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Are brainy people lazy? "Need For Cognition" correlates with less physical activity

According to Hollywood stereotypes, there are the clever, nerdy young people who spend most of their time sitting around thinking and reading, and then there are the jocks – the sporty, athletic lot who prefer to do as little thinking and studying as possible. This seems like a gross over-simplification and yet a new study in the Journal of Health Psychology suggests there may be a kernel of truth to it.

The researchers, led by Todd McElroy at Florida Gulf Coast University, gave an online test of “Need For Cognition” to lots of students, to find 30 who expressed a particularly strong desire to think a lot and 30 others with a strong preference to avoid anything too mentally taxing. This test has been around for over three decades and it involves people rating how strongly they agree with items like “I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems” and “I only think as hard as I have to”. The 30 thinkers and 30 non-thinkers then wore an accelerometer on their wrist for 7 days, to provide a constant measure of how physically active they were during that time.

The thinkers were “far less active” Monday to Friday than the non-thinkers – a difference that the researchers described as “robust” and “highly significant” in statistical terms. At the weekends there was no difference in activity levels between the groups.

The weekday result makes sense in light of past research from the 90s that showed non-thinkers are more prone to boredom than thinkers, and find boredom more aversive. Perhaps non-thinkers resort to physical activity as a way to escape their inner worlds.

Remember this research featured just 60 people, and the results might not generalise to non-students or to other cultures. The lack of an effect over the weekend also awaits explanation. Nonetheless, given the adverse health effects of a sedentary life, McElroy and his colleagues said that more cerebral folk might want to take note, and they added that a quick visit to the gym is not enough – you need to raise your overall activity levels, maybe think about investing in a standing desk.

“Ultimately, an important factor that may help more thoughtful individuals combat their lower average activity levels is awareness,” the researchers said. “Awareness of their tendency to be less active, coupled with an awareness of the cost associated with inactivity, more thoughtful people may then choose to become more active throughout the day.”

The physical sacrifice of thinking: Investigating the relationship between thinking and physical activity in everyday life
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Toilet psychology: Why do men wash their hands less than women?

The spread of super-resistant bacteria means the science of hand-washing behaviour has become a serious business. Psychologists have stepped up to the plate. Bowl, I should say. By hiding in toilet cubicles for a new study, they’ve observed how long people spend using the loo, and how long they wash their hands for afterwards. That men usually wash their hands less conscientiously than women is a well-established finding. Thomas Berry and his colleagues wanted to find out more about the reasons for this gender difference.

For one day, between 10am and 4pm, a male researcher secreted himself inside one of three cubicles in a gents toilet facility at a US University. For optimal observational purposes he chose the cubicle adjacent to a row of three urinals. Nearby, in a similarly designed female toilet facility, a single female researcher positioned herself in one of the three cubicles available. Don’t worry, both researchers were provided with a “customised wooden bench” for comfort.

They were also equipped with stopwatches. The researchers used an “unobtrusive sight procedure” – that is, they spied on other visitors to the lavatories using the gaps beneath and by the side of the cubicle doors (for some reason, US toilet cubicles always have a gap of about a centimetre either side of the door). The researchers also used an “acoustic procedure”. That is, they listened to the visitors’ actions. The study authors explained:

“… research assistants recorded the facility [urinal or cubicle], and then started a stopwatch when the patron’s feet stood relatively still. For the men, the research assistants also recorded the orientation of the feet to gauge the patron’s use of the commode (i.e. as a commode or a urinal). When research assistants heard the flushing of the patron’s commode or urinal the stopwatch was turned off … and the duration of the restroom event was recorded.”

Similar procedures were followed for recording each visitor’s “hand washing event” if there was one. A clever twist was that for part of the study, the researchers put “out-of-order” signs over the men’s urinals. This was to see how much they’d hand wash if they were forced to urinate in a cubicle, rather than at a urinal.

The psychologists managed to observe the toilet behaviour of 34 women using cubicles; 32 men who used a cubicle to defecate; 40 men who had no choice but to use the cubicles for urinating (because of the out-of-order signs); and 64 men who used a urinal. The bare statistics show that the hand-washing rates for these four groups were 91 per cent, 87.5 per cent, 75 per cent and 59.4 per cent, respectively.

The difference in hand washing rates between women using a cubicle and men using a cubicle (for defecating) was not statistically significant. In contrast, both women using a cubicle, and men using a cubicle (for defecating), showed significantly higher hand-washing rates than men who used a urinal.

The data are somewhat compromised because, as the researchers delicately put it – the women’s “facility use is a constant (i.e., commode) and their behaviour (urination, defecation, or menstrual care) is confounded within the one environment.” However, taken together, the results suggest that the reason men wash their hands less than women overall, is not because of gender norms (i.e. men are less bothered about being clean), but because of the differences in the toilet environment and toilet behaviour for men and women. In fact, after using a toilet cubicle to defecate, men tended to wash their hands for longer than women (but remember we don’t know what the women had been doing).

This raises a question: do men wash their hands more thoroughly after using a toilet cubicle because of what they’ve been doing in there (i.e. defecating), or because cubicles are perceived to be more dirty? This is where the “out of order” signs on the urinals came into play. The researchers wanted to see what percentage of men would wash their hands after using a cubicle to urinate. Unfortunately the results were inconclusive – the hand-wash rate of 75 per cent after using cubicle for urinating did not differ significantly from the rates after using a cubicle for defecating, or from the rates after using a urinal.

However, another useful comparison was how long men washed their hands for after using a cubicle for defecating; after urinating in a cubicle; or after urinating in a urinal. This revealed that men’s duration of hand washing was more closely related to what they’d been doing, than to where they’d been doing it. This suggests public health notices need to use signage and other means to encourage men to wash their hands thoroughly regardless of what they’ve been doing.

In fact, based on this study, members of both genders need more encouragement to wash their hands more diligently. Looking at the median hand washing durations (17.5 seconds for men using cubicles for defecating; less than 10 seconds for women, and for men using urinals), both genders were well short of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that we should wash our hands for a minimum of 20 seconds to have any meaningful chance of removing harmful germs.

You might be wondering if it’s ethical for psychologists to lurk about in public loos observing people’s lavatorial habits. Berry’s team argue that it is, given the seriousness of the health issues involved, and so long as patron anonymity is protected, and that their “public-private life was not threatened or intruded upon”.


Thomas D. Berry, Daniel R. Mitteer, and Angela K. Fournier (2014). Examining Hand-Washing Rates and Durations in Public Restrooms: A Study of Gender Differences Via Personal, Environmental, and Behavioral Determinants. DOI: 10.1177/0013916514527590

Further reading
For The Psychologist magazine, Nick Haslam argues that psychologists should stop averting their eyes from the bathroom.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Why interviewers rate anxious candidates harshly, and what you can do about it

As if interviews weren’t nerve-wracking enough as it is, prior research has shown that interviewers tend to rate anxious candidates harshly. This happens even when the anxious candidates are well-qualified to do the job, and even though their interview anxiety really ought to be irrelevant to the recruitment decision.

Of course, learning that your anxiety is going to count against you will only add to the woes of the many people who find interviews terrifying. Thankfully a new study in the Journal of Business Psychology brings some useful and potentially comforting news. The research – the first to investigate the behavioural signs of interview anxiety – finds that interviewers are largely oblivious to nervous tics, such as shaky hands or nervous laughter. Rather, interviewers’ negative performance judgments are based on their perception that nervous candidates are less assertive and less warm. Knowing this, anxious people should be able to practice and prepare in a way that counters such prejudices.

The findings are based on mock interviews involving 119 undergrad students who were preparing to go on job placements during their studies. Each student was interviewed by one of 18 interviewers who work for the Canadian Co-op and Career Services that runs job placements for students, and the students and interviewers were instructed to treat the experience as if it were a real interview for one of the candidates’ hoped-for placement positions.

The interviews took about 10 minutes each. Afterwards the students rated how anxious they had felt, and the interviewers rated how anxious they perceived the students to be, and how well they felt they had performed. Meanwhile, the interviews were filmed and teams of raters coded the students’ body language, speech rate, laughter and rated their personalities on a number of different traits.

Of the many body language and speech cues that the researchers looked at, only a few were related weakly to the students’ self-reported feelings of anxiety – making fewer hand gestures, nodding less, pausing longer before answering and speaking more slowly. The paucity and modest relevance of the behavioural cues is likely because anxiety can manifest in very different ways in different people – one person might compensate by being quiet, still and hesitant while another person might be fidgety and talk fast and loose.

Three behavioural cues were weakly related to the interviewers’ perceptions of the students’ anxiety – licking or biting of the lips, body shifts and slower speech rate. This means the only nervous tic that interviewers accurately interpreted as a sign of anxiety was slower speech. Extensive preparation of answers should be a simple way for candidates to combat this issue.

In contrast, the character vibes given off by the students (as rated by the judges coding the videos) were more strongly and consistently related to the students’ feelings of anxiety and to the interviewers’ perceptions of their anxiety. Essentially, those students who came over as less warm and less assertive tended to be perceived as more anxious, and vice versa. Moreover, these two key traits of warmth and assertiveness seemed to explain why the interviewers tended to give poorer performance scores to those students they perceived to be anxious.

The researchers said this result has “great implications” for job candidates. “Often interviewees are worried that they are engaging in nervous tics that are revealing of their anxiety,” they explained, “when in fact the impression that they convey of themselves as assertive (or not) appears to be more indicative of their anxiety.” In other words, anxious interviewees needn’t worry too much about any little nervous tics they might have, and should focus instead on the larger impression they make – by learning to come over as assertive and friendly, it is likely they will conceal their anxiety and receive a fairer appraisal from the interviewers.


Feiler, A., Powell, D. (2016). Behavioral Expression of Job Interview Anxiety Journal of Business and Psychology, 31 (1), 155-171 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-015-9403-z

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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How our collective memory of 1066 could be souring Anglo-French relations

Anglo-Saxon troops confront the invaders
No doubt you’ve noticed that the Entente Cordiale has been looking a little strained lately. That’s mostly due to contemporary European politics and economics. Isn’t it? We can’t blame 1066. Can we?

In fact, British attitudes towards the French today probably aren’t helped by memories and myths surrounding the Norman Conquest. This may seem like an odd claim, but a timely and intriguing new study focuses on the Norman Conquest of Britain as an example of a “distant memory” that could be affecting contemporary attitudes towards the French specifically, and towards immigrants more generally. Where psychologists usually study short-term or autobiographical memory in individuals, this study is an academic investigation of our collective or cultural memory.

Siobhan Brownlie‘s data comes from two main sources: a search of Norman Conquest mentions in ten British newspapers between 2005 and 2008 (she found 807 relevant articles) and a survey of 2,179 members of the UK population.

Our collective memory of 1066 is salient – 79 per cent of survey participants said the conquest was important – but it is also distorted by mythology. For example, many of us identity with the pre-invasion “Anglo-Saxon” population (DNA research exposes the fallacy of this belief), yet paradoxically we also see the Norman invasion and Norman buildings as part of our collective British identity. Many of us (18 per cent in the survey) see the Norman invaders as French, yet Normandy at the time was an independent territory with a distinct identity.

Unlike recent trauma memories, which are overwhelmingly negative, Brownlie said the emotional quality of distant memories, even for violent events, is far more flexible and varied. Forty-nine per cent of those surveyed had a neutral attitude towards the Norman invasion. Newspaper coverage also demonstrated ambivalence. Sometimes the Conquest was portrayed negatively, alongside other violent dates; and right-wing papers implied we shouldn’t lose control of immigration as we did in 1066. Yet other times, 1066 was portrayed proudly as a foundation date of British identity.

What about the impact on contemporary attitudes? Of those survey participants (6 per cent) who had a negative attitude towards the Norman Conquest, 25 per cent said this contributed to their negative feelings towards the French today. Brownlie acknowledged this seems to suggest that the influence of 1066-attitudes on contemporary views is a “marginal phenomenon”. However, she argued that those raw stats expose only the extent to which the influence is consciously recognised.

From a negative perspective, Brownlie sees echoes of the Norman conquest in British National Party literature. Where medieval chroniclers of the Conquest wrote about England becoming a “dwelling-place of foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood,” the BNP literature says similarly: “The white working class has been abandoned, replaced, and displaced by a new ethnic electoral power base.”

But memories of the Norman Conquest can also be invoked for positive symbolism. The monument at the British war cemetery in Bayeux says in Latin: “We who were conquered by William have liberated the homeland of the conqueror” (again we find the myths about our Anglo-Saxon roots and the Frenchness of the Normans, but this time in a positive message).

“Old enemies can become friends and allies,” Brownlie writes. “This kind of message with specific reference to the Norman Conquest is found in friendly political speeches by French and British politicians and dignitaries … “.

“In sum,” Brownlie concludes, “from the BNP manifesto to the Second World War British cemetery in Bayeux, the study shows that memory of the distant past matters today, in profound and sometimes surprising ways.”

Brownlie, S. (2011). Does memory of the distant past matter? Remediating the Norman Conquest. Memory Studies DOI: 10.1177/1750698011426358

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

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Why job interviewers should focus on the candidates, not selling their organisation

It’s hard to find the best person for the job through an interview. New research uncovers part of the problem: judging a candidate’s calibre becomes trickier when we’re also trying to sell them the benefits of joining the organisation.

In an initial study, participants were asked to interview a person (another participant) who was acting as an applicant for a fictional position. Half the interviewers were told their priority was to get a good sense of the applicant, while the rest had to prioritise attracting the candidate to the vacant position. Following the interview, the interviewer participants then had to judge the applicant’s character by rating their Core Self Evaluation (CSE), a measure of their self-esteem and belief in their own competence, which is reliably predictive of job performance. Which set of interviewers ought to do a better job?

Researchers Jennifer Marr and Dan Cable tackled this topic because two fields of psychology make competing claims. Research on automatic processing suggests that when we apply explicit, rational processes to judgments that rely on quick intuition, we only muddy the water, or worse, become so self-conscious that we choke under pressure. We already know that some elements of applicant evaluation are fast – see this piece, so maybe we make our best judgments when we’re less concerned about making them? On the other hand, the theory of motivated cognition argues that when insufficiently focused we become vulnerable to biases or even blind to the obvious, as shown in the now-classic inattentional blindness experiments where focus on one task (counting basketball passes) makes it hard to spot salient events like the appearance of someone in an ape suit.

The new findings back the motivated cognition account – participants asked to entice the applicant were poorer judges of character than those explicitly asked to evaluate them. A follow-up field study found similar effects in genuine interviews within two samples: applicants to an MBA program and teachers applying for school assignments. In both samples, interviewees rated as having high CSE were more likely to go onto success – job offers for MBAs or “above and beyond” citizenship behaviours by the teachers – but only when the ratings came from interviewers who reported having a strong focus on evaluation. Those who reported giving more attention to selling the role produced CSE estimates that didn’t predict future success.

The authors note in their conclusion that “interviewers who focused only on evaluating applicants actually believed they were less able to select the best applicants than those who adopted a selling focus.” In fact the reverse was true, and the risk goes the other way: when we focus too much on soliciting applicants, we can miss the gorilla in the room: that they simply aren’t up to snuff.


Marr, J., Cable, D. (2013). Do Interviewers Sell Themselves Short? The Effects of Selling Orientation on Interviewers’ Judgments Academy of Management Journal, 57 (3), 624-651 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0504

–further reading–
Experienced job interviewers are no better than novices at spotting lying candidates
Mind where you sit – how being in the middle is associated with superior performance

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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