its known effects on the brain – for instance, it reduces risk of dementia.

Tran-Duy and his team begin their paper quoting Isaac Asimov: “In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate”, and they reference this quote in their conclusion. “Not only does the game of life continue after the checkmate,” they write, “but excelling in mind sports like chess means one is likely to play the game for longer.”

Longevity of outstanding sporting achievers: Mind versus muscle

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

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Is there a crisis in local government outsourcing?

Worrying times for local public sector outsourcing contracts.

Has the third bus arrived with the latest big outsourcing company to report troubles? Following the collapse of Carillion and the losses reported by Capita along comes the announcement of a massive drop in Interserves’ share price and the inevitable ongoing discussions about the viability of the outsourcing model – especially within the public sector.

These three companies share many similarities they are – (or were, in the case of Carillion) – companies spanning the continents and offering services in an array of diverse sectors. Capita for example a multinational business operating in Europe, Africa and Asia, with  a split in its services about fifty-fiftyhalf between the public and private sectors.

Business logic suggests the wide range of skills and experience offered by this kind of international, inter-sectoral organisation, can be a big plus to local government and other parts of the public sector. And most certainly the NHS could benefit from the know-how of senior personnel in business.

Should care be outsourced?

But such size and diversity can also be a weakness when an organisation becomes too big and geographically spread, it can become difficult to coordinate its service delivery potentially leading to confusion, duplication and waste.

Nevertheless, we should not overstate the problems of giant outsourcing companies. They have become part of the local government landscape and many councils depend on them. And most, close to 90%, of all local government contracts work and deliver positive benfites in cost and the delivery of services.

But taken together the recent spate of crisis stories suggests to local authorities and other parts of the public sector that to become too dependent on huge multinationals and to become at risk to uncontrollable market forces is something to be avoided. Public perception of outsourcing is poor and any short term crisis that impacts the delivey of public services receives due attention from the public and politicians alike.

The important lessons coming from the recent crisis are well known and researched. Large scale companies often will under-bid to gain the business, and there is evidence that these organisations continually grow by acquisition, or the under-bidding of contracts to gain turnover share rather than a more organic growth approach. They have to keep running to avoid the collapse. The way it was put to me on one of the bids I was involved with was ‘we bid low to get the contract then when we are in we can get the contract changed to our advantage.’ But sometimes it does not work out like that!

For the public sector contract and procurement managers the pressure to get costs down over-rides sensible decision making and evaluation of bids. They are too tactical in their decision making and think they are doing a good job by squeezing down the price and pushing all the risk onto the suppliers. Well that gets them no-where when the contract collapses! So there are two sides to these problems: aggressive selling by suppliers to get the business and force out competition, and poor procurement and contract management prectices within the public sector.


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There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about Abraham Maslow and self-actualisation – a new paper puts the record straight

Abraham_Maslow.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Abraham Maslow was one of the great psychological presences of the twentieth century, and his concept of self-actualisation has entered our vernacular and is addressed in most psychology textbooks. A core concept of humanistic psychology, self-actualisation theory has inspired a range of psychological therapies as well as approaches taken in social work. But a number of myths have crept into our understanding of the theory and the man himself. In a new paper in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, William Compton of Middle Tennessee State University aims to put the record straight.

Maslow’s most penetrating idea is that we have a hierarchy of needs, proceeding from physiological needs like water or warmth, through safety, love, esteem and then self-actualisation. He argued that lower needs occupy our attention when they are unmet and make it more difficult to fulfil the higher ones – including self-actualisation, which is about becoming the self you always had the potential to be.

Screenshot 2018-05-16 16.13.26Compton first deals with the charge that this work is ascientific. He finds there is a lack of strong evidence showing that individuals transition from one level of the hierarchy to the next, as Maslow claimed. However, research on this point is complicated by the widely mistaken belief that Maslow considered needs must be fully satisfied at each level before progressing. In fact, Maslow stated that everyone has unsatisfied needs at every level – who feels safe 100 per cent of the time? 

On the other hand, in favour of the idea of progression through the hierarchy is evidence from comparisons of national populations. Cross-cultural research shows that when more people in a population have their basic needs met, a greater proportion also tend to reach self-actualisation, as compared with populations that are preoccupied with scarcities. 

Maslow also claimed that people are more likely to flourish when they hold self-actualising values like spontaneity, positive self-regard, and acceptance of paradoxes. There is supportive data associating these qualities with positive outcomes – including creativity, lower anxiety or a personal locus of control, and also – and perhaps more surprisingly – higher instances of peak experiences, higher sexual satisfaction, and less fear of death.

The hierarchy is sometimes presented with another element slotted in: cognition needs, placed just below self-actualisation (as seen in these examples). In fact Maslow opposed this, as he saw cognition as a tool that can serve every need at every level, whether in knowing self-defense techniques to help you feel safe, or knowing ourselves. For him, it lay outside the hierarchy. Another point often forgotten is that self-actualisation isn’t Maslow’s pinnacle. He broke out another stage for “peakers” – self actualised individuals who also experience peak or mystical experiences.

Compton moves on to address allegations about who and what the theory is for. He disputes the idea that it encourages self-centredness: many of the self-actualisation qualities Maslow emphasised are actually centred on others, like fairness, service, and adherence to a universal framework of values. Moreover, two of Maslow’s favoured reference points when talking about self-actualisation were Alfred Adler’s gemeinschaftsgefühl (the psychological health that follows from caring about others) and the bodhisattva (the Buddhist notion of one who strives for compassion towards others). 

What about the related charge that self-actualisation is elitist, a preoccupation reserved for the privileged? This criticism needs some thinking through. There is a case that Maslow didn’t pay enough attention to how sexism or racism could impede self-actualisation, although his writings did show a more vague sensitivity to life throwing you a trickier hand. It’s true many of his self-actualised examples are white men, but he also cited figures such as Jane Addams, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. And while it may seem like self-actualisation requires plenty of disposable income and leisure time, what Maslow meant by self-actualisation is bringing your full self to the moment, which includes dedicating yourself to work, how you treat others in daily interactions, and holding yourself to the highest standards. You can do all that from wherever you are standing.

Finally, Compton deals with the references in Maslow’s copious writing to the self-actualised as “more fully human” versus the “less evolved persons” who are lower down the hierarchy – at the very least, this is a case of bad optics. In his defense, Maslow repeatedly emphasised that he did not believe anyone was innately superior, just that some people made more of their potential. Compton argues that some of the criticism around this is motivated by defensiveness: that some people are apparently stung by the claim that someone can work on their personality and thus make it excellent, just as they can become an excellent gymnast or painter. I disagree – I think there is a case that Maslow’s language unhelpfully conjures a sense of individualistic exceptionalism that would probably feel right at home in a TED summit or posthumanist away-day. Not, I think, what he would have wanted.

Clearly, Maslow’s work is not without flaws. But his reframing of psychology to look at upwards possibilities rather than constantly into pathology sparked a shift that anticipated the positive psychology movement by decades. So his ideas deserve to be better understood, so we can use them more effectively to better ourselves, and so they can be developed and built upon for professionals who are seeking a ladder to help humanity reach greatness.

Self-Actualization Myths: What Did Maslow Really Say?

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

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Physically active academic school lessons boost pupils’ activity levels and focus

GettyImages-598216698.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For various reasons, children in many countries are increasingly sedentary and childhood obesity is a growing concern. At the same time, research tells us that physical activity is good for children’s minds and bodies, and that if they develop active habits in their youth, they tend to keep them up into adulthood.

It would surely help if children were more active at school, but with growing academic pressures, teachers will tell you that it is difficult to justify sacrificing vital maths and English lessons for more PE classes or games. A possible solution: make academic lessons more physically active. A new trial of a 6-week intervention comprising 18 ten-minute active maths and English lessons, published in Health Education and Behavior, suggests that such an approach has great potential.

Emma Norris at UCL and her colleagues recruited hundreds of pupils aged 8-9 from 10 London schools. Half were allocated randomly to the active lesson intervention. While they were doing those special classes, the other half of the children acted as a comparison and completed typically taught 10-minute maths and English classes.

Children enrolled in the intervention followed the “virtual traveller” protocol, which involved them performing physical exercises, such as running on the spot, while they travelled the world answering math or English quiz questions pertaining to different countries.

Virtual travel from country to country was depicted via Google Earth videos and other materials embedded in the teacher’s interactive white board presentation.

Further physical activity came from the exercises the children performed to signal whether a given math or English quiz answer was true or false – such as jumping jacks for “true” or performing a football kick for “false”.

Norris and her team had the children wear motion trackers during the classes and also outside of class for two school days per week and two weekend days (these measures were taken at baseline, during the six-week period, and for a few months beyond). Trained observers also monitored the children’s on-task behaviour in class, and the kids completed questionnaires about their engagement levels.

In some ways, the trial was a win-win: the children in the active intervention were more active (based on more light and moderately vigorous activity) during their “virtual traveller” lessons as compared with the control group kids, and what’s more, they also displayed more on-task behavior, in terms of staying more focused on the lesson, following instructions and making more eye contact with their teacher.

This is very promising but perhaps not quite as good as might have been hoped. The children in the active intervention were mostly no more active than the control kids when averaged across entire school days, nor at the weekends, and this was this case both during and beyond the end of the study. That is, they were more active in the specially designed active lessons (it would have been odd if they weren’t), but mostly this didn’t boost their activity levels enough to make any difference when averaging across the whole day (and didn’t spill over into their habits at the weekend).

This lack of a broader benefit could be because the activities in the “virtual traveller” class were not intense enough; the classes were too short and/or infrequent; or perhaps the children compensated for all their in-class exertion by relaxing more later in the day.

Another disappointment is that the physically active lessons did not boost the pupils’ self-reported engagement levels. On the other hand, and interpreting this result more positively, the extra physical activity did not harm their engagement either.

It will be interesting to follow this line of research and see whether longer and/more intense physically active lesson programmes could have bigger benefits for pupils’ lifestyles and whether active lessons might also have an impact on children’s educational performance in the long run.

Physically Active Lessons Improve Lesson Activity and On-Task Behavior:
A Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial of the “Virtual Traveller” Intervention

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

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People with a keener sense of smell find sex more pleasant and, if they are female, have more orgasms during sex

GettyImages-175902091.jpgBy Emma Young

Scent plays an often under-appreciated role in sexual attraction, helping to account for why visual attractiveness alone can’t explain just how physically attractive a person is perceived to be. But what role does our ability to smell our partners – or potential partners – play in actual experience? 

We know from past research that men born without the ability to smell tend to have fewer sexual partners. And about half of people who lose their sense of smell, through infection or injury, report negative impacts on their sexual behaviour. However, this could be an indirect effect – an inability to smell is often also associated with depression or social insecurity, which can affect aspects of sexuality – and such studies do not tell us whether sense of smell is related to sexual experience among healthy people. Now, in a new paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Johanna Bendas at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, and her fellow researchers report evidence from healthy, young adults showing precisely that.

The researchers studied 42 women and 28 men aged between 18 and 36. They found that there was no relationship between their odour sensitivity (measured using a test that establishes how much of a smelly chemical must be present for the individual to be able to detect it) and either sexual desire or sexual performance (defined as how many times they’d engaged in sexual activity during the previous month and how long, on average, a sexual encounter had lasted).

However, people with a keener sense of smell reported finding their sexual activities more “pleasant”, and women with a greater sensitivity to odours had more orgasms during sex. 

“Our data suggest a positive influence of olfactory sensitivity on the sex life of young and healthy participants,” the researchers write. “The perception of body odors such as vaginal fluids, sperm and sweat seems to enrich the sexual experience” by increasing sexual arousal, they add.

There are some limitations to the study, including the correlational design which means other unknown factors might be playing a causal role. Also, while the researchers did control for the use of hormonal contraception in the women, they didn’t consider the stage of menstrual cycle of the female volunteers at the time of the study – something that is known to influence olfaction. Future research in this area should take this into account, and could further explore the influence of specific odours. “The direct measurement of sexual arousal or experience will give further insight into the assumption that olfactory sensitivity improves sexual experience,” the researchers write.

Olfactory Function Relates to Sexual Experience in Adults 

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


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Distinct from intelligence or working memory, your “perceptual capacity” predicts how susceptible you are to inattentional blindness (or missing the gorilla in the room)

giphyBy Emma Young

It’s well-known that we can easily miss objects in our environment that are outside the focus of our conscious attention. “Inattentional blindness” is demonstrated by the famous “invisible gorilla” studies, for example. But there’s a darker side to this phenomenon: if it happens while you’re driving – or if you’re a baggage checker at airport security – the consequences could be fatal.

Now a new paper, by Joshua Eayrs and Nilli Lavie at University College London, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that some people can handle more visual information than others before developing this and related kinds of attentional blindness, and this is because they have a greater visual perceptual capacity. “We identified a novel trait that is different from working memory, general intelligence or motivational factors,” Lavie said in a press release. 

In initial studies conducted on 279 visitors to the Science Museum in London, Eayrs and Lavie first assessed participants’ perceptual capacity by asking them to rapidly identify the total number of objects in a scene – a so-called “subitizing” task that measures “the simultaneous, parallel processing capacity for detection and individuation of items”. A series of 162 images of between one and nine randomly sized and positioned black squares were presented for 100 milliseconds each. Previous work has found that, on average, people can reliably enumerate about three to four items and a mean of 3.62 was found for this group. 

The researchers then found that people who were better at subitizing – suggesting that they have higher perceptual capacity – were also better at identifying whether two photographs, presented briefly in rapid succession, were identical or very nearly identical (that is, they were less susceptible to a form of inattention known as “change blindness”). 

In a second study, on 122 more visitors to the Science Museum, the researchers linked a greater subitizing capacity to being less susceptible to “load blindness” as revealed by their superior performance on a task that progressively increased the perceptual load (participants had to try to judge the lengths of lines of an X while also monitoring other changeable elements in the periphery of the scene). 

In a third study, the researchers explored whether the superior performance of participants with higher perceptual capacity was simply because they have greater working memory capacity.  Working memory describes how much information we can hold and manipulate in mind at any time and it’s a key aspect of cognitive functioning that is known to underlie performance on a range of mental tasks, including tests of attention.

A separate group of 43 people completed three different tasks of working memory, as well as the same subitizing task as before, the same change-detection task, and also an object-tracking task, which required them to track four target dots as they moved around the centre of a screen, among four other dots. 

While working memory capacity did partially explain object-tracking performance, subitizing performance was also important. Also, perceptual capacity (indicated by results on the subitizing task) strongly predicted the participants’ performance on the photograph change-detection task, even when working memory capacity was controlled for.

“Taken together, the results indicate that a single unifying construct appears to underlie subitizing, change detection and [object-tracking] and this construct is distinct from working memory capacity,” the researchers write. 

Importantly, they say, the work also establishes the subitizing task as a simple way of quantifying an individual’s general perceptual capacity limit. As such, it provides “a potentially powerful indicator of individual abilities relevant to various tasks” – such as working as a pilot or a baggage screener at an airport. “The present research thus provides a scientific basis for devising future personnel selection tests for security and defense,” Eayrs and Lavie conclude.

Establishing Individual Differences in Perceptual Capacity

Image via

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

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Seven psychoanalytic psychotherapists reflect on the clients that didn’t get better, or even felt worse

A key theme was that it felt like having just half the client in therapy

By Alex Fradera

Psychotherapists are devoted to improving people’s psychological health, but sometimes their efforts fail. A new qualitative study in Psychotherapy Research delves into what therapists take away from these unsuccessful experiences.

Andrzej Werbart led the Stockholm University research team that focused on eight therapy cases where the clients – all women under the age of 26 – had experienced no improvement, or in three cases, had deteriorated. This was based on comparing their pre- and post-therapy symptom levels following one to two sessions per week of psychoanalytically-focused therapy for about two years, to deal with symptoms such as depressed mood, anxiety, or low self-esteem.

The seven therapists responsible for these cases (one had two non-improving clients) were also all women, average age 53, with a range of experience in therapy.  Each had had success in leading other clients to improvement, which is typical; the evidence shows even strong therapists have cases that fail.

The therapists took part in interviews at the start and end of treatment using the Private Theories Interview – a way of exploring the therapist’s take on the case, how they are approaching it, and (retrospectively) what could have been handled differently.

Werbart’s team used the grounded theory tradition to look for emerging patterns in the interviews and found a paradoxical picture. On the one hand, the therapists talked of the great first impressions they’d formed of these cases; they had a clear sense of empathy with the clients’ plight, and engaged with their interesting stories or quick wits. They also said they had felt a connection, even admiration; these were special cases, and the therapist was motivated to do right by them. They also reported that the clients seemed to be attracted to the process, at least on the surface, finding it intellectually stimulating.

Yet the therapists also reported that from the very beginning there was a sense the clients were somehow removed. This was the first inkling of what Werbart’s team found to be a key theme, of “having half of the patient in therapy”.

Initially the therapists said they were optimistic that this was a solvable challenge, but as the sessions continued, it became a mire. Whenever the therapists attempted to address what a client was not disclosing, the client would typically pull back – by intellectualising around issues, or holding back revelations until the session was nearly over. Later, some clients became impersonal in manner and treated the therapist as just a part of the furniture, or they cancelled sessions entirely. The therapists described how trying more actively to wrest back control led to “fruitless battles”, and the process terminated with the therapist in an emotional state, overwhelmed by the client’s energy. One therapist reported “I felt I was drawn into some damned depth.”

Werbart’s team speculate that the paradoxical elements – high initial promise and enthusiasm followed by the later sense of distance – may form two parts of a whole, the case of a therapist “one-sidedly [allying] herself with the patient’s more capable and seemingly well-functioning parts.” These clients are clearly sharp, and may have developed shiny, effective defence mechanisms that took the therapist in. Evidence shows that therapists who initially underestimate the degree of the client’s problems are more likely to struggle, and that successful outcomes begin with a good reading of the situation, not sceptical, but not credulous either. Regarding the current cases, the therapists may have been beguiled by their client’s charisma, and were on the back foot when they belatedly began to dig deeper.

Despite acknowledging the lack of improvement in their clients, the therapists maintained that the therapy they’d offered had been useful – that their clients had grown in self-awareness, laying groundwork for improvement, if only there were more time. While this interpretation can’t be ruled out, the therapists’ insistence on it may reflect a reluctance to acknowledge their being taken in by their clients’ defences. This is perhaps because being a therapist – especially in ultimately successful therapy – is associated with unpleasant feelings, as progress means getting into hard and upsetting issues. A rare case that generates strong feelings of engagement, connection and excitement – even in the absence of tangible improvements – may feel like a welcome change, and it may be hard to acknowledge that the such situations are not cause for celebration, but for caution.

“It was like having half of the patient in therapy”: Therapists of nonimproved patients looking back on their work

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

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“Growth mindset” theory doesn’t translate directly from kids to adults – telling an adult they are a “hard worker” can backfire

GettyImages-502856475.jpgBy Emma Young

The way parents and teachers praise children is known to influence not only their future performance, but how they feel about the malleability of intelligence. If a child has done well, focusing positive comments on their efforts, actions and strategies (saying, for example, “good job” or “you must have tried really hard”) is preferable to saying “you’re so smart”, in part because process-centred praise is thought to encourage kids to interpret setbacks as opportunities to grow, rather than as threats to their self-concept. In contrast, a kid who’s led to believe she succeeds because she’s “intelligent” may not attempt a difficult challenge, in case she fails.

Now – and somewhat remarkably, given all the praise and growth mindset research conducted on children – a new study, led by Rachael Reavis at Earlham College, Indiana, US, published the Journal of Genetic Psychology, claims to be the first to test the effects of different types of praise on how adults feel after failure. 

The researchers recruited 156 adults via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. After completing a set of six easy visual pattern problems, which they were given up to two minutes to solve, they were all informed: “You did better than the majority of adults!” But then the feedback varied.

About a third were told that, based on the pattern of their results, they had been classified as “in the high intelligence group” (person-focused ability feedback); about a third were told they had been classified as “the kind of person who works hard” (person-focused effort feedback – they were a “hard worker”) and about a third were told they had been classified as “working hard on these questions” (process-focused effort feedback – they had worked hard).

All participants were then given a set of 12 difficult problems (which timed out after 3.5 minutes), and no matter how well they did, all were told that their performance was “worse than most adults”. The researchers were interested in how the earlier feedback would affect the participants’ performance and enjoyment on the tasks, and especially how they would interpret their apparent failure at the final set of difficult problems. 

Based partly on previous findings involving children, the researchers expected that being told you’re a “hard worker” would be the most beneficial kind of praise or feedback, as it implies that the person typically puts in a lot of effort. (And while this form of praise is person-centred, it focuses on behaviour, rather than on intrinsic ability.)

In fact, the type of feedback participants received after the easy task did not affect their performance on the difficult problems, relative to their performance on the first. Meanwhile, it was the “hard worker” group who said they enjoyed the difficult set of problems the least (the other two groups did not differ from each other on this); they also believed they had been less successful on the tasks than those in the other groups.

Finally, when the participants indicated, on a scale of 0 to 10, to what extent they attributed their poor performance at the final task to lack of effort or to lack of intelligence (as well as to eight other factors that were included to obscure the true purpose of the study), there were no group differences for effort, but as expected, those in the “worked hard” group were significantly less likely to attribute their failure to their level of intelligence than those in the “high intelligence group”. However, against expectations, the “hard worker” group actually blamed their low intelligence just as much as the “high intelligence” participants. 

As the researchers note, “Few of the results demonstrated with children were replicated.”

Why might this be? 

It’s possible that adults believe that telling someone they’re a hard worker is something positive to say when you can’t plausibly say that they’re smart or gifted. When I think back to my own childhood, there were awards at school for “good work” and also for “hard work”, and, among the kids, a “good work” award was seen as being the bigger achievement. In contrast, at my children’s primary school, in the light of the findings on process-focused praise, rewards are focused entirely on effort. However, it’s also standard for a child who typically puts in a lot of effort to be called a “hard worker”. 

For children today, this may perhaps still be beneficial. For adults, who grew up in a different time, “being told one is a ‘hard worker’ may elicit feelings of inadequacy, which undermine positive perceptions of the task,” the researchers write. “Future work should investigate how both children and adults interpret these types of praise.”

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

Effort as Person-Focused Praise: “Hard Worker” Has Negative Effects for Adults After a Failure

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Strangers are more likely to come to your help in a racially diverse neighbourhood

GettyImages-875961534.jpgBy Alex Fradera

The “Big Society” initiative – launched at the turn of this decade by the incoming British government – was a call for politics to recognise the importance of community and social solidarity. It has since fizzled out, and for a while communitarianism fell out of the political conversation, but it has returned post-Brexit, sometimes with a nationalist or even nativist flavour. The US political scientist Robert Putnam’s research is sometimes recruited into these arguments, as his data suggests that racially and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have lower levels of trust and social capital, which would seem an obstacle to community-building. But an international team led by Jared Nai at Singapore Management University has published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that diverse neighbourhoods are in fact more likely to generate prosocial helpful behaviours.

Putnam’s work tallies with a distinguished psychological idea, conflict theory, which suggests salient distinctions between people in an area heightens a sense of competition between groups over resources. Because race is so visible – neuroscientific studies suggest we perceive it earlier even than gender – the argument goes that racially diverse areas lead people to, as Putnam puts it, hunker down and withdraw. Consistent with this view, Putnam’s data shows that multicultural areas have lower levels of trust – even between people of the same race – and some evidence, but not all, has shown this has a knock-on adverse effect on civic engagement and volunteering.

Nai’s team predicted that despite this, racially diverse areas would show more, not less prosocial helping. They drew on contact theory, which suggests that active contact with people from other groups humanises them. In particular, such contact leads people to view their own identity as broader, potentially encompassing all of humanity – this could be a mechanism to encourage prosociality. As most of the contact theory work puts people in extended face to face interactions, the question was whether mere ambient diversity will help (simply being around other people who look different).

A first study showed that diverse areas have a more prosocial online buzz. Nai’s team pulled 60 million tweets and identified the usage frequency of words from James Pennebaker’s “prosocial dictionary” that are known to correlate with a desire to help others. Indexing across 200 metropolitan areas, they found that tweets from more racially diverse areas used prosocial language more frequently. But language is an indirect measure, and it may be that people with that style voluntarily move into areas that are more diverse. So Nai’s group looked at international data, as moving country is rarer than moving cities, and at levels of actual (reported) helping. The data came from a 2012 Gallop World Poll that asked “in the past month, have you helped a stranger?”. Across 128 countries, Nai’s team found that it was the more ethnically diverse countries that scored a greater frequency of yes responses to this question.

Next, Nai’s team wanted to see if the factor that turned diversity into helping was people having a broader sense of identity. They surveyed US people online using the same helping question used in the Gallop poll, and replicated the greater diversity/greater helping correlation for different zip codes for around 500 participants (good gender balance, average age 33). They also asked the participants how much they identified with three groups: people in my community, Americans, and all humans everywhere. They found that diverse neighbourhoods were associated with higher identification with all of humanity, and statistical analysis suggested, but could not prove, that this (and only this) form of identification was driving the helping behaviour.

Finally, the researchers looked at help for outsiders during a crisis. Real data from a helping website set up following the Boston marathon showed that more offers of help came from zip codes that were more racially diverse, even after controlling for distance from site and wealth of the zip code. And in an online experiment, 300 participants stated they would be more likely to offer help following a bombing when they had been asked to imagine living in a very diverse neighbourhood – again mediated by a greater sense of connection to humanity. 

All the studies controlled for a range of factors related to area or nation, such as income / national economics, education, urbanisation, and religious diversity. One weakness is that apart from the last study, all this work is correlational. It would be interesting to track neighbourhoods over time to see how changes have an impact dynamically – maybe an area renowned for its diversity that evolved organically over decades would have a different attitude to the idea of “one humanity” than a neighbourhood with no sense of itself as diverse per se and that had changed fairly rapidly due to impersonal market or governmental forces. 

An interesting detail from the international study is that trust scores (available for a subset of nations) were lower in more ethnically diverse countries, in line with the Putnam data. So it seems that a populace can both be less trusting and more willing to help strangers, which is something to puzzle on. But regardless, the new data pushes back against the assertion that diverse neighbourhoods struggle to show communal spirit, and suggests that ambient contact with those superficially different can underscore our common humanity and obligations to one another.

People in more racially diverse neighborhoods are more prosocial

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

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