Monthly Archives: July 2009

Delving into the Psychology of Belief and Superstition

A great deal of recent research is focused on identifying the psychological and neurological underpinnings of belief and superstition.  In the first video below, Bruce Hood, experimental psychologist at Bristol University and author of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, answers questions concerning how people become superstitious and what motivates their ongoing beliefs.  In the second video, Ken Livingston, professor of psychology at Vassar College, discusses recent research on the neurological infrastructure of spiritual experiences.



Link to an interview with professor Bruce Hood.


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When it Comes to Laying Blame, Bias Gives Master Minds a Pass

judgehammerConsider this scenario: A major pharmaceutical company that manufacturers drugs for cancer patients decides to sell the rights to sell the drugs to a smaller company. The smaller company raises the price of the drugs from $160 to $1100 — a massive cost increase for users of the drugs, many of whom are dependent on them to survive. The price increase has nothing to do with an increase in costs to make the drugs, because the larger company still manufacturers them at the same cost as it always did.

It’s not clear that the larger company directly benefited from the price increase, but it’s likely that it knew the smaller company would raise the price. If so, then it’s likely that the larger company benefited at least indirectly from the price increase, either via an inflated original sale price to the smaller company or through a revenue increase to manufacture the drugs.

Were the actions of the larger company ethical? 

Most people reading that scenario would say that the larger company’s actions were unethical because it probably knew that the price would increase, and that the increase would be a hardship for users of the drugs, but it still sold the rights to sell the drugs and likely benefited in some way.

But if you didn’t know all of the details of the story, would you still perceive the larger company’s actions as unethical, or would the indirect nature of those actions deflect blame?

That’s what a new study soon to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes investigated.  Study participants were presented with various scenarios involving a primary agent and an indirect agent (such as the major pharmaceutical company and the smaller one) and asked to rate the ethicality of their actions.  In some cases, the actions were taken by just one of the parties, and in other cases they were taken by both parties, with one acting “behind” the actions of the other.  Four experiments were conducted in total.

The results: 

Study participants rated direct agency as more unethical than indirect agency.

Even when the primary agent is in control of the indirect agent’s actions, the mere existence of a secondary agent creates a perception of diffused responsibility (that is, even when the primary agent is completely in charge, the secondary agent will get blamed for being involved).

Indirect agency is considered unethical only when it signals lack of foreknowledge or control on the part of the primary agent.

All of which is to say, the big dog behind the scenes either escapes blame or at least benefits from the perception that it only shares in part of the blame.

Why is this so?  Researchers point to decision bias as the culprit.  People rely on implicit ‘rules of thumb’ to make judgments in everyday life. The problem is that those rules of thumb (as has been demonstrated by Daniel Kahneman among others) are often riddled with biases, resulting in big-time errors. 

What makes indirect agency so insidious is that is relies on pervasive decision bias to cover the actions of the behind-the-scenes agent.  This study suggests that we’re biased toward laying blame on the most obvious suspect and don’t automatically consider the motives of agents who cause harm indirectly.  That’s good news for puppet masters with the resources to make sure their hands don’t get dirty, and bad news for their puppets who’ll likely suffer the guillotine no matter what.

If you’re interested, here’s a great compilation of cognitive biases on Wikipedia.
Paharia, N., Kassam, K., Greene, J., & Bazerman, M. (2009). Dirty work, clean hands: The moral psychology of indirect agency Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (2), 134-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.03.002


psyblog_logoMany thanks to PsyBlog for ranking Neuronarrative on its list of 40 Superb Psychology Blogs. There are many excellent sites on the list…highly recommend checking it out.

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Being in Someone Else’s Head is Exhausting

windupMore and more research suggests that our brains have difficulty differentiating between observing an action and actually participating in it.  Empathy, for example, seems to hinge in part on our ability to “take on” another’s emotions through vicarious experience. I always think of this when watching a comedian fall flat. I can feel the embarrassment as if I’m standing there on stage looking at a room full of blank stares. 

A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated this dynamic, but from a different angle: researchers wanted to know if observing someone else exert self-control boosts or reduces one’s own self-control.

Participants were asked to either take on the perspective of someone exerting self-control, or merely read about someone exerting self-control. They were also asked to take on the perceptive or read about someone not exerting self-control.

The results: participants who took on the perceptive of someone exerting self-control were unable to exercise as much self-control as those who merely read about someone exerting self-control. In other words, getting into the shoes of someone making the effort wore them out as if they were doing it themselves.

On the flip side, participants who read about someone exerting self-control experienced a boost in their own self-control, compared to those who read about someone not exerting self-control. Reading resulted in a contagious effect rather than a vicarious one.

The distinction between these results boils down to degree of psychological separation. Taking on perspective reduces psychological separation, and the more that gap closes the greater the vicarious effect. Reading about something provides more of an opportunity to expand psychological separation, which reduces the chances of vicarious effect.

The implications of these findings are very “real world.” For instance, if a group of people are working on a project, and certain members are exerting an especially high degree of effort, this study suggests that other people in the group will experience vicarious energy depletion.  An entire group’s energy could be affected by the exertion of one or two members.

Another example, mentioned by the study authors, are situations involving police officers, hospital staff and other emergency workers, whose ability to maintain self-control is essential to their jobs.  It’s easy to see that if they experience vicarious depletion, anything from small breakdowns to catastrophic outcomes could result.

All of this leads me to believe that “self-control” is at least half misnomer. Social influences seem to affect it more than we know. On the other hand, regulating psychological distance—not something easily done—is a genuine application of self-control. If the pendulum swings too far in either direction, we either become wishy washy emotional sponges, or Dr. Spock.
Ackerman, J., Goldstein, N., Shapiro, J., & Bargh, J. (2009). You Wear Me Out: The Vicarious Depletion of Self-Control Psychological Science, 20 (3), 326-332 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02290.x


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Men Living with Mom and Dad Have a Taste for the Ultraviolence

clockwork-orangeThe incidence of twentysomething men still living with their parents has been on the rise for many years, even more now as the economy tumbles.  But a new study suggests that mom and dad are not doing junior any favors by letting him leech.  Rather than helping him, they may be enabling his violent tendencies.

The study examined 8397 young men and women, focusing on mental health problems and violent behavior over the past five years.  The results: in comparison to those not living at home, staying in the parental home is a stronger risk factor for young men’s violence than any other single factor.

The main reason for this finding cited by the researchers is that young men living at home enjoy the accommodations provided by their parents without very much responsibility. They have more disposable income (because they’re not paying rent, supporting a family, etc.) which gives them more access to alcohol and drugs, which in turn strongly correlates with violence outside the home, typically involving strangers. In the UK, where this study was performed, young men living at home make up only four percent of the population but account for 16 percent of violent injuries.

Other studies, like this one, have found a link between living with parents as an adult and higher levels of depression.  There may be something about not transitioning into an independent role that casts a shadow on the psyche.

On the other hand, cultural factors must also be taken into account.  The negative dynamics of living at home in the UK and U.S. don’t necessarily apply to other places, like Italy for example, where a whopping 80% of men ages 18-30 still live with their parents.  This study delved into that astonishing fact and found something quite interesting: a 10% increase in parents’ annual income correlates with a 10% increase in the proportion of men living with their parents. 

In other words, the more money mom and dad have on hand to support their adult children, the more their adult children are happy to oblige by sticking around.  The rub, however, is that Italian parents seem happy to have them stay.  Coresidence is considered a net positive for both parents and children, unlike in other countries–the U.S. in particular–where it’s often perceived as shameful and embarrassing.


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Would You Suffer Short-term Indignity to Preserve Long-term Integrity?

MoneyLet’s say that you’re negotiating with someone about how to split a sum of money that you both can rightly claim, but that the other person, regrettably for you, has in his possession. You have one opportunity to make the deal, and the other person is not obligated to keep negotiating with you after this.

Since he has the upper hand, the person you’re negotiating with says that he thinks a 70-30 split is fair, with 70% going to him.  If you accept his terms, you get 30% of the money. If you reject his terms, you get 0.  You believe the terms to be unfair, but if it’s the difference between 30% and nothing, you’ll take the 30%, right? 

Maybe not.  Instead, you might reject the offer as a symbolic way of expressing your anger and take the opportunity to tell the unfair dealer exactly what you think of him, money be damned.

Ok. But now imagine that you’re negotiating with someone who has been informed that she can unilaterally decide how much of the money to give you and you have no say in the outcome.  In other words, as far as she’s concerned, she can dictate the amount and she doesn’t care what you decide – in fact, she’ll never even know. On your side of the deal, however, all you know is that you are going to be offered a sum of money just as you were in the first deal, and you can choose to reject or accept it.  You cannot, however, discuss the deal with the other person and voice whether you believe the deal to be fair or unfair – you have no recourse. 

So once again you are offered 30% of the money, and this time not only are you faced with 30% or nothing, but you’re also denied the satisfaction of telling the unfair dealer off or even symbolically protesting.  This time it seems clear — you take the money, right?

Once again, quite possibly not.  But why not?  You have no chance of trying to make the deal fairer, and no opportunity to express your disgust, so what’s making you still turn down the money? 

That’s what a remarkable new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated.  Participants were made to play both of the game scenarios above; the first is called the Impunity Game, a variation of the Ultimatum Game. In the Ultimatum Game, a proposer is given a sum of money and told to negotiate with a responder on how to split the amount.  The responder has two options: (1) accept the amount proposed and both parties get the agreed upon amount of money, or (2) reject the amount proposed, and neither party gets any money.  The typical result of this game is that most unfair offers are rejected and the parties commonly agree to a 50-50 split. 

In the Impunity Game, the responder can still reject the offer, but by doing so also loses any claim to the money.  It’s a “take x% or nothing” deal.  The typical results of this game are that between 30 – 40% of responders reject the offer in a show of symbolic punishment against the unfair party. The responder forfeits the cash, but still says her peace.

The final variation is called the Private Impunity Game (the second imaginary scenario above) in which the proposer is told that he can simply dictate the amount to be given to the responder. The responder, however, is told that she can still reject the offer but the proposer will never know what decision she made. In this case, the predicted result is that nearly all participants will act rationally and take the money, since they have no chance of recourse, and no chance to make the proposer aware of their disgust.

That’s the prediction, but surprisingly it turns out not to be true. The rejection rate of unfair offers is still a hefty 30 – 40%. 

The reason suggested by this study is, in a word, emotion.  When faced with an unfair offer, we have the choice of rationally accepting the immediate incentive and ending the dispute, or allowing an emotional response to dominate.  We respond emotionally to unfair treatment for the same reason that a bear charges someone intruding on its territory. Because we know that a bear will act aggressively if it feels challenged, we avoid bears. Same dynamic applies to us: if someone is known to emotionally respond with anger and moral outrage to unfair treatment, she develops a reputation as someone to avoid crossing. 

What this study tells us is that not only are we concerned with consistency in our external reputations, but we’re just as much, if not more, concerned with internal consistency. Our emotional response guards against accepting immediate incentives that compromise our integrity.  Over time, this internal consistency that preserves integrity also preserves external reputation, so it’s a hand-in-hand relationship. 

To put this all another way, our emotional response can save us from selling out.

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Drinking and Sex Expectations are Partners in the Dating Mind

drinkingDrinking and sex are, needless to say, close acquaintances from way back. Even when only moderately consumed, alcohol functions as a sort of social lubricant. When heavily consumed, other things can, and often do, happen. But how do expectations figure in the equation? Do people in social settings factor in the role of drinking when determining their sexual expectations for the evening? 

A new study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors investigated this question by examining three groups of people: (1) single and not dating, (2) single but dating, and (3) in a committed relationship. In total, just under 2000 participants were involved, all of whom were undergraduate college students (probably no better crowd for a drinking study).

Combining an online assessment of alcohol use with information about relationship status, researchers arrived at these findings:

  • People who were actively dating drank significantly more and had higher expectations regarding the sexually enhancing and disinhibiting role of alcohol
  • People not currently dating and in relationships drank less and had far lower expectations for alcohol to key up the sex machine
  • Actively dating men and women held significantly higher sex-related alcohol expectancies than their non-dating counterparts

And I’d be remiss to omit this finding, perhaps the least surprising of all:

  • Men with high sex-related alcohol expectancies drank more regardless of their relationship status

Sorry guys. 

For the women, the study indicates that when actively dating, alcohol is viewed as a means to be less inhibited and, at times, enhance sexual experience.

One unfortunate conclusion the researchers reach is that higher sex-related alcohol expectancies are also directly related to greater risk of sexual assault. It’s not hard to draw up the scenario: male intent on fulfilling sex-related alcohol expectations meets female using alcohol to decrease inhibitions. The door is at least cracked open here for a bad outcome.

On the other hand, plenty more people have perfectly enjoyable outcomes – or at least ones that seemed enjoyable on that particular evening.  Odds are, the morning after might be a different story altogether.


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When Your Self-View is Skewed, So Goes Your Mood

MirrorSome people walk around this planet thinking so highly of themselves that their feet barely touch the ground. Others think so low of themselves that they hardly ever lift their chins. And according to a new study, both sorts of people are in for a world of hurt.

A short research report in the journal Psychological Science investigated the effects of having a distorted self-view, whether too high or too low. The study focused on the self-views of children, ages ranging from nine to 12 years, all of whom were asked to rate how much they liked each of their classmates. Then they were asked to predict the ratings they would receive from each of their classmates. For the purpose of the study, self-view distortion was defined as the difference between the actual and perceived status.

A couple of weeks later, the children were asked to participate in an Internet popularity contest called “Survivor Game,” in which the least liked person is voted out of the group by a panel of peer judges.  Just before the game, the mood of each participant was measured with questions like, “How do you feel right now, at the present time?”  They were asked to rank eight adjectives (including: angry, nervous, sad, irritated, embarrassed) on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much).

Participants then filled out a personal profile describing themselves, and were, without their knowledge, randomly assigned to one of two contest groups: (1) receive threatening feedback during the game (i.e. “you are the least likable person”), or (2) receive non-threatening / neutral feedback (i.e. “your opponent is the least liked”).  Afterward, mood of each participant was measured again.

The results: subjects whose self-views were initially inflated were emotionally crushed when they received threatening feedback during the game.  Same thing happened to those with deflated self-views. No such effect was found for non-threatening feedback.  The graph below shows just how significant the effect was; note that for the most inflated and most deflated self-views (+3 and -3 respectively), the mood swing is the most extreme.




This is interesting because it directly contradicts the notion that inflated self-views serve the function of protecting against the emotional impact of social threats (a.k.a. positive illusion theory, which suggests that the illusion of control is an adaptive function).  The findings of this study make a strong case that the exact opposite is true: inflated self-views increased, rather than decreased, emotional distress after threatening feedback.

Granted, this was a study of children who have had less life experience that tends to temper self-view.  But when you look around any office or social club, bar, etc., it’s easy to pick out exactly the same self-view inflation and deflation represented by these nine to 12 year olds.  Not to veer too cynical, but I’m thinking these results aren’t far off the mark for the adult world as well as the elementary and middle school worlds, and no less important.


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