nuggets from the Society’s Research Digest

TV dinner problem
in Applied Cognitive Psychology

Besides how hungry we feel, all sorts of other factors also affect how much we eat, including portion size and social convention. Another factor is memory for how much we’ve already eaten. The much-studied amnesic HM readily sat down to eat a second meal having just finished one, presumably because he’d forgotten he’d already eaten. Now Dolly Mittal and her team have shown that snacking while watching TV, as opposed to snacking while not watching TV, can lead us (well, women at least) to eat more later on, partly because the effect of the TV is to affect our memory for how much we snacked on earlier.

Thirty-two non-dieting women of unexceptional weight spent 20 minutes in the morning consuming as much snack food as they could, including chocolate balls, crisps and coke/orange squash. Half of them did this while watching Friends or Seinfeld, the others while sitting quietly. There was no difference in the amount of snack food the two groups consumed. Approximately an hour later, the women sat down to eat a lunch of sandwiches, biscuits, crackers and dip. The key finding is that the women who’d earlier snacked while watching TV ate significantly more of this later meal, than did the women who’d earlier snacked without TV. What’s more, the TV group were also less accurate at recalling how much they snacked on in the morning. The implication seems to be that watching TV while snacking affects our memory for how much we’ve snacked on, thereby leading us to eat more later on.

A follow-up study was similar to the first except the researchers investigated the effects of different types of TV show – boring TV (a lawn bowling contest – apologies to bowling fans), sad TV (a scene from the film Dead Poets Society), and funny TV (a Friends episode). The main finding from the first experiment was replicated as regards snacking whilst watching TV leading to more eating later on, but the specific type of TV show made no difference.

An anomaly in the results is that TV versus no TV had a larger effect on the amount eaten later on compared with its effect on recall memory. This suggests that TV has some other effect besides impairing memory for snack consumption, or else it affects memory in more ways that just impairing recall. Another issue is that the effect has so far only been demonstrated for women. When a pilot study was attempted with men, Mittal’s team explained, they ‘treated the experiment as an opportunity to consume as much food as possible, so the design may not be optimal for this group’. ‘[O]ur data suggest that TV probably exerts some as yet unspecified effect on participants’ ability to recall earlier bouts of food consumption, leading to over-consumption on a later TV free test meal,’ the researchers said. ‘As TV viewing is associated with eating in so many different ways, and as overconsumption of food is a major problem in most industrialised nations, it would seem important to study exactly how this occurs.’

Behind the scenes of life
In the December issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Have you ever had the feeling that everyone else seems so sorted, so at ease? According to Alexander Jordan and colleagues, most of us have such a tendency to underestimate other people’s experience of negative emotion. In turn the researchers think this skewed perception perpetuates a collective delusion in which we all strive to present an unrealistically happy front because we think that’s the norm.

Jordan’s team began their investigation by asking 63 undergrads to describe recent negative and positive emotional experiences they’d had. As expected, the negative examples (e.g. had an argument; was rejected by a boy/girl), more than the positive examples (e.g. attended a fun party; had a great meal), tended to occur in private and to provoke emotions that the students had attempted to suppress.
The most frequently cited of these experiences were then put to a separate set of 80 students whose task was to say how many times in the last two weeks they had lived through something similar, and to estimate how often their peers had. The students consistently underestimated their peers’ experience of negative events (by an average of 17 per cent) whilst slightly overestimating their peers’ experience of positive situations (by 5.6 per cent).

What about close friends – surely we have a more accurate sense of their emotional lives? A third study was based on emotional weekly blogs kept by over 200 students, which they used to rate their experience of various positive and negative emotions over the course of a term. Each blog student then nominated a close friend or romantic partner who had to estimate the range of emotions the blogger had experienced that term. Consistent with the study’s main message, close friends and partners tended to underestimate the bloggers’ experiences of negative emotions and to overestimate their experiences of positive emotions. A deeper analysis suggested the underestimation of negative emotion was partly mediated by the bloggers’ deliberate suppression of their negative emotions.

A final study showed that students with a greater tendency to underestimate their peers’ negative emotions also tended to feel more lonely, less satisfied with life and to ruminate more, thus suggesting that underestimating others’ misery could be harmful to our own well-being. Of course the researchers acknowledge that the causal direction could run the other way (i.e. being lonely and discontented could predispose us to think everyone else is happier than they are), or both ways. 

An enduring mystery is why we continue to underestimate other people’s misery whilst knowing full well that most of our own negative experiences happen in private, and that we frequently put on a brave, happy face when socialising. Why don’t we reason that other people do the same? Jordan and his colleagues point to ‘the fundamental attribution error’ – people downplay the role of the situation when assessing other people’s behaviour compared with their own.

This research could perhaps help explain the popularity of tragic art, be that in drama, music or books. ‘In fictional tragedy, people are given the opportunity to witness “the terrible things in life” that are ordinarily “played out behind the scenes”’, the researchers said (quoting Chekhov), ‘which may help to depathologise people’s own negative emotional experiences.’

Stressful meeting? Have a coffee, if you're female
In the December issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

If a meeting becomes stressful, does it help, or make things worse, if team members drink lots of coffee? A study by Lindsay St. Claire and colleagues that set out to answer this question has uncovered an unexpected sex difference. For two men collaborating or negotiating under stressful circumstances, caffeine consumption was bad news, undermining their performance and confidence.

By contrast, for pairs of women, drinking caffeine often had a beneficial effect on these same factors. The researchers can’t be sure, but they think the differential effect of caffeine on men and women may have to do with the fact that women tend to respond to stress in a collaborative, mutually protective style (known as ‘tend and befriend’) whereas men usually exhibit a fight or flight response.

The study involved 64 male and female participants (coffee drinkers at the University of Bristol with an average age of 22) completing various construction puzzles, negotiation and collaborative memory tasks in same-sex pairs. They did this after drinking decaffeinated coffee, which either had or hadn’t been spiked covertly with caffeine (the equivalent of about three cups’ worth of coffee). Stress was elevated for some of the pairs by telling them they would shortly have to give a public presentation, and by warning them that their participation fee would be performance-dependent.

How large were the caffeine effects? The men’s memory performance under stressful conditions with caffeine was described by the researchers
as ‘greatly impaired’ whereas caffeine didn’t affect women in the same situation. For the construction puzzles, caffeine under high-stress conditions led men to take an average of 20 seconds longer (compared with no caffeine) whereas it led women to solve the puzzles 100 seconds faster.

A shortcoming, acknowledged by the researchers, was that there were overall few effects of stress on the participants’ performance, no doubt in part because they’d been told they could bail out any time they liked (although none of them did). Further research is clearly need to replicate the findings and explore the possible underlying mechanisms. Such work is urgent, the researchers concluded, ‘because many…meetings, including those at which military and other decisions of great import are made, are likely to be male-dominated. Our research suggests that men’s effectiveness is particularly likely to be compromised. Because caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world, it follows that the global implications are potentially staggering.’


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