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Psychologists reveal how love is far from blind: we’re biased to prefer the status quo.Jan FIdler/Flickr

We humans are perhaps unique among all species of animal for the complexity of the process by which we select a mate.

True, male puffer fish strive to impress females by constructing elaborate flower-shaped nests on the sandy sea floor; male Victoria’s riflebirds perform rhythmic dances to best show off their glittering blue feathers; and female túngara frogs, who value bulk in a mate, seek out males with the deepest, most sonorous croak. But while these behaviors may be complex, the systems are relatively simple. Females judge males on their nest building ability, their dancing, or their croaks, but don’t tend to have a long shopping list of must-haves in a partner.

Humans, however, vary in our preferences and are prone to trade off one desirable trait against another. You might want a physically attractive partner, but also someone who is honest, dependable, ambitious, kind, generous, and the list goes on. No one (except Ryan Gosling) can hope to score a perfect 10 in every category. This is why most of us must decide whether the constellation of traits possessed by each prospective partner meets the grade. Perhaps John is high on sex appeal but low on earning potential, while Sam is rich but looks like a foot?

Some might find that a tough choice, and many research studies have sought to investigate how, and why, humans trade one trait off against another.

Further complicating the matter is a question recently posed by Gul Gunaydin of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. She and her colleagues realized that in all of the existing research studies, volunteers had been tasked with choosing between two alternative partners who were new. “But,” she asked, “what if one of the alternatives is the current partner?”

Of course, this is likely to be a question that many of us who have a long-term partner grapple with often. Just because a person has a partner, doesn’t mean that they close their eyes to all alternatives. Choosing a partner isn’t a one-off decision, but a continuous process characterized by repeated decisions to either stick with the relationship or to jump ship for someone new.

Stick or twist?

In a series of experiments, Gunaydin had her research volunteers imagine they were in this situation: they had been in a relationship for three months, but recently were introduced to someone new. This person was compared with the current partner, and described either as more trustworthy but less attractive, or less trustworthy but more attractive. Would the volunteer consider ditching their current partner for the new alternative: yes or no?

Other volunteers had to choose between partners differing in attractiveness and wealth, or wealth and trustworthiness. A control group of volunteers were asked to imagine that they were single, but otherwise the task was the same: to choose between two potential partners.

The results of the experiments showed that “partnered” volunteers erred toward sticking with their current partner. That is, if the partner was attractive but untrustworthy, the volunteer overvalued attractiveness; if the partner was trustworthy but unattractive, the volunteer overvalued trustworthiness.

So, our preferences for the status quo seem to be stronger than our preferences for any particular trait. We can trade one desired trait off against another, but are also carried along by inertia. It’s easier to stick with your current partner, even if he or she is imaginary!

Festival of deception

But, what if this effect only emerges when the situation is hypothetical? To test whether status quo preferences persist under more naturalistic conditions, Gunaydin set up another experiment. This one was more fun because it involved deceiving the volunteers, which we shouldn’t begrudge psychologists because it’s pretty much the only thing they enjoy doing.

Gunaydin invited each female volunteer to the lab one at a time. Each woman was told she would be taking part in an experiment about decision-making in interpersonal relationships. They would make a series of decisions in concert with another volunteer — a man — whom they would meet momentarily. Half of the female volunteers would be randomly allocated a male partner, but the other half would read profiles of different men and get to choose which one they preferred to interact with.

In reality, the experiment wasn’t about “decision-making in interpersonal relationships” and all of the women got to choose which man they preferred to talk with. The profiles were also fake, and had been written by the researchers. Each woman was given three profiles printed onto paper. Two of them described awful men, who no one in their right mind would choose, but the third man had good points as well as bad and was almost always chosen. After the volunteer had chosen her preferred man, she handed the papers back to the research assistant. The research assistant then apologized: “Oh no, did I give you three profiles earlier? There should have been one more.” They would then go fetch a fourth profile for the volunteer to consider. And, you guessed it, the man described in this new profile was the opposite of the previously chosen man. If the volunteer had chosen to speak with a wealthy but untrustworthy man, the new man was poor but trustworthy, and vice versa.

Would the volunteers stick with the man they had chosen first, or would they switch to the new man?

The results of the experiment showed that people were more likely to stick with the man they had chosen first, even though in this instance the commitment had lasted little more than a minute or two.

Gunaydin and her colleagues wonder whether people would:

“…still prefer the status quo if they encountered potential partners in the flesh? Future research is needed to address this question.”

They also conclude that their results suggest that mate-choice can’t be considered an entirely rational process, since a rational process would involve weighing the better or most preferred trait more highly, regardless of whether that trait is possessed by a new or established partner. However, they also acknowledge that, across multiple domains, humans hate to lose out more than we love to gain: so called “loss aversion”. Mate-choice may not be special: we prefer the status quo generally.

One upside of this preference may be that it keeps our relationships intact. If we changed our affections every time we met someone who surpassed our partners on one trait, many of our relationships would be very brief indeed.

Unless, of course, we manage to shack up with Ryan Gosling first. I’ve got dibs.

Gunaydin, G., Selcuk, E., Yilmaz, C., & Hazen, C. (in press). I have, therefore I love: status quo preference in mate choice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi:10.1177/0146167217746339

The content of this post first appeared in the 8 May 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Psychologists investigate precursors of infidelity in a long-term study of newlyweds.Distracted by a romantic alternative? Courtney Carmody/Flickr

Infidelity is a major cause of relationship breakdown, and so understanding why some people cheat is an important area of research.

Of course, none of us is immune to temptation. Committing to a long-term and exclusive relationship doesn’t close our minds to the alternative. A marriage vow enshrines our intention “to forsake all others”, but can’t render all others unattractive.

Psychological research suggests that we manage our illicit desires by tearing our attentions away from appealing alternatives (“out of sight, out of mind”), and by devaluing the allure of those who nevertheless catch our eye (“they aren’t all that”). Those who report greater commitment to their partner tend to deploy these so-called “evaluative biases” more effectively.

James McNulty and his colleagues at Florida State University, in a paper published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, wondered whether evaluative biases have any effect on real world behavior. Reported feelings of commitment are one thing, but actual infidelity is another entirely.

Are people who are able to still their wandering eyes less likely to cheat?

McNulty’s team recruited around 500 newlyweds (most couples were male-female) for a long-term study. At the beginning of the study, all the volunteers visited the researchers’ lab. There they completed two tasks.

The first was a test of the volunteers’ attention to romantic alternatives. The volunteers were shown a series of photographs of attractive and average-looking men and women on a computer screen. After each photograph disappeared from the screen, it was replaced by a square or a circle. The volunteers’ job was to click one button if the shape was a square and another if it was a circle. Sounds easy, right? However, the photograph wasn’t always in the same place on the screen — each one jumped to a new position. And the shapes that appeared after the photographs were sometimes in the same position as the photograph, and sometimes elsewhere. The idea behind the task was that volunteers who find it difficult to drag their attention away from a face will be slower to categorize a shape when it materializes elsewhere on the screen. An attractive face is more likely to ‘glue’ your eyes in position.

In the second task, the volunteers’ tendency to devalue the attractiveness of others was tested. The volunteers rated the attractiveness of the same men and women whose photographs they had seen in the first task. A control group of single volunteers also rated the photographs. On average, the newlyweds rated the photographs as less attractive than the singletons did, which confirms the results of previous research indicating that those in a committed relationship are more inclined to devalue the attractiveness of others. However, each volunteer varied in the extent to which they devalued attractiveness compared to the average singleton. Some thought the faces were relatively unattractive; others thought the faces were relatively attractive.

Over the next three years, the volunteers periodically completed surveys about their commitment to their marriage, and reported on infidelity by themselves and their spouses.

McNulty discovered that those who found attractive others more attention-grabbing were more likely to have cheated on their partner by the end of the three years. In fact, he could be specific about it: each increase in the speed of disengagement of one tenth of a second (about the difference between gold and silver medal times in elite 100m sprint events) decreased the odds of infidelity by a massive 50%. I’ll say it again: if you can tear your eyes away from a hottie 100ms faster, you are half as likely to cheat on your partner in the next three years.

Of course, we can’t be sure that cheating is caused by a wandering eye. It is possible that people who are distracted by attractive alternatives also behave differently in other ways, or possess certain attitudes or values, that directly influence infidelity. McNulty also found that cheaters were more likely to report low relationship satisfaction and to have younger partners.

Those who reported infidelity were also less likely to devalue the attractiveness of alternatives: if you think other people are hot, you’re more likely to stray. In McNulty’s study, volunteers who rated attractive, opposite-sex persons an average of two points lower in attractiveness on a 1–10 scale were half as likely to have cheated.

So, a tendency to avoid looking at attractive others, and to view those who do attract attention as less appealing, does seem to be associated with faithfulness.

Further analyses revealed that people who rated others as more attractive tended to be less satisfied with their relationships by the end of the three years. Also, McNulty discovered that volunteers who found it more difficult to drag their attention away from attractive alternatives were more likely to have broken up (after three years, around 12% of all the couples had gone their separate ways).

Volunteers were also photographed at the beginning of the study, and their own photographs were rated for attractiveness by a group of independent volunteers. When a woman was low in attractiveness, both she and her partner were more likely to cheat. The male partner’s attractiveness was unimportant.

McNulty, J. K., Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., & Maner, J. K. (in press). Attentional and evaluative biases help people maintain relationships by avoiding infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi:10.1037/pspi0000127

The content of this post first appeared in the 8 May 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Romantic partners tend to look alike, but do we only match our lovers in attractiveness? New research suggests that couples may also look like their share personality traits.Freestocks.org

We are drawn to people whom we match in attractiveness, and tend to pair up with partners of a similar age. It’s therefore unsurprising that independent observers rate couple members as similar in attractiveness and age. But research has also shown that partners also look like they possess similar personalities.

Recently, a team of psychologists from Hong Kong has revealed the importance of personality to judgments of physical similarity.

Yetta Kwailing Wong and her colleagues took portrait photographs of 60 male-female couples who had been married between six months and 35 years. Next, they obscured the hair and clothing in each photograph, leaving just the face visible. Then they gathered together another group of men and women to rate the photographs. These independent judges saw photographs in pairs. Half of the time, the pairs of photographs represented real couples; the other half of the time, male and female faces were paired randomly. The judges rated the similarity of each pair of faces, based on attractiveness, age, and apparent personality.

The results of the study showed that the couples did look similar in perceived personality. However, most of this similarity effect could be explained by age. This is because certain personality traits are thought to be more pronounced at different ages (for example, extroverted young people or emotionally stable older people). Wong’s judges may have thought some partners were similar in personality mostly — but not entirely — because they were similar in age.

Interestingly, real couples were no more likely to match on attractiveness than fake couples. This means that partners are more similar in apparent personality than in physical attractiveness.

In a follow-up experiment, Wong made a new set of face pairs. This time she paired each of her original couple-members with someone whose personality was more similar than their partner’s, and with someone whose personality was less similar than their partner’s (she took care to choose people who were similar in age and attractiveness to the real partner).

A new group of judges looked at these two types of fake couple, as well as the real couples, and rated them for similarity.

Wong found that fake couples with closely matched personalities were judged more similar in appearance than fake couples with poorly matched personalities. This confirms that apparent personality does have an effect on how similar a couple looks. Still, the real couples were judged to be more similar than both types of fake couple. Clearly something other than personality, age, and attractiveness causes couples to look alike.

Earlier research by psychologists from the UK has also shown that judgments of personality based only on appearance are fairly accurate, although more so for some personality traits than others. People who look like extroverts usually are. Judgments of emotional stability and openness to experience are also usually accurate, although only for male faces.

Penton-Voak, I. S., Pound, N. I., Little, A. C., & Perrett, D. I. (2006). Personality judgments from natural and composite facial images: More evidence for a “kernal of truth” in social perception. Social Cognition, 24(5), 607–640.

Wong, Y. K., Wong, W. W., Lui, K. F. H., & Wong, A. C.-N. (2018). Revisiting facial resemblance in couples. PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0191456

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Research shows that people prone to “ghost” their partners have a stronger belief in destiny.Is a relationship something we must work on, or are we instead destined to find a soul mate? Joanna Malinowska

Almost everyone who has been in a relationship has experienced a break up. Some are amicable, but many are acrimonious or just plain awkward and uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it be great if we could avoid all the hassle of ending a relationship? If we could cut a partner out of our lives quickly, decisively, and with the least possible effort?

If this sounds appealing, you may be prone to “ghosting”. It’s a relatively new term for what is likely an age-old solution to a relationship that is going nowhere. To “ghost” someone is to cut them out of your life entirely, and to ignore all their attempts at contact. To vanish into the ether like a phantom, leaving the partner to work it out for themselves that they’ve been dumped.

Although this type of behavior may be tempting in that it demands the least possible effort (who doesn’t approve of efficiency?), it does seem rather heartless. And technology may be adding to the problem: after all, it’s easier to block a person you met on a dating app than to avoid a former office crush.

No, not that type of ghost… Flood G./Flickr

So, why are some people more likely to ghost than others? How can we choose a partner who, if love fails to bloom, will let us down gently rather than disappearing into the night?

Gili Freedman, a postdoc at Dartmouth college in New Hampshire, recently ran two studies to find out. She wondered whether willingness to ghost may be explained by the lay-theories we all hold about how relationships work. Some of us believe in destiny: that there is one soul-mate we are meant to be with. Others believe more in growth: that people change over time and that a relationship that has lost its way can be successfully prevented from hitting the rocks. Maybe believers in destiny or growth feel differently about ghosting.

Freedman had over 500 men and women complete questionnaires about their destiny and growth beliefs and their attitudes to ghosting. When is ghosting permissible: only after a few dates or even when the relationship is long-term? Had the respondents ever ghosted or been ghosted? Would they think less of someone who ghosted? And, finally, how likely would they be to use ghosting to end a short- or long-term relationship?

Around a quarter of the volunteers reported having been ghosted in the past; around a fifth said that they had ghosted someone else. What’s more, volunteers with strong beliefs in destiny were more likely to think it was OK to end a relationship by ghosting, compared to those with weaker beliefs in destiny: 22% more likely in the case of a short-term relationship; 63% more likely in the case of a long-term relationship. Growth beliefs weren’t related to feelings about the acceptability of ghosting a short-term partner, but believers in growth were 38% more likely than non-believers to think it acceptable to ghost a long-term partner.

Stronger believers in destiny were 24% less likely to think poorly of a ghoster, and 43% more likely to consider ghosting; stronger believers in growth were 35% more likely to think poorly of a ghoster, but were no more or less willing to ghost someone themselves.

Freedman argues that her results are:

consistent with the possibility that destiny theorists [people who believe that the ideal relationship partner is our “soul mate”] are more likely to act decisively on their relationship once deciding it is not “meant to be.”

In other words, if you think you are destined to find “the one”, and decide that your current partner doesn’t fit the bill, ending the relationship abruptly may feel appropriate. Why attempt to work at the relationship when you are not destined to be together, and don’t believe that relationships can evolve and change over time?

Earlier research has also shown that believers in destiny are less likely to remain friends with an ex. An unwillingness to maintain any kind of relationship with a former partner may mean that destiny theorists aren’t concerned about harming or confusing an ex they will probably never see again.

Perhaps it’s time for the belief in soul mates to give up the ghost.

Freedman, G., Powell, D. N., Le, B., & Williams, K. D. (in press). Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407517748791

The content of this post first appeared in the 10 April 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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New research suggests that false affection may keep relationships strong.

Why do we tell our partners “I love you”?

The simple answer is that we like to feel loved and, if we love another person, we know that expressing affection will make them — and us — feel good.

A cynical answer (and these are always more fun) might be that, by convincing our partner we love them, we stand to benefit somehow. For an example, see any of the many coming-of-age movies about young men desperate to shed their virginity, and whose declarations of love for the hottest cheerleader are never more than a transparent tactic for getting inside her pants.

But research suggests that “deceptive affectionate messages”, as they are called by scientists, are commonly deployed even by partners in established relationships: more than 3x per week on average. And we might send these deceptive messages not because we dislike our partners, but because we are aware of the benefits of exaggerating affection. These benefits can include saving face (“she told me she loves me, so I better say it back”), avoiding conflict (“if I’m affectionate with him, maybe he won’t be so annoyed about X”), or emotion management (“we’ll both feel good if I show a bit of affection now”).

Of course, we also show affection when we really mean it. But deceptive affection may be an extra way of keeping our relationships strong by giving our partner something they desire (as as added bonus: it’s free).

Madeleine Redlick and Anita Vangelisti of the University of Texas at Austin recently published the results of a new study into deceptive affection. They predicted that people with especially attractive partners would be more liable to exaggerate affection. We should be more motivated to retain partners who are so attractive they would be difficult to replace. One way of keeping a partner sweet is to whisper sweet nothings in their ear: even if those sweet nothings are nothing but saccharine and stevia.

Redlick and Vangelisti recruited over 200 heterosexual men and women who had been in a relationship for an average of 7 years. They asked these volunteers how often they actively communicated affection to their partners that they were not genuinely feeling. The volunteers also rated how difficult it would be to find another partner who was as honest, devoted, intelligent, and sexually appealing as their current partner: this is a good measure of how attractive the volunteers considered their other halves.

The results of the study showed that there was a link between the tendency to express deceptive affection and the attractiveness of the partner. However, the effect was in the opposite direction to that predicted by Redlick and Vangelisti.

The researchers had thought that those with more attractive partners would be more prone to deceptive affection. In fact, they were less likely to deceive.

Further analyses revealed that those with attractive partners tended to be more satisfied with their relationships, and that those who were more satisfied tended to send fewer deceptive affectionate messages.

Redlick and Vangelisti suggest that people with irreplaceable partners may be more nervous about putting their relationship at risk by sending deceptive messages that could be detected as false. Alternatively, a hot partner may inspire more genuine affection — meaning that deceptive messages are less necessary.

After all, a Judas kiss without any ulterior motive is a genuine, bona fide, affectionate kiss.

Redlick, M. H., & Vangeslisti, A. L. (in press). Affection, deception, and evolution: deceptive affectionate messages as mate retention behaviors. Evolutionary Psychology. doi:10.1177/1474704917753857

The content of this post first appeared in the 10 April 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Are men who hold traditional ideas of masculine honor more likely to respond aggressively to romantic rejection?

Many women will be familiar with this scene:

Tom is at a party. He notices a woman he finds attractive and attempts to catch her eye from across the room. After a few failed attempts of getting her to notice him, he walks over to her and introduces himself. They make small talk and after a while he asks her if he can have her number. She says no.

How does Tom respond? He could walk away. He could feel happy with himself for trying. Or he could react aggressively, calling the woman a name or even assaulting her.

In the wake of well-publicized examples of men aggressively retaliating against perceived rejection — for example, the case of Elliot Rodgers, the Californian student who murdered sorority members and the men he suspected of sleeping with them — some men have felt motivated to point out that #NotAllMen respond in this way. This less than tactful response inadvertently reveals that these men may have something in common with men like Rodgers after all: both seem to be acting to preserve their honor. The #NotAllMen crowd don’t want their gender to be painted as uniformly lacking in chivalry; men who retaliate violently when spurned may do so because they have internalized so-called “masculine honor beliefs”.

At least, that is, according to a team of psychologists at Kansas State University led by Evelyn Stratmoen. They had around 60 male and 60 female undergraduate students complete the Masculine Honor Beliefs Scale. The MHBS is a survey developed in the last couple of years to test whether a person endorses the idea that masculine honor should be defended. Respondents indicate how strongly they agree with statements such as “Physical aggression is always admirable and acceptable,” and “If a man is insulted, his manhood is insulted.”

Next, Stratmoen’s volunteers read a description of a man at a party: the same description you read at the top of this article. Afterwards, they read a list of Tom’s possible responses to his rejection, and rated how reasonable they thought each response was. Volunteers also rated how insulted Tom was likely to feel as a result of his rejection.

Stratmoen found that those who endorsed the masculine honor ideal were more likely to expect that Tom would feel insulted and less of a man, and to think it appropriate for Tom to respond aggressively, for example by grabbing the woman’s arm or calling her a slut.

Men tended to endorse masculine honor beliefs more strongly than women, as we might expect. But, perhaps more surprisingly, Stratmoen also found that the gender of the volunteer was unrelated to their perceptions of the appropriateness of Tom’s responses.

In a follow-up study, Stratmoen was able to show that public rejections were perceived to have a greater impact on Tom’s honor. What’s more, those who endorsed honor beliefs expected Tom to respond aggressively to rejection, unless his response was likely to be witnessed. This perhaps illustrates the strength of the taboo against male violence toward women, although Stratmoen and her colleagues note that those who endorse honor beliefs are much less likely to expect Tom to simply walk away from the woman. This suggests that:

a “man of honor” is expected to “do something” when romantically rejected — merely “walking away” and accepting the rejection is not an option.

The researchers concede that their research cannot reveal whether men’s aggressive responses are intended primarily as a form of retribution, with the aim of punishing the woman, or as a way of restoring the man’s own reputation, and call for future studies to address this outstanding question.

Stratmoen, E., Greer, M. M., Martens, A. L., & Saucier, D. A. (2018). What, I′m not good enough for you? Individual differences in masculine honor beliefs and the endorsement of aggressive responses to romantic rejection. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 151–162. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.10.018

The content of this post first appeared in the 13 March 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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How do college students navigate consent?Noirathsi’s Eye/Flickr

One in five women attending college in the US experience sexual assault. Sexual assaults are often perpetrated by persons known to the victim, or with whom the victim has a prior relationship. Because of this, many have suggested that one way to combat sexual coercion is to establish clear rules around consent: sexual contact should only occur between individuals who have expressly agreed to it.

Any effort to decrease the incidence of sexual assault should be lauded. But some have resisted the calls for explicit consent — not because they are arguing in favor of sexual assault, but rather because they feel that repeated checking of consent is unnecessary and introduces an oddly formal element into the otherwise messy business of love.

Put simply, saying “no” to sex is awkward. This may be because we are not used to bluntly refusing offers or forbidding the behavior of others. Such an approach is at odds with the way we normally conduct conversations. We have developed an immense set of rules, many of which differ from culture to culture, on how to deal with conflicts of interest. These rules govern what it is permissible to request, the proper way to respond to or evade requests, how to correctly express regret or thanks, and even when to be silent and what that silence means.

These complex rules mean it may be naive to expect that sexual consent can be negotiated with simple yes/no responses. Research shows that women often feel that saying “no” sounds rude or foolish, and that men can worry a “no” implies they find their partner unattractive.

So, how do college students really navigate consent?

Kristen Jozkowski and Tiffany Marcantonio of the University of Arkansas recruited over 1000 heterosexual cisgender students from two US universities: one in the South and one in the Midwest. The volunteers were asked how they would let their “potential sexual partners know if [they] were not going to consent … to have vaginal-penile intercourse with them”. The volunteers read a list of 21 responses and indicated how strongly they agreed with each one.

Analysis of the volunteers’ responses suggested there were three tactics used by students to refuse sex. These were direct verbal refusals, such as telling the partner “no” or otherwise talking about not wanting sex; direct nonverbal, such as keeping distance from the partner or stopping giving attention to the partner; and indirect nonverbal, such as using body language or “physical signals”.

Women reported using all three tactics more often than men, which conforms neatly to the stereotype of women as sexual gatekeepers: men were less likely to refuse sex. Direct nonverbal tactics were the most popular tactic, followed closely by direct verbal. Indirect nonverbal responses (those vague “physical signals”) were used less commonly by women, and men reported using them hardly at all.

Single men and women were more likely to report using direct nonverbal responses than were those who had a long-term partner. Those with and without a partner reported using direct verbal and indirect nonverbal tactics about equally. However, as the researchers themselves point out:

it is important to note that we asked college students to report how they would generally refuse sex. As such, we do not know the specific … situations they may have considered when answering these questions.

It’s also worth considering whether the volunteers’ responses accurately reflected how they negotiated consent. Perhaps, after being exposed to the debate surrounding consent, college students are aware that many campaigners advocate direct verbal refusals such as saying “no”. If so, they may have over-reported their use of this tactic, so as to respond in the socially approved manner.

The researchers suggest that their results may be useful in re-framing discussions with students about consent:

Programs that promote ‘‘no means no’’ may be well intended, but may do more harm than good by suggesting that it is one person’s responsibility to say no, even though … other nonverbal/implicit refusals are used and recognized by others. Taken together, university policies and educational efforts … could be adjusted to highlight the complexities and realities of sexual consent and refusal.

Marcantonio, T. L., Jozkowski, K. N., & Lo, W.-J. (in press). Beyond “just saying no”: a preliminary evaluation of strategies college students use to refuse sexual activity. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508–017–1130–2

The content of this post first appeared in the 13 March 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Why are some men sexually coercive?kris krüg/Flickr

What kind of man is more likely to commit sexual assault?

One possibility is that men who are impulsive — who seek to gratify their immediate desires without thought for the long-term consequences — may be more willing to coerce women into sex.

Young men, who are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults, tend to act rashly in all manner of circumstances. But is a man who drives dangerously, gambles, or is quick to lose his temper also more likely to sexually coerce? Or is sexual coercion linked specifically to impulsivity in the sexual domain?

A team of psychologists from Canada, led by Fannie Carrier Emond of the University of Montreal, decided to find out.

Around 100 men under the age of 35 completed a survey about sexual experiences, with questions about sexual coercion. For example, respondents were asked to indicate whether they had made unwanted sexual contact, or attempted or committed rape, and to identify the tactic they used to perpetrate the act (e.g. taking advantage of a position of authority or of the victim’s intoxication, or by physical force). Carrier Emond and her colleagues classified the men as perpetrators if they admitted to any form of coercion, or as non-perpetrators if they admitted to none. Forty-five of the men were classified as perpetrators, mostly because they had attempted to verbally pressure a woman into sex.

All the volunteers then took part in two discounting tasks. A discounting task is a measure of delayed gratification. A respondent is given a choice: receive a small reward now, or wait a while before receiving a larger reward. You may have heard of the marshmallow test — a type of discounting task often used with children. The child is shown a marshmallow and told that they can eat it now, or wait for 15 minutes after which they will receive two marshmallows. Only one third of young children are able to go the distance, and many gobble up the lone marshmallow as soon as the psychologist’s back is turned.

Carrier Emond’s discounting tasks worked on the same principle. In the first, a money discounting task, the men were asked whether they would prefer to receive a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount after a delay. In the second discounting task, the volunteers were asked to imagine preferred sexual acts. If offered the opportunity to engage in their preferred sexual act for a short time now, or a longer time later, what would they choose?

Both groups of men — the perpetrators of sexual coercion and the non-perpetrators — were less willing to delay gratification in the sexual task than in the money task. In general, men can wait for money longer than they can wait for sex. However, the non-perpetrators’s responses to the two types of task were fairly similar, while sexually coercive men’s preferences for immediate sexual rewards were much stronger than their preferences for immediate monetary rewards.

A further impulsivity survey revealed that reckless behavior in response to strong negative and positive emotions was stronger among perpetrators than non-perpetrators.

Carrier Emond and her colleagues conclude that there are different types of impulsivity. We shouldn’t expect men who are impulsive when it comes to money to be impulsive when it comes to sex, and sexually coercive men find it especially difficult to resist the temptation to behave impulsively when emotions are riding high.

Of course, this study was conducted in the laboratory and depended on self-reports. We can’t be sure the men were being truthful when they described their history of sexual coercion, or that their responses on the hypothetical discounting tasks would mirror their responses in the real world.

Nevertheless, the researchers contend that their results:

emphasize the importance of evaluating different facets of impulsivity, using self-report and behavioral measures, in order to fully understand its links with sexual assault.

Carrier Emond, F., Gagnon, J., Nolet, K., Cyr, G., & Rouleau, J.-L. (in press). What money can’t buy: different patterns in decision making about sex and money predict past sexual coercion perpetration. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1177/0265407517744385

The content of this post first appeared in the 13 March 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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New research suggests that how we perceive the personality of our leaders is colored by our own politics.Michael Vadon/Flickr

As someone with a keen interest in psychology, you may have some experience of taking personality tests. Many of the most popular — and scientifically supported — of these tests are based on the five factor model of personality. The so-called “Big 5” personality traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. A person can score high or low on any of these traits.

Psychologists don’t necessarily need you to sit a test to give you a score: it’s possible to build up a profile of someone’s personality from afar. And in recent years it’s become common for experts to pronounce on the personalities of famous individuals, including our political leaders. But how valid are these personality profiles?

Joshua Wright and Monica Tomlinson of the University of Western Ontario have tested this question in a paper published today in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Wright and Tomlinson started their investigation with a pair of recently released personality profiles of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. These profiles were prepared by personality experts, and label Trump as high in extroversion, average in openness to experience, and low in conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Clinton was judged to be high in conscientiousness and emotional stability, and average in openness to experience, agreeableness, and extroversion.

However, almost all of the experts who produced these profiles self-identified as politically liberal, calling into question their impartiality. This might be a problem, given that personality traits are socially desirable: it is seen as good to be open to new experiences, agreeable, or emotionally stable. Can experts set aside their personal political ideologies when profiling political leaders, or are they swayed by their beliefs?

In the days following the 2016 US presidential election, Wright and Tomlinson asked 360 Americans to judge the Big 5 personality traits of Trump and Clinton. The volunteers also rated their own political persuasions on a scale from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative”, and revealed how they had voted in the recent election.

The results of the study showed that the personal politics of the raters did color the profiles they provided of the two leading candidates in the 2016 election.

Compared to a control group of political moderates, Clinton voters rated Trump lower in conscientiousness and openness to experience. Conversely, Trump voters rated the then president-elect higher in agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience.

When it came to ratings of Clinton, those who voted for the Democratic nominee thought she was higher in agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. Compared to moderates, Trump voters thought Clinton was lower in conscientiousness.

The ratings of the liberal experts were very closely aligned to those of the left-leaning voters.

Wright and Tomlinson conclude that expert and non-expert ratings of personality are biased by political preferences.

In their paper, the researchers:

caution against interpreting expert personality ratings of political candidates when the samples of experts are politically imbalanced, especially given that there is currently no evidence that experts are more accurate in their ratings of the personalities of political candidates, or that they are immune to political bias.

Wright, J. D., & Tomlinson, M. F. (2018). Personality profiles of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: Fooled by your own politics. Personality and Individual Differences, 128, 21–24. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.02.019

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Science reveals one way to never forget a face: judge everyone on their attractiveness.Some of these faces look familiar… Bethany Khan/Flickr

How good is your memory for the people you meet? Some claim to never forget a face. On the other extreme are those who suffer from complete face-blindness, and never recognize anyone from one meeting to the next.

Josefa Pandeirada, a psychologist from the University of Aveiro in Portugal, wondered whether our memory for faces might depend on how we encounter them. Along with her colleagues in Portugal and the USA she ran an experiment to find out.

In the first part of the experiment, 70 student-aged women saw a series of male faces on a computer screen. Each face appeared alongside a description. For example, “has a good sense of humor”, “likes to eat tuna”, or “usually causes conflicts”. As you can see, some of these descriptions were positive, some neutral, and others negative.

The volunteers’ task was to rate on a 6-point scale each man’s desirability. Half of the volunteers judged the men’s desirability for a long-term romantic relationship. The remaining volunteers judged the men for a long-term working relationship: should he be hired to join their company? Afterwards, all the volunteers completed an unrelated task for three minutes.

At this point, the volunteers thought the experiment was over. But no! They were given one last task: to look at some faces and decide whether each one was new or if they had seen it before. When they recognized someone, the volunteers tried to recall whether they had previously judged that person to be desirable, undesirable, or neutral.

Would their memory for the faces be affected by the type of judgment they had made? Would men judged for a romantic relationship be more easily recalled than men judged for a working relationship?

The quick answer is ‘yes’. Women in the ‘mating’ group were more accurate than those in the ‘working’ group at recognizing faces they had seen before. Women in the ‘mating’ group were also better able to recall whether they had previously classified a man as desirable, undesirable, or neutral: they were correct about 47% of the time. Women in the ‘working’ group, who had rated men for their desirability as a work colleague, correctly recalled their judgments only 35% of the time (we would expect women who guessed to have been correct 33% of the time).

Pandeirada and colleagues suspect that their results can be explained by evolutionary theory. That is, our memory skills likely evolved because they were useful to our ancestors in solving problems. But not all problems are equally important, and it’s likely that decisions about romantic partners are some of the most consequential that humans face.

Scientists working in other labs have also shown that our memory is better for indicators of contamination than cleanliness, and for living creatures than for inanimate objects. Both of these findings are consistent with Pandeirada’s evolutionary explanation because humans are motivated to avoid disease and predators.

Pandeirada, J. N. S., Fernandes, N. L., Vasconcelos, M., & Nairne, J. S. (2017). Adaptive memory: remembering potential mates. Evolutionary Psychology, 15(4). Read paper.

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