From the Research Digest February 2016

A selection from our blog, written by Christian Jarrett and Alex Fradera.

What is it like to meet the man who murdered your brother?

Traditionally, the criminal justice system has been so focused on ensuring that offenders are suitably punished that the interests and needs of victims are often overlooked. Nowhere is this more of an issue than in murder cases, where the relatives and friends of the victims are dragged through traumatic retellings of the crime. One approach that seeks to give relatives and friends (known as ‘co-victims’) a voice, and to help address their suffering, is known as ‘restorative justice’ and it involves victims (or, in the case of a murder, co-victims) meeting face to face with the offender.

While restorative justice is becoming an increasingly common practice, psychologically informed research into its effects is relatively rare. Indeed, this case study is the first ever investigation into the effects of restorative justice on the relatives of a murder victim (specifically, two sisters of a young man who was murdered). John (names have been changed), a bar manager in London, was murdered at the age of 30 by two men he’d invited back to his flat one night after work. One of the men, Michael, is serving a life sentence for strangling John; the other aggressor had his sentence reduced to manslaughter on appeal after claiming to have a diagnosis of Asperger’s.

Fifteen years later, two of John’s sisters accepted an invitation to take part in a restorative justice plan for them to meet Michael. They had both suffered terribly since losing their brother: one sister, Janet, was diagnosed with clinical depression and missed 18 months of work; the other, Barbara, developed an alcohol problem and attempted to take her own life. Mark Walters, the author of the case study, explains that these long-term difficulties are common among the co-victims of murders. Often, as was the case with Barbara who compulsively re-watched a documentary about her brother’s murder, they become ‘stuck in a cycle of re-living incoherent pain and suffering’.

Janet and Barbara were both keen to meet the man who killed their brother. They wanted to ask him why he’d killed John, and especially whether he’d been motivated by homophobia. This desire to discover an offender’s motives is apparently very common among victims, perhaps because it can help bring coherence to their narrative of the crime. Michael told the sisters that he was not homophobic, and that he and his accomplice had simply seen John as an easy target. He said he’d had no intention to kill John, but that things had gone wrong in a way he’d regretted ever since. Janet said this gave her a new understanding of her loss, one that (in Walters’ words) ‘put a stop to 15 years of recurring questions’.

Another motivation that the sisters had was to explain to the killer the profound consequences of his actions. They told him about their brother (‘if he wasn’t my brother he could quite easily have been our friend…he was a nice guy…the guy that went with the Soup Kitchen helping the homeless…he was that guy’). In turn Michael apologised to Janet and Barbara, and they felt his apology was genuine and that they’d successfully conveyed to him how his actions were having consequences years later.

The sisters also heard Michael’s perspective: he’d been abused from an early age, was homeless from age 11 and had drink problems. They were sceptical at first, but then they began to soften. ‘I thought, you know, “he’s a thug”, “he's a monster”… and it was quite shocking to see him, he was just…normal you know? ... I could understand where he was coming from, what he was saying, and why it happened,’ said Janet.

In a way, Walters explains, the two parties (the sisters and the killer) were revealing each other’s humanity. The meeting ended with them shaking hands and Michael promising not to return to the problems of his earlier life. The sisters said the process had been extremely beneficial. Barbara had previously rung Janet almost daily for years to discuss their brother’s murder. After the restorative justice meeting, this stopped.

However, there was an unexpected emotion that Walters highlights as potentially problematic and important for future research (‘We must remain cautious about “rolling out” a measure that can give rise to new psychological challenges,’ he says). That is, Janet came to realise that she actually liked the murderer Michael, which ultimately led to difficult feelings of guilt. ‘I came out feeling very, very guilty ... cause I felt I shouldn't have been thinking anything like that [liking Michael] at all ... I shoulda, absolutely hate him and not feel any, not have any positive thoughts about him or have any compassion about him but I did.’

For his part, Michael said the meeting was one of the toughest things he’d ever done, and that nothing could be as intense as coming face to face with your victim’s family: sister asked ‘do you consider yourself to be evil to the core? ... to be asked that by anyone is difficult but to be asked by [the] victims [of] their brother you’ve murdered, it was extremely hard to answer. [Interviewer: What did you say?] I answered honestly, I said that what I had done was serious and was evil but I don’t consider myself evil to the core. The sister said that they thought we don’t think you are. [Interviewer: How did that make you feel?]… very emotional to hear your victims, whose brother you’ve murdered, at the end of the day you’ve murdered their brother [and] they don’t consider you’re evil to the core. I was welling up... the sisters had tears rolling down their eyes.

Walters said this effect of restorative justice on offenders could help break the self-fulfilling prophesy whereby criminals come to behave in ways consistent with how they believe the world sees them, as evil monsters.

Of course, the findings need to be interpreted with caution: this is just one story and as Walters explains, ‘it is not possible to draw generalisable conclusions.’ Also, restorative justice is not for everyone: indeed, John’s two other sisters declined to take part because they felt too angry. However, the research certainly highlights interesting points for future research.

‘Most significantly,’ Walters concludes, ‘The emotionality behind such [restorative] dialogue further enabled [all involved] to develop a renewed understanding of each other. Collectively, the interpersonal connections that emerged allowed all stakeholders to move beyond their experience of homicide better equipped to deal with its painful aftermath.’ cj


It’s better to have two passions in life than one
In Journal of Happiness Studies 

As long as you don’t become obsessive and defensive about it, there’s a wealth of evidence to show that having a passion in life is good for you psychologically – people with a so-called ‘harmonious passion’ (but not so much those with an ‘obsessive passion’) tend to be happier, to enjoy more positive emotions and be more satisfied with life, as compared with people who don’t have a passion. As we see in the new year, a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies poses a simple question: given how beneficial it is to have one harmonious passion, what’s the effect of having two?

Benjamin Schellenberg and Daniel Bailis didn’t go into this research with any firm predictions: they reasoned that perhaps the effect of having two passions would be additive, so people with two would show even more psychological benefits than those with just one. But on the other hand, they considered it plausible that having two passions could get a little complicated – juggling the two might get stressful and each might detract from the other.

To test this, the researchers surveyed 1218 undergrads (including 878 women) about their most favourite activity and their second favourite. The students answered questions about these activities to reveal whether they were truly passions (for instance, doing something a lot would indicate that it was a passion), and if so, whether it was a harmonious passion or an obsessive passion (here, having difficulty controlling the urge to do the activity would be one sign that a passion was obsessive). The students also filled out a range of questionnaires about their moods and well-being and life-satisfaction.

Overall, 31 per cent of the sample had one passion (about half of these students had a harmonious passion, the other half had an obsessive passion), and 54 per cent of the sample had two passions (roughly a third of this group had two harmonious passions, another third had two obsessive and the remainder a mix). Consistent with past research, having a harmonious passion or two was associated with greater happiness and wellbeing than having an obsessive passion (or two), or with having no passion (15 per cent of the sample had no passions).

Focusing on just those students who had either one harmonious passion or two, the researchers found that having two was better than having one, in terms of enhanced happiness, wellbeing and positive moods. Of course it's possible that people with two passions simply spend more time on enjoyable activities than those with one passion, but actually the researchers found having two passions was associated with greater well-being and happiness gains even when the total amount of time invested across two passions was the same as the time invested by others in one passion.

‘Having a passion in life may be important in the pursuit of happiness, but it may be best to have multiple passions,’ the researchers said. They said future research was needed to explore the optimal number of passions to have beyond two, and to study what leads people to develop multiple harmonious passions in the first place. Before you sign up for a new hobby, bear in mind a problem with this research is its cross-sectional design (the fact it only took measures at one point in time). This means we don’t know if happier people who are more satisfied with their lives are simply more likely to have multiple passions, as opposed to multiple passions causing extra happiness. cj


Here’s a simple way to improve your work–life boundaries
In Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology

Critical goals still unconquered at the day’s end are the path to a spoiled evening, according to new research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. But thankfully the paper outlines an effective tactic we can take to minimise their impact.

We all know our work life can disrupt our free time by supplying unwanted thoughts that pop up when we should be relaxing. But what’s doing the popping: Concerns about pay, whether to bring Christmas cards in, flashbacks to spreadsheets? Severe events such as bullying can certainly cast a shadow beyond working hours. But Ball State University’s Brandon Smit has identified a more common culprit – uncompleted goals.

Taking his inspiration from classic lab studies showing that uncompleted goals are particularly likely to linger in mind, Smit surveyed 103 employed people, asking them to report which goals had been ticked off and which unfinished at the close of each day, and then just before bed to report on how much these goals had occupied their thoughts that evening. As you might expect, the incomplete goals intruded more, unless they had been rated as fairly unimportant. This effect applied only to participants who reported a higher level of job involvement; those uninvested were immune.

This is no great surprise, but what can we do about it? In one sense it is advantageous for our minds to keep uncompleted goals ‘live’ in our system, that way they are easily triggered, which makes sure we don’t forget them. The trouble is, when a TV advert references ‘limited time offers’ or ‘customer service’, these goals force themselves into mind when we’re unable or don’t want to act on them.

To help prevent this, Smit asked a subset of his participants, once they had described their incomplete goals, to clearly plan where, when and how they would tackle each one, for example: ‘I will go into work and start at 10:00 AM in a call center in my office. Log into my computer and call customers back…’ By specifying the context for action, this helped the high-involved participants to put the goals out of mind during off-work hours, and as a result their uncompleted goals produced fewer intrusions, almost as if they had the same status as completed goals. Data from a simple measure of work detachment also suggested that, using Smit’s strategy, the participants found it easier to let go of work in general.

All in all, then, fretting about unfinished goals appears to be one piece of the work–life conflict puzzle, but how big a piece it is remains to be seen. Aside from the specific effect of the planning intervention on detachment, there was actually no relationship between the number of goal-related interruptions participants reported experiencing and their overall levels of work detachment. This is perhaps because unmeasured factors are doing hidden work: take a project review meeting, for instance. This can raise many questions (Do I need to raise my game? Am I being lined up for that promotion?) that may occupy a worker’s mind during his or her leisure time, even though such meetings tend to happen after important goals have already been completed. This suggests we need to gather a more holistic picture of work-life conflict, involving goals, people issues and existential concerns.

That said, this research does offer helpful insights for under-pressure professionals. While switching off work phones and leaving our briefcase at the office may be useful in developing work–life boundaries, this study reminds us that our heads will still carry work memories with us, ready to trigger. The solution tested here by Smits resembles the ‘open loop’ concept popularised by management consultant Dave Allen (an open loop is anything that pulls at your attention when it shouldn’t). The implication is that if you capture and schedule your work activities, you’ll be more likely to find some much-needed peace during downtime. af


Are women really better than men at furniture assembly (as IKEA claim)?   
In Applied Cognitive Psychology

In 2008 Petra Hesser – the then head of flat-pack furniture company IKEA in Germany, now the group’s Global Human Resources Manager – made headlines by claiming that women are better than men at assembling flat-pack furniture. To a group of psychologists in Norway, this pronouncement was crying out for scientific testing, especially since, if true, it would contradict many years’ worth of data showing that, on average, men tend to outperform women on spatial skills, which you’d expect would be relevant to furniture construction. For their new study, the researchers (based at UiT The Arctic University of Norway) have conducted a carefully controlled comparison of men’s and women’s ability to assemble flat-pack furniture. Moreover, they specifically put to the test Hesser’s claim that women are better than men because they take the time to read the assembly instructions.

Forty men and forty women, all university students, were challenged with constructing IKEA's ‘Udden’ kitchen trolley as quickly and accurately as possible. All participants worked individually on the assembly under the discreet supervision of a researcher. Half had to construct the trolley without instructions (but with an image of the final assembled product); the others had the step-by-step assembly instructions that IKEA provides with the product. The researchers also tested the participants’ mental rotation skills (their ability to rotate objects and shapes in their mind’s eye), and asked them questions about their experience at furniture construction and other related activities.

The main result? The men were faster and more accurate in their construction of the trolley than the women. In terms of time taken, the men took 22.48 minutes with instructions, on average, and 24.80 minutes without, compared with the women taking 23.65 minutes with instructions, on average, and 28.44 minutes without. In terms of construction scores (from 1 to 10 where 10 represents a perfectly built trolley), men averaged 8.9 with instructions, 7.6 without; the women averaged 7.5 with, and 5.7 without. These differences in performance were despite the fact the men and women reported having similar levels of experience with furniture assembly.

Digging into the results, it’s clear that women benefited more than men from having instructions (they saved an average of around 4.5 minutes with instructions vs. without, whereas men only speeded up by about a minute). Indeed, the researchers highlight that once you factor out their time spent reading the instructions, the women’s performance with instructions was almost as good as the men’s performance without instructions. This observation backs the IKEA manager’s claim that women pay more attention to instructions than men, but it doesn’t support her additional claim that this makes them superior at the task.

Related to these points, and consistent with the wider literature, there was a large sex difference in mental rotation ability, with the male participants significantly outperforming the women on this measure. Interestingly, participants with poorer mental rotation abilities spent more time with the instructions, as if compensating for their weaker spatial skills. When mental rotation ability was factored out of the analysis, there was still a sex difference in time taken to construct the furniture, but the sex difference in the accuracy of the construction disappeared, which certainly suggests that one reason the male participants may have outperformed their female peers is because they tended to have superior mental rotation abilities, likely making them less dependent on the visuals in the instructions.

Looking at the participants’ descriptions of their practice at other relevant activities, more sex differences emerged. For example, greater experience at furniture assembly (and with Lego) correlated with better task performance among the men, but not among the women. Similarly, more experience with finding routes on maps was correlated positively with men’s furniture assembly ability, but actually showed an inverse correlation with assembly ability among the women, perhaps the researchers surmised because men and women use different mental processes when way-finding, and only the male approach has knock-on benefits for construction.

This research should not be taken as the final word on men’s and women’s furniture assembly abilities. Not only was this a small student sample in Norway, but there are other factors to bear in mind when appraising this kind of research. For example, men are known to be inclined to greater competitiveness than women, so perhaps they were more motivated. Here the wording of the task instructions may have been interpreted rather differently by men and women (the paper simply states that the participants were asked to assemble the furniture as efficiently as possible, with a maximum of 30 minutes allowed). Likewise, it’s well established that performance can be undermined by societal stereotypes – such as the widely held belief that (despite the IKEA manager’s claim) women usually are not as good as men at DIY or other manual tasks. It would have been useful to know the sex of the researcher who met and timed the participants, which may have exacerbated such effects of ‘stereotype threat’.

The battle of the sexes aside, this research offers up a simple piece of practical advice because both men and women were quicker at construction when they had instructions at their disposal. ‘…our results attest to the value of IKEA’s instructions,’ the researchers concluded, ‘and all furniture providers should make sure that their instructions are well designed. Time spent on good instructions should make furniture assembly less frustrating for both men and women.’ cj


Digest Digested
Full reports are available at
People who score low in the personality trait ‘Agreeableness’ seem to be particularly adept at getting other people to listen to their creative ideas, especially if those other people also have disagreeable characters. The study is among the first to look beyond idea generation to the more social aspects of creativity. Journal of Business and Psychology

Previous research has shown that religious people tend to be more intolerant than non-believers. A new study finds this is mostly due to an extreme minority of fundamentalists. The majority of religious people actually show the same amount or even less intolerance toward people they view as different, as compared with non-believers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

By age four, children are already willing to make sacrifices in the name of group loyalty. Children were asked to keep secrets by a hand puppet, and they were more willing to do this if the puppet was in their ‘team’ (as established only minutes earlier through the distribution of coloured scarfs). Journal of Experimental Child Psychology

Our life stories are made up of two distinct kinds of change: transitions and turning points. The former tend to be external, are easily pointed to by oneself or others, and seem to act like temporal landmarks – thinking of them prompts recall of related memories. Turning points by contrast are more internal in nature, usually a decision or change in emotion or attitude. Applied Cognitive Psychology

There’s a common assumption that people who swear liberally are making up for some kind of intellectual deficit. A new study challenges this claim from at least one perspective – swearing fluency tends to correlate with non-swearing verbal fluency. That is, being fluent at swearing is actually a sign of healthy verbal ability. Language Sciences

For understandable reasons, we usually see recessions as bad things. But an analysis of US data reveals a silver lining – during recessions, those people who stay in work tend to get more sleep and enjoy more free time. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology

No matter their experience with the puzzles, people consistently assume that anagrams will be easier to solve if they are pronounceable, than if they are unpronounceable. In fact the complete converse is true – pronounceable anagrams are trickier. The ‘fluency effect’ could be at play here – our tendency to react positively to things we find easier to process at a superficial level. Cognition

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. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment, our podcast and more.

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