From the research Digest May 2016

A selection from the Society's blog.

Inside the mind of an ultra-runner, the tougher it gets, the more fun it is
In International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology

According to UltraRunning Magazine, an ultra-run is anything longer than a standard marathon of 26 miles, but it’s not unusual for people to participate in gruelling runs that take place in punishing environments over days or even weeks. For people who struggle to run to catch a bus, the idea of deliberately putting yourself through this kind of physical punishment, for fun, seems little short of crazy. Yet this is a sport that’s on the increase – the number of official events has doubled in the last decade.

Exercise-related distress was once seen as a simple consequence of physical symptoms like metabolic discharge building up in the muscles. But we now understand that the mind plays an important role in deciding whether a symptom is acceptable or unbearable. It’s this that makes ultra-runners possible. In fact, a new in-depth case study of an ultra-runner published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that with greater physical exertion comes the experience of ever more positive emotion.

The profiled runner is an unnamed woman who was new to ultra-running but had a pedigree of elite-level running in international marathons. The researchers, led by Urban Johnson at Halmstad University, examined her experiences during a 10-week run in late spring covering 3641 kilometres (2262 miles) across Europe. The route included flats and substantial rises, passing through mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees. She and her experienced running partner covered between 26 and 80 kilometres each day, typically running between five and eight hours, taking turns to push a baby buggy holding their equipment. In case it’s not obvious… that’s a lot of running.

After the run, the researchers interviewed the runner to understand what she perceived as the mental qualities that made for ultra success. She revealed four key factors: mental stamina; motivation to test one’s limits, a will that’s generated by the enjoyable features of the journey; a sense of camaraderie with the partner; and self-awareness. As an example of the last factor, the running pair formalised a rule to communicate to teach other whenever they felt even a twinge of pain so that it could be immediately addressed: a ‘not one step further’ rule. In addition, the pair did not run to targets, covering as much distance as felt comfortable day to day.

The ultra-runner also made a weekly record of her mood and exertion levels, starting three weeks prior to the run and ending three weeks after its completion. The researchers were interested in finding out from these records whether the physical impact of intensive running would produce psychological stress even in the absence of competition or targets.

During the run, the more physical exertion the runner experienced, the more her positive mood intensified. There was only one dip in positive mood during the run and this occurred during a two-week period where the close running dynamic was disrupted by the temporary participation of a third runner. Meanwhile, a measure of more negative mood states found no significant difference due to exertion, nor any differences inside or outside of the run period. So for this runner, no, intensive running was not psychologically stressful, but rather rewarding. It was only after the run was over that our ultra-runner experienced a drop in feelings of vitality, harmony and appreciation from others, as she came down from her remarkable trip.

This case study provides insight into a person doing exceptional things, with particular drives: as the authors note drily, ‘the runner enjoys running!’. But her breakdown of the key psychological ingredients for success in intense endeavours may resonate with you, whether you climb, act or are founding a business. 

- Alex Fradera 

Why narcissistic leaders are like chocolate cake   
In Journal of Personality

At a superficial level, people who are narcissistic seem like they will be good leaders. They’re confident, outgoing and unafraid of putting themselves forward. But once in charge, their appeal rapidly wanes. In this way, say the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Personality, they are rather like chocolate cake:

‘The first bite of chocolate cake is usually rich in flavor and texture, and extremely gratifying. After a while, however, the richness of this flavor makes one feel increasingly nauseous. Being led by a narcissist could be a similar experience.’

Supporting their chocolate cake model, the researchers recruited 142 unacquainted students to take part in weekly group tasks. Through the course of the study, the students rated each other’s leadership skills. High scorers in narcissism attracted positive leadership ratings from their peers early on, but this positive impression faded. The deteriorating perception of narcissists over time was partly explained by their lack of so-called ‘transformational leadership skills’ becoming apparent – that is, their inability to motivate and inspire others. A second study was similar but involved students who already knew each other. In this case, the narcissists did not receive positive leadership ratings from the outset – there was no honeymoon period for them – and as the study went on, they received more negative ratings from their peers.

‘Taken together, the findings of the two studies are consistent with the chocolate cake model and demonstrate that initial positive peer perceptions of narcissistic leadership fade over time, and eventually become negative,’ the researchers concluded.

- Christian Jarrett 

How trustworthy is the data that psychologists collect online?  
In Computers in Human Behavior

The internet has changed the way that many psychologists collect their data. It’s now cheap and easy to recruit hundreds of people to complete questionnaires and tests online, for example through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. This is a good thing in terms of reducing the dependence on student samples, but there are concerns about the quality of data collected through websites. For example, how do researchers know that the participants have read the questions properly or that they weren't watching TV at the same time as they completed the study?

Good news about the quality of online psychology data comes from a new paper in Computers in Human Behavior. Sarah Ramsey and her colleagues at Northern Illinois University first asked hundreds of university students to complete two questionnaires on computer – half of them did this on campus in the presence of a researcher, the others did it remotely, off campus.

The questions were about a whole range of topics from sex to coffee. The researchers started off leading the participants to believe they were really interested in their attitudes to these topics. But when the students started the second questionnaire they were told the real test was to spot how many of the questions on the second questionnaire were repeats from the first. The idea was to see whether the students had really been paying attention to the questions – if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be very good at spotting duplicates in the second questionnaire.

In fact, both groups of students – those supervised on campus and those who could do the questionnaire anywhere – performed well at spotting when questions were repeated. This suggests that even those who had completed the questionnaires at home, or out and about, had been paying attention – good news for any researchers who like to collect data online.

A follow-up study was similar, but this time there were three participant groups: students on-campus, students off-campus, and 246 people recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Also, the researchers added a trick to see if the participants had read the questionnaire instructions properly – they did this by making an unusual request for how participants should indicate the time they completed the questionnaires.

In terms of the participants’ paying attention to the questionnaire items, the results were again promising – all groups did well at spotting duplicate items. Regarding the reading of instructions, the results were more disappointing in general, but actually the Turkers performed the best. Just under 15 per cent of students on-campus appeared to have read the instructions closely compared with 8.5 per cent of off-campus students and 49.6 per cent of Turkers. Perhaps users of sites like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk are actually more motivated to pay attention than students because they have an inherent interest in participating whereas students might just be fulfilling their course requirements.

Of course this paper has only looked at two specific aspects of conducting psychology research online, both relating to the use of questionnaires. However, the researchers were relatively upbeat – ‘These results should increase our confidence in data provided by crowdsourced participants [those recruited via Amazon and other sites]’ they said. But they also added that their findings raise general concerns about how closely participants read task instructions. There are easy ways round this though – for example, instructions can include a compliance test that must be completed before the proper questionnaire or other task begins, or researchers could try using audio to provide spoken instructions. 

- Christian Jarrett

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, more reports, an archive, comment, our podcast (Episode 5!) and more. 

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