From the Research Digest March 2016

A selection from our blog.

People who have experienced more adversity show more compassion

In parallel with the difficulties caused by trauma, such as depression and ill health, some people experience positive psychological changes, such as a renewed appreciation for life and increased resilience – a phenomenon psychologists term ‘post-traumatic growth’. According to a new study in the journal Emotion, we can add another positive outcome related to adversity – compassion. The more adversity in life a person has experienced, the more compassion they tend to feel and show towards others.

Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University first surveyed 224 people via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website: just over 60 per cent were female, and their ages ranged from 22 to 74. The participants answered questions about the adversity they had experienced in life, including injuries, bereavements, disasters and relationship breakdowns. They also completed measures of their empathy and compassion, and the survey ended with a chance to donate some of their participation fee to charity. The more adversity participants had experienced (the nature of the adversity didn’t matter), the more empathy they said they had, and in turn, this greater empathy was associated with more self-reported compassion, and more actual generosity, as revealed by the amounts the participants chose to donate to charity.

To test this adversity–compassion link further, the researchers conducted an experiment: they first tricked 51 students into thinking they were taking part in an emotion recognition study. While in the lab, they saw another student participant – actually an actor – taking part in a really boring task, even though he’d told the researcher he was feeling ill and had a doctor’s appointment to get to. The participants had the chance to help complete the boring task the ill student was working on – whether they chose to help, and how much they helped, was used as a measure of their compassion. The next day, the participants answered questions about the adversity they’d experienced in life, as well as their empathy and compassion. Again, students who’d lived through more adversity reported having greater empathy, and in turn this was related to higher self-ratings of compassion, and crucially, it was also related to actually showing more compassionate behaviour towards the ill student.

The researchers caution that they’ve only shown that experiencing past adversity correlates with, rather than causes, greater compassion. And they acknowledge that of course everyone responds differently to adversity, and that people’s psychological responses evolve over different time frames. However, they say their results do support the notion that ‘adversity, on average, likely fosters compassion and subsequent prosociality’. They also see sound theoretical reasons why this might be the case – compassion can be seen as a ‘forward-looking coping response’ that helps to strengthen social ties, to the benefit of the compassionate person and those whom they help. The new findings also chime with other related research: for example, a 2011 study found that people who have suffered more themselves show greater altruism and sympathy for disaster victims.  cj


The police believe a lot of psychology myths related to their work  
In Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology

Despite recent improvements to their training, a new study suggests the police are as susceptible as the general public to holding false beliefs about psychology that applies to their work. The research, conducted in the UK, also showed that police officers have more confidence than the public in their false beliefs.

Chloe Chaplin, a programme facilitator at the London Probation Trust, and Julia Shaw, senior lecturer at South Bank University, recruited 44 UK police and other law enforcement officers and 56 participants with jobs unrelated to law enforcement, who were recruited via posters and social media, mostly from outside a university setting.

Participants were quizzed on a number of topics: police procedures and interrogations, for instance whether they agreed wrongly that ‘People only confess when they have actually committed the crime they are being charged with’; courts – measured by gauging mistaken agreement with statements like ‘Eye-witnesses are always the most reliable source of case-related information’; their beliefs about the effects of toughness on crime – ‘Capital punishment is an effective way to deter criminal activity’; their beliefs about mental illness – ‘Most mentally ill individuals are violent’; and beliefs about memory and cognition, in this case measured through their agreement with items like ‘If you are the victim of a violent crime, your memory for the perpetrator’s face will be perfect.’ All of the above items, plus several others used in the research, are unsupported by research evidence, and were sprinkled in among true statements.

Training of UK police is in many areas strongly evidence-based, yet the police group were as likely to endorse the psychological misconceptions as the lay participants, having faith on average in 18 of the 50 false statements (vs. 19 among the public). A breakdown showed better performance only in one area, the courts subscale; in others, even those such as interview techniques, where UK police receive standardised, evidence-based training, the police performed as poorly as the public. On top of this, the police showed greater confidence than the public that their false beliefs were correct. Expertise can breed overconfidence, with possibly severe consequences when the stakes are so high: the mentally ill and younger suspects are at particular risk of making false confessions, for example.

The research suggests that policing continues to be a worrying example of where there is a ‘science­–practitioner gap’ (i.e. modern research findings are failing to filter through to those working on the ground) – a problem that is familiar to psychologists from other occupational areas such as therapy and human resources. Chaplin and Shaw recommend more police training, but they emphasise such training needs to take account of real-life contexts to be convincing, and it needs to be persuasive enough to displace existing beliefs. af


Students who believe they have more ‘free will’ do better academically
In Personality and Individual Differences

Psychologists are coming to realise that it’s not just people’s abilities that are important in life but their beliefs about their abilities. Much of this research has focused on whether people think traits like intelligence and self-control are fixed or malleable, with those individuals who endorse the idea of malleability tending to fare better at mental tasks and even at life in general, at least as measured by their feelings of wellbeing.

Now a study in Personality and Individual Differences has added to this picture by showing that students who believe they have ‘free will’ in the philosophical sense (they agree with statements like ‘I have free will’ and ‘I am in charge of my actions even when my life’s circumstances are difficult’) tend to do better academically. The result suggests that it’s not just people’s beliefs about the nature of ability that influences their scholarly performance, but also their more fundamental beliefs about the limits of human choice and volition.

As an initial test of their ideas, Gilad Feldman and his colleagues began by asking 116 undergraduates (a mix of Hong Kong Chinese, Chinese and international students) to rate how much free will they have on a sliding scale from 0 to 100 and then to complete a proof-reading challenge. The students who said they had more free will did better at spotting mistakes in the text, finding more of them in less time.

Next, the researchers asked 614 more students (again a mix of Hong Kong, Chinese and international) to answer questions at the start of their university semester about their free will beliefs, their self-control, and whether people’s traits are fixed or malleable. At the end of the semester, the students who had previously reported stronger beliefs in their free will tended to have scored a higher grade in their studies, and they received better performance appraisals from their tutors.

This free will/performance association was stronger than the links between trait self-control and academic performance, and between belief in people’s malleability and academic performance. Moreover, the association between belief in free will and academic performance held even when accounting statistically for the influence of these other factors (it also held across age, gender and cultural grouping). However, belief in free will and trait self-control did interact – the very highest academic performers were those students who endorsed the idea of free will and who said they had a lot of self-control.

These findings add to past research that has shown the consequences of belief in free will, such as that people who believe more strongly in their own free will are better able to learn from their mistakes. Feldman and his team said: ‘Increasing evidence suggests that the belief in free will is more than an implicit, abstract, or philosophical belief and that it holds important implications for both cognition and behaviour.’ There is intuitive sense in this idea – one can imagine that a student who believes more strongly in their own free will will take proactive steps to deal with academic challenges, rather than submitting passively to failure.

Findings like these, if they can be replicated and established as robust, are exciting because in theory it should be easier to influence people’s belief in free will (and other ability-related beliefs) in ways that contribute to better academic performance, as compared with trying to shift their IQ, say, or boost their self-discipline. Taking a more sceptical approach, bear in mind that this was a cross-sectional study, so the causal effect of free will beliefs has not been established. It’s possible that more intelligent, capable and otherwise advantaged students are simply more likely to believe in their own free will. cj


What’s it like to be an autistic person at work?    
In Journal of Applied Psychology

Better detection rates for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) mean the chances of having a colleague with the diagnosis, or being diagnosed yourself, have never been so high. But what’s it like to be ‘working while ASD’? A new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests the age when a person is diagnosed is key. Those diagnosed later in life are less likely to fully identify with the label of autism and with the ASD community more broadly, shaping their attitudes and feelings about how they are treated in the workplace.

Tiffany Johnson and Aparna Joshi of Pennsylvania State University interviewed 30 adults diagnosed with ASD about their experiences at work, and then they surveyed a much larger group
of people with ASD about the issues that came up. The survey canvassed 210 working people on the spectrum, mostly in their twenties and thirties and two thirds men, contacted through an autism network – they worked in a variety of industries, including education, service and finance. Controlling for the influence of other factors, such as current age, gender and severity of diagnosis, the data repeatedly showed that age at diagnosis mattered.

Take social interaction – the survey data showed that participants working in jobs with higher social demands varied in how they felt about this, with later-diagnosed people feeling less discriminated against and more capable in these jobs than their early-diagnosed counterparts. This late-diagnosed group were more content in roles that resembled what neurotypical peers or role models would take on – the population they worked around and may have considered themselves a group member of for at least some of their working careers. This didn’t mean that social interaction was without issues, but this was in the details of the work – one interviewee noted ‘I mean I want to be social but I don’t want to get overwhelmed with crowds’ – rather than whether to consider it at all. In contrast, the earlier a person’s diagnosis, the more likely that they entered the workplace with a firm idea of having ASD, and resembling other people with ASD, including in terms of their suitability for certain activities.

In a similar fashion, the survey showed that early-diagnosed participants were more comfortable in jobs with more organisational support for ASD, but those with a late diagnosis actually preferred less support – that kind of attention and differentiation simply wasn’t attractive to them. Age of diagnosis also influenced disclosing experiences. The survey suggested that the early diagnosed tended to feel somewhat more anxious after disclosing their condition to colleagues, but less discriminated against and more self-esteem, whereas their late-diagnosed counterparts felt more discriminated against and reported lower self-esteem post-disclosure. Again, this is likely to reflect the more superficial identification towards the ASD label held by later-diagnosed individuals: as one interviewee noted as a reason for their non-disclosure, ‘I’d much rather [have introvert] as sort of a label’ than to introduce the notion of a developmental diagnosis.

Research into stigma and identity management at work has given little attention to developmental disabilities; but as this research shows, navigating work with a diagnosis such as ASD
is complex, and the considerations for providing a good work environment for these people far from uniform. Bear in mind that participants’ severity of diagnosis was also associated with their sense of discrimination and self-esteem (those with more severe ASD reported a tougher time, as you’d expect), and that there may be other aspects of the work experience, besides those uncovered here, that also vary according to the age that a worker was diagnosed with ASD. af


Here’s a really simple trick that could help you enjoy more lucid dreams    
In Dreaming

Lucid dreams are when you know you’re dreaming and you can consciously control events as they unfold: it’s like being the director and star of your own Hollywood movie. It’s estimated that about 20 per cent of people get to enjoy them fairly regularly (at least once a month). For the rest of us, a new study in the journal Dreaming suggests a really simple way to increase your odds of having lucid dreams – just start making more frequent use of the snooze function on your alarm clock.

Bethan Smith and Mark Blagrove at Swansea University surveyed 84 people who frequent various Facebook groups and online forums devoted to lucid dreaming. There were 44 women, 39 men, and their ages ranged from 18 to 75.

Based on the following definition of lucid dreaming as ‘occurring when an individual becomes aware that they are dreaming, and, while remaining asleep, can control some of the events or content of the dream’, 23 participants said they had never had a lucid dream. The remainder gave an indication of how often they had lucid dreams on a seven-point-scale from 1 (less then once a year) to 7 (four to seven nights a week). To give an idea of the spread of answers, 12 participants said they had less than one lucid dream a year, while five participants said they had between four and seven a week.

One of the main findings to come out of the survey was a correlation between frequency of lucid dreaming and the number of times participants said they usually hit the snooze button on their alarm clock each morning. This correlation held even after controlling for the influence of other measures, such as the participants’ tendency to recall their dreams and their number of awakenings per night. Putting this finding slightly differently, people who reported using an alarm clock snooze function at all reported having significantly more lucid dreams than people who said they never used a snooze function (snooze-function users averaged 3.04 on the seven-point frequency of lucid dreaming scale compared with 2.76 among the non-snoozers).

We can’t read too much into these results – after all, perhaps for some reason, people who are more prone to lucid dreaming just happen to like using the snooze function on their clocks. To check that alarm clock snooze functions really cause more lucid dreams, we need an experiment that randomly allocates some people to start using the snooze function and then we could see if they start having more lucid dreams compared with a control group.

While caution is in order for now, the researchers explain that it does make theoretical sense that using the snooze function should lead to more lucid dreams. When people’s sleep is interrupted, such as by the snooze alarm, it’s more likely that they’ll dip straight back into a light REM sleep, which is when lucid dreams mostly occur. Indeed, if you use your alarm clock to help you doze and wake intermittently, this is very similar to an established method for inducing lucid dreams known as the ‘Wake-Back-To-Bed’ technique, which involves scheduling an alarm to go off an hour before your usual waking time and then deliberately focusing on remaining lucid while falling back to sleep. cj


Digest Digested
Full reports are available at

When 50 overweight women kept a ‘fat stigma’ diary for a week, they recorded an average of three stigmatising experiences each per day. Older and better-educated women experienced less stigma, suggesting they’d found ways to avoid or deal with discrimination. Journal of Health Psychology

By age eight, children already recognise the greater moral seriousness and consequences of criminal acts compared with mere mischief. The finding came from asking them to rate vignettes and could inform debate over the appropriate age of criminal responsibility. Legal and Criminological Psychology

In terms of life satisfaction and stress symptoms, participants in a university survey who believed they had an unanswered calling in life actually fared worse than those who said they had no calling at all. Journal of Vocational Behaviour

Restaurant diners who are served by an overweight waiter or waitress tend to order more food and alcoholic drink. Psychologists observed real interactions in 50 restaurants, mostly in the US. Environment and Behaviour

Concerns have been raised that IVF could interfere with natural ‘filtering’ processes that help reduce the risk of developmental disorders. However, a study of 67 children born via IVF found they were developmentally advantaged compared with their peers. European Journal of Developmental Psychology

We are most vulnerable to temptation when it feels like we’re in the middle of something, whether it’s being half-way through a café loyalty card or midway through the year. It’s because, unlike the start and end of a process, we don’t use the middle to judge our selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Creative teams perform better when their leader believes in her or his own creative abilities. People who score higher in what the study calls ‘creative self-efficacy’ are known to be less conformist and receptive to ideas; they get creative behaviours. Organizational  and Human Decision Processes

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