One of the most annoying things you can say to a psychologist is: “Isn’t it all just common sense?”. No it’s not, as the list below demonstrates. But anyway, such a criticism of the field misses the point. Many findings in psychology can seem obvious after the fact, but we can’t know in advance which aspects of folk wisdom will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Striving for the objective truth through empirical testing – that’s what science is for, whether applied to molecules or minds.
That said, it’s always fun to share those findings that clash with received wisdom. So for your reading pleasure (and for the next time someone asks you the “common sense” question), here are 10 particularly counter-intuitive findings from the psychology archives. Please use comments to share your own favourites that we’ve missed.
1. Self-help Mantras Can Do More Harm Than Good
If you’ve got low self-esteem, you might want to avoid uttering positive mantras such as “I’m a lovable person”. A 2009 study found that people lacking in self-belief who spoke this phrase to themselves didn’t feel any better afterwards. In fact they felt worse, possibly because the repeated utterance led them to generate contradictory thoughts automatically. On a related note, there’s evidence that positive fantasies can also backfire. It’s thought that visualising your aims can cultivate a relaxed mindset that leads you to overlook the hurdles between you and your goals.
2. People Do Not Learn Better When Taught Via Their Preferred “Learning Style”
An incredibly popular idea, including among teachers, is that pupils learn better when they are taught information via their preferred modality, such as auditory, visual or by doing. In fact research has shown that people do not perform better when they are taught information via the modality that they say they prefer. A 2008 review of the learning styles concept put it like this: “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” Want more? – here’s all you need to know about the learning styles myth in 2 minutes.
3. Criminals Show Cooperation and Prosocial Behaviour in Economic Games
It’s easy to demonise people who have broken the law. However, recent studies using economic games that test fairness and cooperation show that this is short-sighted. Last year, researchers observed prisoners’ performance on a famous game known as the “prisoner’s dilemma” – the convicted criminals actually displayed more cooperation during the game than undergrad students. Similarly, another study published this year found that people with a criminal record displayed just as much “prosocial motivation” (i.e. they distributed money fairly) in the “dictator game” as those without such a record.
4. Bottling Up Your Anger May Actually Be Good For You
Folk wisdom states that it’s better to relieve your anger by letting it out. In fact a tendency to lose one’s temper tends to go hand in hand with poorer health. Another study found that hitting a punch-bag while thinking about the person who made you angry actually just makes you angrier. It’s a complicated area, and expressing anger constructively may sometimes be a good thing to do, but the old rule that’s it always better to let it all it out is definitely flawed.
5. We Make Many Decisions Mindlessly
Unless we’re exhausted or intoxicated, we usually feel as though we are very much in control of our own choices and that we make them consciously and deliberately. This intuitive view is challenged by research on what’s known as “choice blindness”. In one study from 2005, participants picked out the face they found more attractive from successive pairs of photos. When researchers used sleight of hand to switch the chosen photo for the rejected photo, participants proceeded to justify their choice all the same, apparently ignorant of the switch. It was a similar story in 2010 when participants chose between different jams.
6. Opposites Don’t Attract
When it comes to human relationships, the aphorism that “opposites attract” turns out to be wide of the mark. There are of course exceptions, but mountains of evidence highlights how we are drawn to friends and romantic partners who are similar to ourselves, whether in terms of physical appearance, their personality, interests, or beliefs – known as “homophily”. To take just two examples, a study from 2010 found that people found faces more attractive when (unbeknown to them) they’d been morphed with their own; and a paper from 2011 found that people tend to choose to sit near others who look like themselves.
7. Wine Experts Don’t Know if They’re Smelling Red or White Wine
There is a vast literature on the limitations of expertise (for instance, political pundits are mostly useless at predicting electoral outcomes), but one of my favourite examples concerns people who study wine. A 2001 investigation showed that all it took to trick trainee oenologists into thinking a white wine smelt of red wine, was to dye it red. This research also challenges the intuitive belief that our senses are largely separate – in fact, perceptual experience derives from a blending of the senses, as shown for example via the McGurk Effect.
8. It Helps to Have Narcissists on Your Team
We usually think of narcissists – people with inflated views of their own skills and self-importance – as individuals to avoid. However, a study published in 2010 found that their presence can have a beneficial effect in the context of creative team work. When groups of four people were challenged to come up with new ways for a company to improve, it was the groups with two narcissists in their ranks who performed the best. The researchers think the presence of some narcissists helps generate healthy in-group competition.
9. Placebo Treatments Can Work Even When People Are Told It’s A Placebo
The amazing power of the placebo effect – the way that our beliefs about the action of an inert medicine can trigger substantial physiological effects – is itself, counter-intuitive. More surprising perhaps, is that the effect can still occur even when people know the medicine is inert. This was shown in a 2010 study involving people with IBS. “Our study suggests that openly described inert interventions when delivered with a plausible rationale can produce placebo responses,” the researchers said.
10. Sometimes a Pregnant Woman’s Depression is Advantageous For Her Baby
There is lots of evidence showing the adverse effects of a stressful pregnancy. But dig deeper into this field and you find some surprising results. For instance, a 2012 study uncovered an association between depression in pregnancy and superior functioning in the child at ages three and six months. This was found in the specific context in which the mother’s depression continued into the postnatal period. The finding is consistent with the “predictive-adaptive response model”, which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.
Please do share your own favourite counter-intuitive findings via comments!
The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.
Most children and teens with gender dysphoria also have multiple other psychological issues
By Alex Fradera
New research on gender identity disorder (also known as gender dysphoria, in which a person does not identify with their biological sex) questions how best to handle the condition when it arises in children and adolescents. Should biological treatments be used as early as possible to help a young client transition, or is caution required, in case of complicating psychological issues?
Melanie Bechard of the University of Toronto and her colleagues examined the prevalence of “psychosocial and psychological vulnerabilities” in 50 child and teen cases of gender dysphoria, and writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, they argue their findings show that physicians should be considering these factors more seriously when deciding on a treatment plan. Salting the situation, one of the paper’s co-authors is Kenneth Zucker, an expert on gender dysphoria who was last year considered too controversial for Canadian state television.
Zucker’s approach, in contrast, was more hesitant and he questioned the ease with which young people can draw conclusions about their gender identity during a universally tumultuous stage of life. He also placed more emphasis on the costs that transition may bear upon an individual. To say that he considered transition a last resort would be as much of a caricature as saying the gender affirmative approach considers it a first resort, but they clearly represent different points on this spectrum.
To Zucker’s critics he was a transphobe, his approach analogous to gay conversion therapy (the now widely condemned use of psychological therapy to attempt to alter a client’s sexual orientation) – for example, he reportedly advised some parents to discourage their younger children from behaving in ways that contradicted their assigned gender.
Last year, hostility toward Zucker’s views was substantive enough to lead the Canadian broadcaster CBC to pull a BBC documentary that reported his perspective. For his part, Zucker continues to maintain that his priority has always been the wellbeing of his clinical charges. The recent articlethat he co-authored with Bechard and others puts into the scientific record one of the concerns of his clinic, that gender dysphoric youth are a psychologically vulnerable population.
The paper examines the case files of 17 people assigned a male gender and 33 people assigned a female gender, at birth, based on their biological sex. Following their experience of gender dysphoria, the clients had been referred to a specialist gender identity service for young people, at which time they were aged 13 to 20. Sixty-four per cent of the clients were homosexual with respect to the gender they were assigned at birth.
The researchers looked for evidence of 15 factors that can signify or contribute to psychological issues, from self-harm to a previous outpatient therapy visit, and found that over half their sample had six or more of these factors. The majority had two or more prior diagnoses of a psychological disorder, the most common being a mood disorder such as depression. More than half had reported thinking about suicide, a third had dropped out of high school, a quarter had self harmed. A history of sexual abuse was rarer, observed in ”only” 10 per cent of cases.
All these measures are likely to be underestimates because they depended on the clients’ own descriptions during their initial interview at the gender identity clinic. Without a control group, it’s hard to say whether these rates of psychological distress are higher than for other client groups. Certainly though, the findings are consistent with the sense that these individuals were already in a state of psychological vulnerability when they were referred for gender dysphoria.
Bechard’s team present in-depth examples of two clients, both assigned as female at birth, that bring these psychological complexities to life, demonstrating the kinds of situations these cases often involve.
The first individual was very intelligent but struggling socially, especially around girls. They were fixated on emphasising their femininity in selfies, leading the parents to suspect body dysmorphic disorder (a troubling belief that there is something wrong with one’s body). This individual’s boyfriend then came out as gay. Sometime following this, the client disclosed that they identified as a boy. This change in identity happened “overnight” with no developmental history of cross-gender identification.
The second client’s history is more convoluted: at around age 14-15 this individual had disclosed that they were transgender (now identifying as male), and had felt this way for a while. This individual also had a history of anxiety, social problems interacting with girls, and extreme anxiety about sexuality. From the point of disclosing their gender dysphoria, they also reported that they were gay (oriented towards men) but had no interest in romantic/sexual relations.
In both these cases, after an initial assessment the individual was given testosterone treatment by a physician against the wishes of the parents – in the first case, the physician actually refused to meet the parents, and in the second, the physician recorded that the issues raised by the parents regarding anxiety, sexual and social problems weren’t relevant for the course of action. Sadly, in the case of the second individual, a few months after the start of the hormone treatment, they made a suicide attempt that required hospitalisation; the reasons for this were not reported.
Are the indicators of psychological vulnerability identified in these case histories the consequence, cause or simply coincident to gender identity disorder? If they are all solely a fall-out from the gender dysphoria, then the decisive approach of the physicians described above has a certain sense to it. But if some of the psychological complications pre-dated the gender dysphoria, or were separate from it, then at the very least this would suggest that the consulted physicians should have considered a broader treatment plan, and considered the psychological complications when judging their clients’ “readiness” to commence biomedical treatments.
The possibility that disclosure of gender dysphoria may in some cases be driven by earlier psychological vulnerabilities and social problems seems likely to be greater than zero. This is a controversial idea among many online trans activists, but actually it isn’t among health practitioners, even those who espouse the gender affirmation philosophy, who recognise that some young gender identity referrals may be transiently mixed-up individuals.
The issue of pre-existing or concurrent psychological vulnerabilities also speaks to the fact that a substantial proportion, perhaps even the majority, of children who experience some form of gender identity challenge, later come to endorse the gender they were raised as (further commentary and discussion); the new findings may also be relevant to the experience of detransitioning individuals, who reach similar conclusions, but often after a much greater investment in the process of transition – a phenomenon that is struggling to get scientific attention.
However, when a child with gender dysphoria is “insistent, persistent, and consistent” over an extended period, then (under the gender affirmative approach) this is typically treated as a good indicator that it is appropriate to begin facilitating the transition process. The trouble is, psychological vulnerabilities can also be persistent, and if a young person feels like they’ve found the solution, it’s understandable that they might not want to let go.
Life can sometimes feel as complicated as the Gordian knot, the legendary challenge that was seemingly impossible to disentangle. It’s understandable to weigh up a radical solution, like Alexander the Great cleaving the knot with a single sword-stroke: to abandon your external environment for a new home, to step outside of the confines of an identity that may be the source of the myriad issues plaguing you.
This research from Bechard, Zucker and company provides preliminary evidence about the psychological vulnerabilities of children and teens with gender dysphoria, extending previous workthat’s shown high rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation in this group, but more research is required to give us the full clinical picture. As such, this new paper represents just the latest sally in a difficult, complicated conversation that’s far from over: a conversation about how we can most compassionately treat those who feel out of step with where they find themselves in the social world.
This month’s post is again from Ken Pope’s listserv, where he kindly provides daily summaries of current articles in the field.
The article is as follows (excerpting and editing is by Ken Pope):
Scientific American includes an article: “Sexual Harassment: 4 Psychological Traits of Perpetrators.”
The author is psychologist Ellen Hendriksen.
Here are some excerpts:
In recent weeks, revelations about sexual harassment and its devastating effects have flooded the news and social media. But aside from a few legal-team-filtered statements, we don’t have an insight into the mindset of the accused harassers. So what are they thinking? How could they think this was a good idea? What makes someone prone to harass others?
What specifies sexual harassment is that it is tied to power structures in employment and career advancement. The harasser holds the keys and creates a catch-22 for the victim: either submit and be exploited or resist and be punished.
It’s a no-win situation of power, control, and intimidation.
Therefore, sexual harassment can and does include demeaning comments, requests for sexual favors, unwanted sexual advances, but importantly, can also include sexual assault, which is any non-consensual or coerced sexual act, including sexual touching.
Harassment is also different than unwanted sexual attention, which consists of unwelcome come-ons and comments that are not primarily designed to demean and intimidate. Think terrible pick-up lines. Therefore, “Do you work at Subway? Because you just gave me a foot-long!” from a guy at the bar is unwanted sexual attention, but from your boss, it’s sexual harassment.
To be sure, it’s not always women as victims and men as perpetrators, even though that is the vast majority of the cases. In 2016, of the almost 13,000 charges of sexual harassment logged by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (widely regarded as the tip of the iceberg), 83% of them were filed by women.
And women who face sexual harassment by bosses and supervisors aren’t just rising Hollywood starlets or Yale-educated lawyers who once worked for Supreme Court nominees. They’re restaurant workers, clerks, flight attendants, students, health care workers, programmers, and any of millions of other everyday workers whose bosses control scheduling, raises, promotions, and references.
So who are these bosses? Who sexually harasses? I dug through the research and found four common characteristics of the (mostly) men who sexually harass (mostly) women. Here they are.
The 4 Characteristics of Sexual Harassers:
Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad
Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement
Characteristic #3: Working in a male-dominated field
Characteristic #4: Hostile attitudes towards women
Let’s explore each a little further.
Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad
Actually, it’s three in one: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
You’ve definitely heard of the first two: narcissism is a grandiose view of one’s own talents coupled with a lack of empathy and a deep need for admiration. Narcissists don’t care if you like them, but they do need you to think they’re powerful and impressive.
Narcissists might justify sexual harassment if they think they’ve been deprived of a sexual experience they “deserve.” They can’t fathom that someone just isn’t that into them.
Next, psychopathy revolves around two things: fearless dominance and aggressive impulsivity. In other words, psychopaths are bold, manipulative exploiters. They also have no empathy, but are good at mimicking it in order to exploit their victims.
Finally, there’s Machiavellianism, named for the Italian Renaissance politician Niccolo Machiavelli. His masterwork, The Prince, describes an unscrupulous, deceptive political philosophy with an eye on long-term goals at any cost.
Put it all together and you essentially get a gleeful enthusiasm for exploitation, deception, and manipulation combined with a callous blindness to the feelings of others, all tied together with a bow of grandiosity. In other words, a perfect recipe for sexual harassment.
Indeed, in a study of almost 2,000 everyday community members, researchers found that—unsurprisingly—each of the three Dark Triad characteristics added to a tendency to sexually harass others.
Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement
Moral disengagement is a slippery slope by which people justify their own corruption. It’s a cognitive process by which individuals create their own version of reality where moral principles don’t apply to them.
The mind is a tricky thing: often we choose our behavior to match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change our values to justify our behavior.
Moral disengagement was first proposed by the psychologist Albert Bandura, who is often called the greatest living psychologist. His theory, as applied to sexual harassment, has several parts:
First comes moral justification, or portraying harassment as acceptable. Think Harvey Weinstein’s line, “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
Next is euphemistic labeling, or using sanitized substitutions for naming their behavior, like Bill Cosby’s characterization of his sexual assaults as “rendezvous.”
Third is displacement of responsibility, which attributes the harassment to outside forces (like Weinstein’s “that was the culture then.”)
There’s also advantageous comparison, which is the assertion that their behavior could have been worse, and distortion of consequences, where individuals minimize the harm wrought by their actions.
And finally, there are dehumanization and attribution of blame, which respectively eliminate concern for the victim and blame her for the incident. Bill O’Reilly did this when he commented that a woman who was raped and killed was “moronic” because she was wearing a miniskirt and a halter top, and that ”every predator in the world is gonna pick that up.” The end result? Harassers sleep well at night because, through moral disengagement, they rest assured that what they did was within the realm of normalcy, deserved, and didn’t cause any harm.
The mind is a tricky thing: often we choose our behavior to match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change our values to justify our behavior. This is how sexual harassers can maintain their view of themselves as decent, even morally upstanding, people.
Characteristic #3: Working in a male-dominated field
Sexual harassment is well-documented to be more prevalent in traditionally masculine fields, like the military, the police, surgery, finance, and more recently, high tech and the upper echelons of the entertainment industry.
This goes back decades: a classic 1989 study of 100 female factory workers found that women who worked as machinists, a position dominated by men, reported being harassed significantly more often than women who worked on the assembly line, which was more gender-equal.
Characteristic #4: Hostile attitudes towards women
Even though psychology is a science, it’s not a totally objective field, in most part because research is done by people, and people are a product of their culture and the biases of a given place and time.
Interestingly, while researching this episode I found a study on sexual harassment from the early 1980s—almost a decade prior to Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings—that stated that most male sexual harassers had no idea that their advances were unwanted. The conclusion was that people who engaged in sexual harassment were simply clueless and lovelorn. But now we know better
A 2012 study out of the University of Bielefeld in Germany tested whether harassment was driven by what the researchers called a “short term mating orientation,” which is basically an academic euphemism for love ‘em and leave ‘em, or was driven by something called hostile sexism, and therefore served less as a way to get sex and more as a way to intimidate women.
The researchers asked 100 heterosexual male college students to chat online with “Julia,” an attractive 23-year-old woman. With each chat exchange, participants were asked to choose among three different pre-written messages to send to Julia.
The men were also told that this was a memory test, that Julia would later be quizzed on recalling the messages they sent to her, and that previous studies had found gender differences in memory performance, thus creating an atmosphere of competition.
For each message, the men chose among a joke, a personal comment, and a neutral statement. Now, some of the exchanges were carefully calibrated to include opportunities to harass. For example, in one combination, the choice included a sexist joke not specifically about Julia: “What’s the difference between a woman having her period and a terrorist? With a terrorist you can negotiate.” It also included a sexist remark directed specifically toward Julia—one of those terrible pickup lines: “You’re a sweet chocolate and I’ve got the filling for you.” Thankfully, there was also a neutral statement, simply: “You seem like a cheerful person.” Participants chose one of the messages to send, and then repeated this over 20 different trials.
The results found that the choice to send the pickup lines hung together with approving attitudes about short-term sexual encounters. The men who were more likely to send the bad pickup lines were also more likely to agree with statements like “sex without love is OK,” or “I would consider having sex with a stranger if it was safe and she was attractive.”
The guys who chose to send sexist jokes also scored highly on the short-term sexual attitudes questionnaire. But there was something else: they scored highly on a questionnaire of hostile sexism, endorsing items like, “Women are too easily offended,” and “The world would be a better place if women supported men more and criticized them less.”
In other words, sexual motives predicted unwanted sexual attention but hostile motives predicted both unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. The researchers concluded that choosing to send the jokes wasn’t about sex at all; instead, it was about creating a disparaging, hostile climate for Julia in the context of a competitive atmosphere.
A good litmus test for whether comments are sexist or just a joke is to ask, “Would I say this to a man?” This is a good test for statements that might get defended by a harasser as “harmless fun,” or “What, I can’t even give a compliment?” For instance, a male supervisor wouldn’t tell a man he should smile more, comment on the attractiveness of his body, or say, “You don’t have to get all emotional about it.”
To sum it all up, harassment indicates a willingness to exploit and manipulate as a way to maintain or gain power.
It indicates callousness toward the victims and aims to “keep them in their place.”
Hopefully, with all the attention given to sexual harassment, more victims and more bystanders will speak up and speak out, and someday, the place for sexual harassment will be exactly nowhere.
The article is online at:
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“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”
By Alex Fradera
The latest version of psychiatry’s principal diagnostic manual (the DSM-V) defines Hoarding Disorder as a psychopathology where the collection of items significantly impacts the person’s functioning, as they find it difficult and indeed painful to discard the items, creating congestion within the home and encouraging poor hygiene and accidents. However not only objects, but also living things can be collected pathologically, popularly enshrined in the notion of a “cat lady”. According to the psychiatric manual, this is just a special case of hoarding. But a team of psychologists from the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has investigated people who hoard animals, and in their new paper in Psychiatry Research they make the case that it ought to be considered a distinct illness.
The conditions in which these people lived might be hard to take in: there were a total of 1,357 animals – “composed of 915 dogs, 382 cats, and 50 ducks” – with an average of 41 per hoarder. Only 22 per cent ensured their animals were neutered, and the sanitary and health conditions were often very poor. The researchers also report that “dramatic situations such as violent fights for territory, extreme malnutrition, cannibalism, caged animals injured and untreated, were observed in most of the houses visited.”
Two-thirds of the hoarders were elderly, but they’d all begun accumulating animals earlier in their lives. Ferreira’s team speculate that it’s only later in life when the burden of animal collection becomes most apparent, as the number proliferate due to the individual’s reluctance to give animals away. Two-thirds of animal hoarders were women, and most lived alone, consistent with the sense that the animals provided companionship and comfort to people who otherwise struggle to form relationships.
There are a two main reasons why Ferreira’s team advocate for this to be considered as separate from standard hoarding. First, some of the technical definition of hoarding just seems off: take the concept of “congestion”, which makes sense in a house piled precariously high with magazines or wine bottles, but doesn’t really apply to mobile creatures. Second, the researchers note that their sample also seemed to show more self-awareness than is associated with object hoarding, many admitting to difficulties that resulted from their compulsion, and recognising that it took a toll on their quality of life.
If they see the problem, why don’t the animal hoarders do something about it? Well, it’s harder to rid yourself of an animal than trash, both logistically and emotionally. The presence of care-bonding with living things transforms the dynamic, and would suggest that the tactics appropriate for managing an item-hoarder may simply not apply in these cases. The researchers conclude that distinguishing animal hoarding as its own mental health condition can lead to investment into interventions that address a disorder that “causes serious damage to the environment, suffering for individuals, their families, and the animals.”
Image: Bansky cat ladies, via piX dust/Flickr