From the Research Digest

The selection from the April issue of The Psychologist.

Visual illusions foster open-mindedness
In Cognition

From sworn witness accounts of alien visitations, to deep-rooted trust in quack medical treatments, the human trait that psychologists call ‘naive realism’ has a lot to answer for. This is people’s instinctive feeling that they perceive the world how it is, encapsulated by the saying ‘seeing is believing’. The truth, of course, is that our every perception is our brain’s best guess, built not merely with the raw material of what’s out in the world, but just as much with the bricks of expectation, hope and imagination.

William Hart and his colleagues at the University of Alabama propose that naive realism not only inspires false confidence in what we see, but also more generally in our beliefs and assumptions. Based on this logic, the researchers tested whether explaining to people about naive realism, and showing them the unconscious, fallible mental work that leads to their unstable perceptions, might have knock-on effects, making them more open-minded and more doubtful of their assumptions about a person’s character.

Nearly 200 students took part and were split into four groups. One group read about naive realism (e.g. ‘visual illusions provide a glimpse of how our brain twists reality without our intent or awareness’) and then they experienced several well-known, powerful visual illusions (e.g. the Spinning Wheels, shown here, the Checker Shadow, and the Spinning Dancer), with the effects explained to them. The other groups either: just had the explanation but no experience of the illusions; or completed a difficult verbal intelligence test; or read about chimpanzees.

Afterwards, whatever their group, all the participants read four vignettes about four different people. These were written to be deliberately ambiguous about the protagonist’s personality, which could be interpreted, depending on the vignette, as either assertive or hostile; risky or adventurous; agreeable or a push over; introverted or snobbish. There was also a quiz on the concept of naive realism.

The key finding is that after reading about naive realism and experiencing visual illusions, the participants were less certain of their personality judgements and more open to the alternative interpretation, as compared with the participants in the other groups. The participants who only read about naive realism, but didn't experience the illusions, showed just as much knowledge about naive realism, but their certainty in their understanding of the vignettes wasn’t dented, and they remained as closed to alternative interpretations as the participants in the other comparison conditions.

‘In sum,’ the researchers said, ‘exposing naive realism in an experiential way seems necessary to fuel greater doubt and openness’.

At the time of writing, the internet is abuzz with talk of a dress that looks different colours to different people, with numerous scientific explanations on offer. It’s a bit like the main intervention condition in this study writ large – experience of an illusion, combined with explanation that shows the hidden work of unconscious processing. Might this internet meme foster greater openness in society?

Before we get carried away, more research is needed to test the longevity of these effects, and how far they generalise. It’s possible, for example, that people’s core beliefs would not be affected in the same way. Nonetheless, the researchers are hopeful: ‘…the present effects may have implications for fostering a more tolerant, open-minded society,’ they concluded. 
- Christian Jarrett


Recruiters think they can tell your personality from your CV: they can’t
In Journal of Business and Psychology

Recruiters are poor at inferring an applicant’s personality from their CVs, but that doesn’t stop them from jumping to conclusions on the back of their flawed assumptions. That’s according to a new study that involved over a hundred professional recruiters evaluating pairs of CVs.

The US-based recruiters estimated applicant personality from the limited information in short two-page CVs. Their estimates were poorly correlated with the self-ratings made by the MBA students who’d written the CVs. But the recruiters appeared to rely heavily on these flawed estimates when drawing conclusions on hireability, as their personality estimates accounted for almost half of the variance in their decision making. Meanwhile the students’ self-ratings – a more reliable source of information on true personality – were a poor predictor of whether the recruiters would favour them.

Another experiment involved 266 participants recruited online and asked to play the role of recruiter. This time, the set of CVs were broken down into their component parts, revealing that a range of elements can provoke personality judgements, from the look and feel of the CV (setting off recruiter inferences about conscientiousness), to mentions of voluntary activities (triggering assumptions of extraversion and agreeableness) and computer skills (interpreted as a sign of openness to experience).

The participants in this experiment were most likely to form conclusions about conscientiousness, extraversion and openness to experience and, like the professional recruiters, the more they saw an element having something to say about personality, the more relevant they saw it for assessing hireability.

As a CV is often the first impression an applicant gives to a potential employer, it’s worth understanding the assumptions they make, argue Gary Burns and his colleagues, who conducted these experiments. The researchers suggest taking time to give a fair impression of yourself, and recommend some less obvious take-aways such as giving detailed information about your education, describing your extracurricular activities, and steering clear of unusual fonts. 
- Alex Fradera


The six forms of resistance shown by participants in Milgram’s notorious ‘obedience studies’
In Journal of Social Psychology

When discussing Milgram’s notorious experiments, in which participants were instructed to give increasingly dangerous electric shocks to another person, most commentators take a black or white approach.

Participants are categorised as obedient or defiant, and the headline result is taken as the surprising number of people – the majority – who obeyed by going all the way and administering the highest, lethal voltage.

A new study takes a different stance by looking at the different acts of resistance shown by Milgram’s participants, regardless of whether they ultimately completed the experiment. This isn’t the first time researchers have explored defiance in the Milgram paradigm (for example, see Jerry Burger and colleagues’ 2011 study, and last year's reinterpretation of the findings led by Alex Haslam: links on blog), but it’s the most comprehensive analysis of resistance as revealed through the dialogue in Milgram’s original studies.

Sociology doctoral researcher Matthew Hollander has purchased and transcribed audio recordings of 117 of Milgram’s participants taken from different versions of the seminal 1960s research. He has carefully analysed the three-way conversational interactions between the experimenter, each participant playing the role of ‘teacher’, and the ‘learner’ (actually an actor) who was subjected to the shocks and cried out in pain and protest. From these interactions, Hollander has identified six different forms of resistance, three implicit and three explicit.

The three implicit forms of resistance were: silences and hesitations (e.g. after the experimenter has instructed the participant to continue with the process); imprecations (often in response to cries from the learner); and laughter. The claim about laughter is controversial because earlier commentators have interpreted laughter by Milgram’s participants as a worrying sign of sadism. Hollander is interested in those specific instances when participant laughter followed commands from the experimenter – this laughter, he believes, was an act of resistance because it was intended to show the participant’s ability to cope with the difficult situation.

The three explicit forms of resistance were: addressing the learner (e.g. asking him if he’s happy to continue); prompting the experimenter (e.g. either querying whether it’s necessary to continue, or telling him that the learner is in pain); and finally ‘stop tries’, in which the participant stated he or she did not want to continue. Comparing participants who ultimately obeyed all the way to the highest shock, and those who refused to complete the experiment, there are some revealing similarities and differences in the forms of resistance they used along the way.

Most participants who completed the experiment, and those who refused, used the implicit ‘wait and see’ resistance strategies, which Hollander says were designed to delay the continuation of the experiment, presumably in the hope that the experimenter would halt proceedings. But only the participants who, at some stage, refused to complete the experiment, used the explicit strategy of addressing the learner – effectively granting him the authority to dictate whether the process should continue. These defiant participants also used more ‘stop tries’ – 98 per cent used at least one, compared with just 19 per cent of the participants who ultimately completed the experiment.

Hollander said his conversation-analytic approach promised to ‘open up new perspectives on an old experiment whose legacy lives on’. What's more, he believes the same approach could usefully be applied to other settings. By improving our understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of authority and the resistance to authority, such research ‘could save lives and empower potential victims’, he said. cj


Some student–professor pairings lead to ‘unusually effective teaching’
(and it’s possible to predict which ones)
In British Journal of Educational Psychology

In the near future, students could be presented with a series of video trailers of different professors at their university. Based on their ratings of these videos, the students will be paired with the professors who provide the best fit. The outcome will be superior learning and greater student satisfaction.

That’s the promise of a new study that asked 145 psychology undergrads to rate six-minute teaching videos of 10 different professors, and then to rate their experience of an actual 40-minute live lecture with those same professors taken several weeks later. The students were also quizzed on the content of those lectures to see how well they’d learned.

Jennifer Gross and her colleagues explain that student evaluations of professors are made up of three key factors: each professor’s actual ability (this component tends to correlate across ratings given by different students); each student’s rating bias (this component correlates across the ratings given by the same student to different professors – for example, some students are more lenient in their ratings than others); and relationship effects.

This last component is one of the key points of interest in the new study. It pertains to the specific fit, or not, between a professor and a student. When there is a good fit, this leads to unusually high ratings by that student for the professor, above and beyond what you’d expect given the student’s usual rating bias, and given the level of ratings the professor usually attracts.

To zoom in on these relationship effects simply requires factoring out each student's rating bias, and each professor’s average rating across students.The exciting finding is that the researchers were able to use the students’ ratings of, and their mood during, the six-minute trailers to forecast how they later rated the actual lectures, including predicting which professors got the highest average ratings after the lectures, and predicting relationship effects.

This result is important, the researchers explained, because the students’ memory for material taught in a given lecture was independently related both to that lecturer’s average ratings (some lecturers are better than others), but also to the specific relationship effects (i.e. whether the student in question had given that lecturer unusually high ratings – the sign of a good professor/student fit).

‘These findings support the possibility of developing online systems that would provide personalised recommendations that specific students take courses from specific professors,’ the researchers said.

However, they acknowledged that their results need to be replicated, and they also outlined some limitations of the study.

This included the fact they’d carefully compiled the six-minute trailers to showcase each professor’s teaching style (a time-consuming endeavour); that the live evaluations involved just one lecture rather than an entire course; and that the professors’ teaching skills were confounded with the topics they taught. cj


What do clients think of psychotherapy that doesn’t work?
In Psychotherapy Research

Psychotherapy works for most people, but there’s a sizeable group for whom it’s ineffective or, worse still, harmful. A new study claims to be the first to systematically investigate what the experience of therapy is like for clients who show no improvement after therapy, or who actually deteriorate.

Andrzej Werbart and his colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 20 non-improved clients (out of a larger client group of 134) who were enrolled in individual or group psychoanalytic psychotherapy at the former Institute of Psychotherapy in Stockholm. Seventeen of these clients showed no symptom improvement after an average of 22 months’ therapy, and three showed deterioration. The clients had an average age of 22 at the treatment start, and 17 of them were female. Their problems included mood disorders, relationship problems and self-reported personality disorders. The interviews took place at the end of the course of therapy, and then again one and half years later.

The researchers transcribed the interviews and identified a key central theme: ‘spinning one’s wheels’ as exemplified by this client quote: ‘When I think back on the therapy, I get the feeling that I often sat and talked; sometimes something important came up, but often it felt like it was pretty much just spinning my wheels.’

What other messages were distilled from the interviews? The clients had largely positive views of their therapists, but they saw them as distant and not fully committed. A recurring issue for the clients was feelings of uncertainty over the goals of therapy and the methods to achieve those goals. Many had expected a more challenging, confrontational, structured style of therapy.

The researchers said the16 therapists (10 female; average age 53), many of them highly experienced, who’d worked with these non-improved clients, may have been guilty of sticking too rigidly to traditional psychoanalytic techniques: ‘The patients’ descriptions of therapists’ silence and passivity together with a focus on childhood experiences and deep roots of presented problems resemble a caricature of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, but unfortunately the picture may be accurate,’ they said.   

The researchers urged therapists to address their clients’ treatment preferences and expectations – such reflection could have led to the realisation that a more ‘directive, task and action-oriented’ form of therapy may have been more appropriate for these clients (conversely, other research has found that dissatisfied CBT clients tend to say they would prefer an approach with more emphasis on reflection and understanding). Clients need to be involved in setting the goals of therapy and educated about what the process will entail, the researchers added. But also, ‘the therapist needs to learn to be the unique patient's therapist’.

Previous research has already established that therapists are poor at identifying when therapy is not working. Werbart and his team said that ‘formalised feedback’ based on client surveys during therapy ‘can be a less threatening way to start discussions on negative and hindering therapy experiences’.

On a positive note, between the end of therapy and later follow-up, more than half the non-improved clients showed beneficial decreases in their symptoms. Such ongoing change was not observed for clients who showed more immediate improvements after therapy, suggesting these changes were not a mere consequence of maturing. ‘Rather, the conclusion is that non improvement at [therapy] termination does not imply lasting symptoms,’ the researchers said.


Digest Digested
Full reports are available at

Jokey team meetings are more productive, so long as people laugh along. The finding comes from an analysis of videos recorded at two German companies. Moments after the laughter died down from a joke, teams were more likely to propose new ideas, ask questions or offer praise. Journal of Applied Psychology

Saving information to a computer frees your mind to learn new material. That’s according to researchers who tested students with word lists. It’s thought the digital saving process facilitates deliberate forgetting, freeing up mental resources for the new information. Psychological Science

People are extremely poor at drawing the Apple logo from memory, even those who are Apple users and are exposed to the logo every day. Researchers say frequent exposure breeds confidence in memory, but this isn’t matched by accurate recall. One explanation is that we store a gist memory of the logo, rather than memorising its details. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

By age three, young girls already show a bias towards thin people, according to a US study. The research found that three-year-olds attributed more positive adjectives to thin figures than fat ones, and they also favoured images of thin girls when selecting a best friend. Eating Disorders

Female serial killers often have caring professions, and most often they kill for the thrill of it. That’s according to a new analysis of 64 historical cases in the US. The authors warn that cultural assumptions that women aren’t violent can delay the detection of female serial killers. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology

Asked about personal and public flashbulb memories (e.g. the moment they heard of a friend falling pregnant, or the moment they heard Michael Jackson had died), survey participants said the memories helped bolster their self-identity and enhanced social bonds. The more personally significant the memory, the stronger these functions. Memory

People who feel insecure about their group membership are more likely to cheat for the team as a way to regain popularity. The finding came from a task involving impossible anagrams. Participants with a high need to belong, and who heard they were going to be excluded by their team, were especially prone to claiming they’d solved the puzzles. Journal of Applied Psychology


The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett and contributor Dr Alex Fradera. 

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