Nuggets from the Occupational and Research Digests

Hurricanes and hangovers at work

In the May issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior. This item is taken from the Society’s Occupational Digest, edited by Dr Alex Fradera. For more and to sign up to the e-mail see www.occdigest.org.uk, and follow @occdigest on Twitter.

While some of us may be generally happier than others, all of us experience different emotions from day to day. A fascinating new study suggests that these fluctuations are due to two factors: a cycling of emotion levels across the working week, and our unique personal sensitivity to both good and bad daily events. The study even has hurricanes.

Daniel J. Beal and Louma Ghandour from Rice University set out to track the daily affect patterns of participants from an IT services company. They were particularly interested in how intrinsic task motivation – how fulfilling the participants found their work that day – influenced emotion or affect. Ten days in, Hurricane Ike struck the region. Recommencing some weeks later, the study also took the chance to examine how this negative one-off event influenced matters.

The 65 participants completed 21 end­-of-day surveys (prompted by an e-mail reminder), rating intrinsic task motivation, together with how much they felt emotional states like frustrated, discouraged, happy and proud. As per other recent research, the negative emotions showed a cyclical pattern, peaking at Wednesday with a projected bottoming out on Saturday; positive emotions showed the inverse pattern. There were also individual differences in average scores: some people are generally more frustrated than others.

The authors also calculated each participant’s ‘affect spin’, a measure of day-to-day emotional volatility, a high score meaning that person experienced a wide range of different affect states from day to day. The authors found that having a motivating day’s work affected that day’s positive mood for everyone, but individuals with high affect spin saw a kind of positive hangover into the next day as well.

After Hurricane Ike everyone experienced lower levels of positive affect. This began to recover as the event receded into the past, but not for those with high affect spin, who seemed to be suffering a longer hangover again, but this time with negative consequences.

Individual differences in emotional state matter, and this study reminds us that we don’t just differ on average, but also in how dynamically our mood responds to events. It’s possible that offering a fascinating problem to your reactive employee on a Monday will generate benefits that carry forward, and battle the mid-week dip. The authors conclude that ‘mapping the terrain of positive and negative affective events and their implications for worker well-being can help to ground the field of organizational psychology in a truly experiential understanding of work life.’

How women suffer from benevolent sexism

In the European Journal of Social Psychology

What could be wrong with a gentleman opening a door for a lady? According to some social psychologists, such acts endorse gender stereotypes: the idea that women are weak and need help; that men are powerful patriarchs. Now a study has looked at how women are perceived when they accept or reject an act of so-called ‘benevolent sexism’, and it finds that they’re caught in a double-bind. Women who accept help from a man are seen as warmer, but less competent. Women who reject help are seen as more competent, but cold.

Across three studies Julia Becker and her colleagues presented dozens of German students with a vignette (either in prose or as a comic strip) in which a male office worker offers to help a female colleague set up a computer server. As he makes his offer, he says: ‘Oh, the network server, that’s so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you.’ Some students read a version in which the woman accepts the offer; others read a version in which she rejected it, saying ‘I can do it. It’s not a problem for a woman.’

If the woman rejected the offer she was rated as more competent, but less warm (compared to a story version in which her reply wasn’t revealed). If she accepted the offer, she was judged as more warm, but less competent. These effects also influenced the participants’ decisions over her job suitability. If she rejected the offer of help she was judged less suitable for a care-home job that depends on emotional skills. If she accepted the offer then she was judged less suitable for a managerial position.

Men aren’t caught in the same double-bind. Other participants read a different version of the story in which a woman offered technical help to a man. In this case, participants judged the man as more competent, but no less warm, if he rejected the offer.

An important caveat was identified once the researchers began measuring the participants’ endorsement of benevolent sexism, as revealed by their agreement with statements like ‘Women should be cherished and protected by men’. The perception of an independent woman as competent but cold was only formed by those participants who endorsed benevolent sexism.

Another aspect the researchers looked at was perceptions of the help-giver. Here they found that advocates of benevolent sexism perceived a male help-giver as particularly warm and competent when his offer of help was accepted.

‘Nowadays, sexist behaviour has become more subtle because of changing social norms, and patronising offers come in subtle guises,’ the authors said. ‘This exacerbates a woman’s dilemma about how to respond and increases the likelihood that she will be viewed as “cold” if she declines paternalistic help.’

Take vitamin pill, eat cake

In the July issue of Psychological Science

Have you ever had that feeling, after an energetic gym session, or perhaps a long walk, that you’ve earned the right to a mountainous slice of cake, or to lounge lazily in front of the telly? Psychologists call these ‘licensing effects’, and a new study has documented a similar phenomenon following the simple act of taking a vitamin pill. The researchers say the finding could help explain why the explosive rise in the consumption of dietary supplements (approximately half the US population take them, according to recent data) has not led to a commensurate improvement in public health.

Wen-Bin Chiou and his colleagues gave an inert pill to 82 participants recruited via posters in the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. Half the participants were told it was a placebo; the other half were told it was a vitamin pill. They were instructed to suspend their usual intake of supplements, if any, for the duration of the study.

Afterwards, compared with placebo participants, the participants who thought they’d taken a vitamin pill rated indulgent but harmful activities like casual sex and excessive drinking as more desirable; healthy activities like yoga as less desirable; and they were more likely to choose a free coupon for a buffet meal, as opposed to a free coupon for a healthy organic meal (these associations held even after controlling for participants’ usual intake of vitamin pills. Participants also said at the end that they hadn’t guessed the purpose of the study).

The vitamin-takers also felt more invulnerable than the placebo participants, as revealed by their agreement with statements like ‘Nothing can harm me’. Further analysis suggested that it was these feelings of invulnerability that mediated the association between taking a postulated vitamin pill and the unhealthy attitudes and decisions.

A second study with student recruits was similar to the first, but this time, participants who’d taken what they thought was a vitamin pill opted to walk a shorter distance to return a pedometer to a researcher located elsewhere on campus (even though they’d just been reminded of the health benefits of walking). Again, this association, between the vitamin pill and behaviour, was mediated by feelings of invulnerability.

‘People who rely on dietary supplements for health protection may pay a hidden price: the curse of licensed self-indulgence,’ the researchers said. ‘Policy interventions that remind individuals to monitor the licensing effect may help translate the increased use of dietary supplements into improved public health.’

The Research Digest

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