It’s that time of year for annual roundups and reviews of the highlights of the year, so here are 7 of my favourite random bits of psychology from 2014, including when bankers cheat, the nasty side of niceness, the unexpected effect of women handling men’s underpants and why Brummies should consider relocating to Tel Aviv………
1. How to appear more intelligent
According to this useful summary of the research, people are likely to perceive you as smarter if you:
• Enunciate your words clearly and speak with expression
• Don’t expose too much skin
• Use a middle initial
This post, incidentally, is brought to you by Caroline M. Gourlay
2. The really not nice side of being too nice
Everyone likes nice people. When recruiting, companies often look for agreeable, conscientious candidates who are empathetic towards others. Sure, there’s a danger they might be a bit soft, but recent research reveals a darker side. Sometimes nice people are really not very nice at all.
One recent study, showed that friendly, conscientious people are more prone to ‘destructive obedience’, i.e. going along with things which are anti-social or unethical (“I was only following orders”). It’s easy to see how a culture of unethical behaviour could arise if a few dominant, dishonest people lead a larger group of ‘nice guys’. Financial services companies, take note.
A second study showed that feeling a lot of empathy for someone in distress led people to be aggressive towards another person who was blameless but in the way. A kind of ‘end justifies the means’ mentality when we really, really want to help the person in distress. A warning, perhaps, in the caring professions or charity sector?
3. When do bankers cheat?
Answer: when you remind them that they’re bankers. In an intriguing study, bankers were found to be no more likely to cheat in a gambling game than anyone else, unless you first asked them questions about banking. It didn’t happen if you asked them irrelevant questions, or you asked non-bankers about banking or about their own occupations. Reminding an IT person that she or he was an IT professional didn’t make them more likely to cheat.
Further questioning revealed that it was something to do with being reminded of the materialistic culture in the banking industry and a view of status being linked to financial success. This led them to behave in a stereotypical way (sorry bankers, but it is a stereotype: the same study found that the general public thought bankers were the most likely to cheat – more likely, even, than prison inmates). The researchers suggest that changing the stereotype of banking in some way, perhaps by stressing their ethical obligations, may counter this.
It does make me wonder what stereotypes other professions fall into when reminded of their professional identity. As a psychologist, stop me if I ask too many questions about your mother.
4. What’s worse than bullying at work?
Surely nothing? Actually something is – ostracism. I’m sure we can all recall a moment from our schooldays when there was no one to play with in the playground or we weren’t picked for the sports team or invited to a birthday party. It hurts when you’re child and new research shows it hurts just as much as an adult in the workplace. People who are ignored actually feel worse than those who are bullied and are more likely to leave their jobs.
So if you are trying to build a healthy team, look out for exclusion as well as more overt dysfunctional behaviours.
5. How to talk to yourself encouragingly
Imagine you are trying to psyche yourself up to face a tough challenge – maybe a big presentation or asking your boss for a pay rise. What’s the best way to talk to yourself – in the grammatical first person (“I can do this”) or the second person (“You can do this”)?
A lot of pop psychology might suggest that you need to ‘own’ the message and should use the first person. But research actually shows that saying “C’mon, you can do it” is more likely to spur you on than saying “I can do it”. It seems to be related to reminders of others encouraging us, particularly in childhood.
6. Caution: hormones at work (including the underwear experiment)
If I mention hormones at work, doubtless you’ll think about over-emotional women. Men, of course, are rational beings, unaffected by biology – dream on, chaps. If you threaten a man’s masculinity – for example, by getting him to test a lovely pink, rose-scented hand cream – he is more likely to take risks in a gambling game immediately afterwards than a man who tested a power drill.
Men are more likely to take short term financial risks if they’ve just seen something sexy, whereas women aren’t. Actually, this research is a few years old. The new bit – and the bit where the pants come in – is the finding that women take more short term financial risks if you first get them to handle a pair of men’s boxer shorts (unworn, without a man inside them, I hasten to add), rather than a t shirt. Women, it seems, are more tactile than visual.
A few takeaways from that bizarre bit of research:
• The City makes more and more sense as a testosterone-fuelled, risk-taking machine
• Men are just as hormonally-driven as women
• None of us is entirely rational
• Experimental psychologists are strange and devious creatures.
7. Why Brummies should relocate to Tel Aviv
I have discussed here before the concept of unconscious biases, including the way that we judge people by their accents. We assess people’s trustworthiness, likeability and intelligence based on the way they speak and the poor old residents of Birmingham consistently come out bottom of the heap – perceived as less intelligent and less trustworthy.
Now comes news – admittedly from a new book about language, not a psychology study – that, amongst non-English speakers, a Birmingham accent consistently tops the polls and in Israel it is considered unbelievably sexy. And I heard that from a very nicely-spoken man on Radio 4, so, obviously, it must be true.
I include it as a useful reminder that your reality is not everyone’s reality.
I look forward to 2015 bringing just as many fascinating and weird bits of psychological research.
Woman in glasses: Charlie Barker
Cheating: Alan Cleaver
Boxer shorts: NapInterrupted
Birmingham: Elliott Brown