Can we learn to love anything or anyone if we just hang around them long enough?

One of the Cognitive Approach studies that we cover in our fabulous book, ‘Psychology Sorted, Book 1’ is by Slovic et al. (2017) and which concerns the Affect Heuristic. The Affect Heuristic is a cognitive bias composed of several dimensions, one of which is:

  • The ‘mere exposure effect’: this may be a factor in the affect heuristic. It involves a favourable (‘good’) judgement being made of stimuli by participants who had been presented with that stimuli several times over compared to less familiar material. In other words, the participants in the study preferred the stimuli they had simply seen/been exposed to more times than the other stimuli.

So, this finding shows we human beings to be fairly simple creatures: we like something on the grounds that it is more familiar than the alternative choice. This obviously saves us a lot of time and effort in trying to compare the relative merits and demerits of two possibly similar items or people. For example, I am interviewing two candidates for a job. One of the candidates already works at my company and I have known her for two years now. She’s a good enough worker, doesn’t cause any trouble and well, let’s face it, she’s a known quantity.

The other candidate is someone that I don’t know. On paper they seem far more interesting than the candidate I already know: they have some good ideas for the role and they may bring a breath of fresh air to the company. But…..what if they aren’t as good as they seem? What if they don’t get on with the team? What if their ideas never actually see the light of day? Can I be bothered training up someone new? Maybe the candidate I already know is actually the best person for the job. Hmm, yes, maybe the familiar person is best – I’m used to their face, they fit in etc, etc.

This choice may, in fact, turn out to be the best choice but it is still an example of the mere exposure effect guiding someone’s behaviour rather than a fair and unbiased assessment of the evidence. Could the mere exposure effect explain seemingly baffling phenomena such as particular politicians becoming less reviled and more accepted the longer they are in office? Could it explain you humming along to a song you detest simply because it is constantly being played on the radio? Be aware of this in your own life – we all do it and it’s not necessarily the best way to make decisions as to what is good and valuable in our lives.


Are the ‘January blues’ a self-fulfilling prophecy?

January is not the kindest month but it doesn’t have to be as cruel as we are popularly led to believe (which is good news for those of us whose birthdays fall in this gloomy month – thank you mum and dad…) Research has shown that depression can be held at bay by engaging not only in physical activity but in a positive mindset, by simply not giving in to the feeling that ‘it’s all bad’.

Our fabulous textbook, ‘Psychology Sorted, Book 1‘ includes research which considers the role of biology – brain chemicals, specifically the neurotransmitter serotonin – in the experience of depression. Book 2 will look in even more detail at the etiology of depression (Abnormal Psychology) and the consequences of depression on health and well-being (Health Psychology). There is some validity to the idea that if you think you’re not going to enjoy something then you won’t enjoy it. So – here’s to January, the most rockin’, joy-giving month of the year! Just keep telling yourself that and you never know, you might start to believe it!


Is there ever any point in using a questionnaire to measure behaviour?

Bit of a controversial idea this one but I’m going to put this out there: is using a questionnaire to gather data at all helpful in the quest to measure behaviour? Lots of psychologists use this research method, probably because:

a) it’s quick to fill in (usually, although I wouldn’t recommend that you start filling in Eysenck’s personality inventory unless you have the whole day to spare!)

b) easy to produce and to replicate, particularly in these days of the world wide web and SurveyMonkey

c) quantitative data is generated which can be fashioned into handy little graphs and neat percentages

d) lots of people are aware of and regularly fill in questionnaires so there’s no danger of participants scratching their heads and muttering, ‘What is this strange and unusual item before me?

But the above reasons are not really enough to justify the use of a measure that is so darned unscientific, imprecise and prone to the mood of the person filling it in. Social desirability bias, outright lying, deluding oneself, trying to mess with the researcher’s results, not understanding or misinterpreting questions: none of these can ever be fully ruled out when analysing questionnaires.  I rest my case: questionnaires are a bit of a cop-out in terms of psychological research. Now, would you like to fill in a questionnaire to indicate your level of agreement with this opinion….

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Are your New Year’s resolutions doomed because of who you are romantically involved with?

Here’s an interesting article from Psychology Today which may make you question your relationship with your nearest and dearest: they could be the reason you don’t stick to the diet/keep going to the gym/stay off alcohol. Though, this could also be a great excuse for you giving up before you’ve even started. Willpower people! (I’m going veggie for January and, erm, that’s it – gotta be realistic about these things!)

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Fun Bowlby’s theory revision game!

It’s that time of year (January – yuck! to put it bluntly) when my students are about to embark on mock exams. How nice for them, just after Christmas/Hannukah/Winter Solstice celebrations. But, as I tell them, I don’t schedule these things, don’t blame me, so instead of sinking into gloom, I get them up on their feet, moving about the room and staring at each others’ backs. Erm, why? Because the following is a fun (!) revision game which will get them back into Bowlby.

Easy-peasy instructions:

1 Teacher cuts out and copies each of the Bowlby questions and answers (see below).

2 Each student is given one question from the list below. For a small group, give them two questions each. Each student also has the answer to someone else’s question stuck to their back (make sure they haven’t got the answer to their own question stuck to their back – doh!)

3 Having read their questions, the students walk around the room reading the various answers on the other students’ backs. When they think they have found the answer to their question they rip the answer off the back of their fellow student (gently: watch that pricey cashmere cardigan), hold it aloft and say ‘I’m a genius!’ And then we find out if they actually are when questions and answers are compared.

Here are the questions and answers for the Bowlby-answers-on-backs game:

What side of one of the oldest debates in Psychology does Bowlby’s theory give support to?


What is separation anxiety?

The fear of being left alone by your primary care-giver.

What did Bowlby call the schematic representations of the world that a child develops?

Internal working model.

What is interactional synchrony?

When parent and child match each other’s gestures.

What is maternal deprivation theory?

When a child is prevented from developing a bond with its mother.

How does the attachment figure act as a secure base for the child?

By providing security and protection for the child so that they are confident to explore the world.

What is a primary attachment figure?

The main carer for the child; the person who cares for the child physically and emotionally.

What social signals (‘releasers’) does a baby produce?

Smiling, babbling, grasping and crying.

What wider theory is Bowlby’s theory based on?

Evolutionary theory.

What did Bowlby think was a basic biological need?

A close relationship between the child and the mother.

What is stranger anxiety?

The child’s response when an unfamiliar person tries to communicate with them.

See the source image




Contrast two theories of altruism ERQ.

This is a useful task to get students to focus on the command term of ‘contrast’ which they tend to find quite tricky. I give them the essay that I’ve written and they have to highlight all of the phrases/sections that really address the ‘contrast’ aspect of the question i.e. those which explicitly point out the differences between theories/studies/evaluation issues. I also ask them to fill details in the right-hand column so that they know why the essay works. This is a good active learning task, particularly for year 13s and they seem to really engage with it. I have highlighted some examples of explicit ‘contrast’ terms below:

The two theories of prosocial behaviour that will be contrasted in this essay are reciprocal altruism which takes the biological approach and the negative-state relief model which views prosocial behaviour using the cognitive approach. Research into prosocial behaviour is problematic in that it is difficult for psychologists to operationalise prosocial behaviour as a variable and to measure it precisely because it is a very subjective variable which may differ from person to person. Investigating it from a biological perspective (RA) involves using different methodology to that of a cognitive approach (NSR).

Reciprocal altruism is a biological theory that is based on the principles of evolutionary psychology, namely that altruistic acts are performed in order to gain some future benefit from the recipient. The basis of reciprocal altruism is that the donor’s fitness is temporarily compromised in order to help another, fellow organism. This help is given with an expectation of future help from the recipient to the original donor. It is difficult to find empirical support for evolutionary theories – unlike lab-based NSR studies – so psychologists use the idea of ultimate causes to account for current behaviour that may be rooted in primeval instincts.

In contrast to reciprocal altruism, the negative-state relief model considers the extent to which personal discomfort at the sight of another’s distress motivates altruistic acts. The assumption of this model is that when someone witnesses another in need of help they experience a negative mood such as concern, anxiety, guilt. This negative mood may then prompt the individual to offer help in order to improve their own mood, so prompting an egoistic motivation to help rather than being a purely altruistic act. This is a cognitive approach to prosocial behaviour which does not assume evolutionary instincts as the basis to behaviour (which is RA), rather researchers can use the model to draw inferences about behaviour.

Reciprocal altruism is based on the idea that there is a reasonably good probability that two organisms (e.g. two unrelated individual human beings) will meet again at some point in the future, making reciprocity possible. The negative-state relief model, however, focuses on a here-and-now approach, with the individual seeking relief from negative feelings in the moment rather than for some future gain. This is a real point of contrast between the two theories as reciprocal altruism assumes that human beings are programmed to instinctively help someone in need as a way of storing up future favours whereas the negative-state relief model is possibly easier to relate to as it identifies egoistic motivation as a factor in prosocial behaviour. In other words, most people are unlikely to believe that by helping a stranger in the street they are protecting themselves against future misfortune: they may never see this person again, their paths may never cross.

Axelrod & Hamilton (1981) devised a computer-based model of chess games involving two players to test reciprocal altruism. Batson et al (1989) in contrast, used a lab experiment with some manipulation of naïve participants. Axelrod & Hamilton took the unusual route of analysing a range of strategies used in chess games that had been provided by economists, sociologists, political theorists and mathematicians. This contrasts to Batson et al’s more conventional use of a lab experiment involving 44 students taking an introductory psychology course at the University of Kansas. Batson et al’s sample represents a typical group of participants for psychological research whereas Axelrod & Hamilton’s represents a more diverse and less ethnocentric population.

In Batson et al half of the participants were told that they would be watching a video that would make them feel sad; the other half were told that the video would make them feel happy. The experimenter left the room and a confederate entered and asked the participant if they would be willing to give some time to help make phone calls related to blood donation. There were more offers of help from participants in the sad mood condition than in the positive mood condition. The researchers concluded that the participants in the sad condition may have helped in a bid to feel better (self-reward), thereby supporting the Negative State Relief model. Axelrod & Hamilton did not implement an independent variable, unlike Batson et al but their results, they claim, supported reciprocal altruism: the most successful way of achieving the highest average chess score was to employ a strategy known as tit for tat which may ultimately be more beneficial to an individual than pure self-serving acts.

There are limitations to each study, mainly linked to the operationalising of prosocial behaviour, for different reasons. Axelrod & Hamilton assumed that the players were drawing from evolutionary instincts to derive the most successful strategy but they may simply have been playing cautiously and using cognitive decision-making processes to plan their moves. This is the major flaw with reciprocal altruism: it is very difficult to use Axelrod & Hamilton’s research as evidence of a biological approach as chess is a highly skilled game at which players must constantly think, process information, form judgements and make decisions.

Batson et al’s research also has limitations but these are not at the level of the approach used (cognitive) but rather they are concerned with the issue of demand characteristics as a possible source of bias. The sample in this study were psychology students, (contrasted to Axelrod & Hamilton’s sample of experts) so they might have guessed the aim of the study or behaved in an artificial way due to the contrived nature of the procedure. It is also possible that individual differences affected the result (more likely with a small sample) i.e. some participants may be naturally less caring than other participants. It would be very difficult therefore, for the researchers to be confident that they had successfully operationalised the negative-state relief model in their study.

To conclude, the main points of contrast between the two theories is that reciprocal altruism assumes that people behave prosocially for an expected future benefit – and that they do so without real, conscious thought – whereas the negative-state relief model assumes that help is given in the moment for egoistic reasons. The main source of difficulty in accepting reciprocal altruism as a valid theory of prosocial behaviour is the paucity of evidence to support it whereas for the negative-state relief model the main problem concerns the operationalising of the negative state and its subsequent ego-driven motivation towards prosocial behaviour.

[1236 words]


Coming soon – ‘Psychology Sorted’, the book!

Hi Psychology teachers from all over the world! Yes, I know that summer is beckoning but wouldn’t you like a sneaky peak at a BRAND NEW RESOURCE that is due to be out around October 1st? Written by Laura Swash and Claire Neeson, this resource will solve all those pesky teaching dilemmas such as: ‘Which studies should I use for each topic and how can I re-use them to create less bulk for the students to learn?  How can I find a streamlined, easy, cross-referenced resource that’s user-friendly (for me and my students)?  What can I use for both teaching AND revision?’ Here is a sample for you to taste, to get the ‘flavour’ of what we’re doing. Add us to your school shopping list: #1 Order ‘Psychology Sorted’ next term.  Sorted!

Sample_Section 1_Bio. updated

Bio KS1 Fisher et al_2005