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Archive for October 2009

Resilience Or PTSD – Regulating Emotion After Sexual Assault

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After exposure to extreme life stresses, what distinguishes the individuals who do and do not develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

A new (f)MRI study suggests that it has something to do with the way that we control the activity of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region thought to orchestrate our thoughts and actions.

Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine examined women who had been the victims of violent sexual assault, some of whom developed PTSD and others who did not develop any serious emotional symptoms afterwards. Using a brain imaging technique, they evaluated the ability of these women to voluntarily modify their own responses to unpleasant emotional stimuli and found that it was the trauma history itself, not how well they endured this sort of trauma, that influenced their ability to dampen subsequent emotional responses.

Surprisingly, however, the ability of the subjects to amplify their emotional responses to unpleasant stimuli was related to psychological outcome after the sexual assault. The resilient individuals, that is, those who endured sexual assault without developing emotional symptoms, were able to enhance the activation of emotional brain circuitry in response to unpleasant stimuli more than either those with PTSD or healthy controls who had never experienced a serious sexual assault.

Corresponding author Dr. Antonia New explained the findings: “This raises the possibility that the ability to focus on negative emotions permits the engagement of cognitive strategies for extinguishing negative emotional responses, and that this ability might be related to resilience. This is important, since it has implications for how we might enhance resilience.”

These findings suggest that exposure to extremely stressful situations may leave an “emotional scar” that may influence the capacity to be resilient to the impact of subsequent stressors, even when one does not develop PTSD. “These data seem to support an idea that has emerged from clinical descriptions of resilient people, i.e., that people who are resilient are able to be flexible in the way that they respond to changing emotional contexts. It would be helpful to know how we can enhance the flexible activation of these prefrontal cortex networks in people with compromised resilience,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Dr. New agrees, adding that “perhaps the enrichment of the broad capacity to tolerate negative emotional experiences might be helpful in promoting resilience. Further work needs to be done on whether the feature of this capacity that relates to resilience is about the ability to tolerate one’s one responses, or whether it is the ability to respond distress in others.”

Biological Psychiatry, Volume 66, Issue 7, Pages 656-664
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Deliberate Emotion Regulation in Resilience and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
A. New, J. Fan, J. Murrough, X. Liu, R. Liebman, K. Guise, C. Tang, D. Charney
Background Sexual violence is an important public health problem in the United States, with 13% to 26% of women reporting a history of sexual assault. While unfortunately common, there is substantial individual variability in response to sexual assault. Approximately half of rape victims develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while others develop no psychopathology (e.g., trauma-exposed non-PTSD). In this project, we examined the neural mechanisms underlying differences in response to sexual violence, focusing specifically on the deliberate modification of emotional responses to negative stimuli.
Methods Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) response, we examined the neural circuitry underlying effortful modification of emotional responses to negative pictures in 42 women: 14 with PTSD after sexual trauma, 14 with no psychiatric diagnosis after sexual trauma, and 14 nontraumatized control subjects.
Results In response to deliberate attempts to downregulate emotional responses, nontraumatized healthy control subjects were more successful than either trauma-exposed group (PTSD or non-PTSD) in downregulating responses to the negative pictures as measured by subjective rating and BOLD response in regions of prefrontal cortex (PFC). In contrast, after deliberate attempts to upregulate emotional responses, regions of PFC were activated by trauma-exposed non-PTSD subjects more than by healthy control subjects or PTSD subjects.
Conclusions Successful downregulation of emotional responses to negative stimuli appears to be impaired by trauma exposure. In contrast, the ability to upregulate emotional responses to negative stimuli may be a protective factor in the face of trauma exposure and associated with resilience.
Key Words: Alexithymia, PTSD, resilience, sexual assault, trauma

Written by huehueteotl

October 23, 2009 at 7:33 am

Posted in Neuroscience

The Fear Of Being Laughed At: When It Becomes A Phobia

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Laughter is an emotional expression that is innate in human beings. This means laughing at others is also believed to be a universal phenomenon. However, the fear of being laughed at causes some people enormous problems in their social lives. This is known as gelotophobia, a disorder that affects people in all cultures alike.

What is the difference between a shy person and another who suffers from gelotophobia? One of the aims of a study published recently in the scientific journal Humor, which was led by a team from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, with the participation of researchers from 73 other countries, was to find out if there is a valid and reliable way of evaluating the fear of being laughed at within different cultures.

“People laugh at others for many different reasons”, Victor Rubio, a psychologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid and one of the Spanish researchers taking part in the study, tells SINC.

“This causes an anxiety or fear response in the person affected, leading them to avoid situations in which such circumstances may arise, and this may even become a problem that impacts on their social life”, explains the expert.

The lead authors of the research study commissioned 93 scientists to use a questionnaire (translated into 42 languages) on a sample of 22,610 people in order to find out whether they suffered from gelotophobia, which comes from the Greek gelos, ‘laugh’, and phobos, ‘fear’.

“Our study makes it possible to draw a clear distinction between people who suffer from this phobia and those who do not, as well as showing the scale of cultural differences, which are so important in any possible psychological treatment”, says Rubio.

Spain, inclined towards the insecurity pole

This phobia was discussed for the first time in Spain at the ninth International Summer School and Symposium on Humour and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications, held at the University of Granada last summer.

According to the experts, people can be classified within two opposite poles involved in the fear of being laughed at – the ‘insecurity reaction’ dimension (trying to hide one’s lack of self-confidence from others, or believing that one is involuntarily funny) and ‘avoidance reactions’, whereby one avoids situations in which one has been laughed at, and the dimension of low-high tendencies to suspect that if others are laughing, they are laughing at you.

Although this phenomenon is shared by all cultures, the study shows there are certain differences. Countries such as Turkmenistan and Cambodia are represented within the first dimension of insecurity reactions, while people in Iraq, Egypt and Jordan are much more likely to avoid situations in which they have been laughed at. Spain is “slightly inclined towards the insecurity pole”.

Another strange result is that people in Finland are the least likely to believe that if people laugh in their presence they are laughing at them (8.5%), while 80% of people in Thailand believe this to be the case.

Humor – International Journal of Humor Research. Band 21, Heft 1, Seiten 47–67, ISSN (Online) 1613-3722, ISSN (Print) 0933-1719, DOI: 10.1515/HUMOR.2008.002, February 2008
The fear of being laughed at: Individual and group differences in Gelotophobia.
Willibald Ruch, René T. Proyer


Single case studies led to the discovery and phenomenological description of Gelotophobia and its definition as the pathological fear of appearing to social partners as a ridiculous object (Titze 1995, 1996, 1997). The aim of the present study is to empirically examine the core assumptions about the fear of being laughed at in a sample comprising a total of 863 clinical and non-clinical participants. Discriminant function analysis yielded that gelotophobes can be separated from other shame-based neurotics, non-shame-based neurotics, and controls. Separation was best for statements specifically describing the gelotophobic symptomatology and less potent for more general questions describing socially avoidant behaviors. Factor analysis demonstrates that while Gelotophobia is composed of a set of correlated elements in homogenous samples, overall the concept is best conceptualized as unidimensional. Predicted and actual group membership converged well in a cross-classification (approximately 69% of correctly classified cases). Overall, it can be concluded that the fear of being laughed at varies tremendously among adults and might hold a key to understanding certain forms of humorlessness.

Keywords bullying; Gelotophobia; laughter; mobbing; ridicule.

Written by huehueteotl

October 19, 2009 at 7:47 am

Posted in Psychology

Boss Feels Inadequate: Incompetence and Aggression

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Bosses who are in over their heads are more likely to bully subordinates. That’s because feelings of inadequacy trigger them to lash out at those around them, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.

In a new twist on the adage “power corrupts,” researchers at UC Berkeley and USC have found a direct link among supervisors and upper management between self-perceived incompetence and aggression. The findings, gleaned from four separate studies, are published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

With more than one-third of American workers reporting that their bosses have sabotaged, yelled at or belittled them, the new study challenges previous assumptions that abusive bosses are solely driven by ambition and the need to hold onto their power.

“By showing when and why power leads to aggression, these findings are highly relevant as abusive supervision is such a pervasive problem in society,” said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at USC and lead author of the study.

During role-playing sessions, study participants who felt their egos were under threat would go so far as to needlessly sabotage an underling’s chances of winning money. In another test, participants who felt inadequate would request that a subordinate who gave a wrong answer to a test be notified by a loud obnoxious horn, even though they had the option of choosing silence or a quiet sound.

Researchers did not rate participants by an objective measure of competency, but by their self-reported level of competency. This allowed them to investigate how feelings of self-worth are tied to workplace behavior.

“Incompetence alone doesn’t lead to aggression,” said Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study. “It’s the combination of having a high-power role and fearing that one is not up to the task that causes power holders to lash out. And our data suggest it’s ultimately about self-worth.”

Alternately, Chen said, participants who got ego boosts by scoring high in a leadership aptitude test or who recalled an incident or principle that made them feel good about themselves did not react with aggression.

That said, flattery may not be the best way to soothe a savage boss, the study points out: “It is both interesting and ironic to note that such flattery, although perhaps affirming to the ego, may contribute to the incompetent power holder’s ultimate demise — by causing the power holder to lose touch with reality,” the study concludes.

Psychological Science, 2009; DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02452.x
When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression.
Nathanael J. Fast 1 and Serena Chen 2
1 Department of Management and Organization, University of Southern California, and 2 Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
Address correspondence to Nathanael J. Fast, Department of Management and Organization, University of Southern California, 701 Exposition Blvd., HOH 404, Los Angeles, CA 90089, e-mail:
Copyright © 2009 Association for Psychological Science

ABSTRACT—When and why do power holders seek to harm other people? The present research examined the idea that aggression among the powerful is often the result of a threatened ego. Four studies demonstrated that individuals with power become aggressive when they feel incompetent in the domain of power. Regardless of whether power was measured in the workplace (Studies 1 and 4), manipulated via role recall (Study 2), or assigned in the laboratory (Study 3), it was associated with heightened aggression when paired with a lack of self-perceived competence. As hypothesized, this aggression appeared to be driven by ego threat: Aggressiveness was eliminated among participants whose sense of self-worth was boosted (Studies 3 and 4). Taken together, these findings suggest that (a) power paired with self-perceived incompetence leads to aggression, and (b) this aggressive response is driven by feelings of ego defensiveness. Implications for research on power, competence, and aggression are discussed.

Written by huehueteotl

October 16, 2009 at 7:43 am

Posted in Psychology

Indulgence Or Self-Control? Snack Choice Not As Free As We Think

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If you think choosing between a candy bar and healthful snack is totally a matter of free will, think again. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that the choices we make to indulge ourselves or exercise self-control depend on how the choices are presented.


Author Juliano Laran (University of Miami) tested subjects to determine how certain words and concepts affected consumers’ decisions for self-control or indulgence. He found that consumer choices were affected by the actions most recently suggested to them by certain key words.

The tests involved a word-scramble containing words that suggested either indulgence (“weight”) or self-control (“delicious”). “Participants who unscrambled sentences associated with self-control were more likely to choose a healthy snack (a granola bar) to be consumed right now, but an indulgent snack (a chocolate bar) to be consumed in the future,” writes Laran. Participants who unscrambled sentences associated with indulgence were more likely to choose an indulgent snack to be consumed right now but a healthy snack to be consumed in the future.”

A second study examined the same phenomenon, but it involved information associated with saving versus spending money. Again, when information about saving money was active (participants had been exposed to words associated with saving money), participants said that they imagined themselves trying to save money while shopping in the present, but spending a lot of money while shopping in the future. When words about spending money were suggested, the study showed the opposite result.

“The type of information (self-control or indulgence) that is currently active may influence a decision for the future,” write Laran. “When information about self-control (indulgence) is currently active, decisions for the present will be virtuous (indulgent), while decisions for the future will be indulgent (virtuous). This result arises from people’s need to balance behaviors performed in the present with behaviors that will be performed in the future.”

Both marketers and consumers can benefit from being aware of these effects, Laran concludes.

Journal of Consumer Research, 2009; 090924115652049 DOI: 10.1086/648380
Choosing Your Future: Temporal Distance and the Balance between Self‐Control and Indulgence

Juliano Laran

This article investigates how temporal distance influences consumers’ self‐control. We demonstrate that self‐control is dependent on the content of currently active information in decisions for the future. When indulgence information is currently active, decisions for the future tend to be oriented toward self‐control. When self‐control information is currently active, decisions for the future tend to be oriented toward indulgence. In four experiments investigating two self‐control domains (healthy eating and saving money), we find evidence for an information activation/inhibition account of the influence of temporal distance on self‐control decisions.

Written by huehueteotl

October 15, 2009 at 7:50 am

Posted in Psychology

Believe It Or Not – Same Areas In The Brain

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When it comes to religion, believers and nonbelievers appear to think very differently. But at the level of the brain, is believing in God different from believing that the sun is a star or that 4 is an even number?

While religious faith remains one of the most significant features of human life, little is known about its relationship to ordinary belief. Nor is it known whether religious believers differ from nonbelievers in how they evaluate statements of fact.

In the first neuroimaging study to systematically compare religious faith with ordinary cognition, UCLA and University of Southern California researchers have found that while the human brain responds very differently to religious and nonreligious propositions, the process of believing or disbelieving a statement, whether religious or not, seems to be governed by the same areas in the brain.

The study also found that devout Christians and nonbelievers use the same brain regions to judge the truth of religious and nonreligious propositions. The results, the study authors say, represent a critical advance in the psychology of religion. The paper appears Sept. 30 in the journal PLoS One.

Sam Harris, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation in the lab of Mark Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, was a lead author on the study. Jonas Kaplan, a research assistant professor at the USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, was the co-lead author.

The study involved 30 adults — 15 committed Christians and 15 nonbelievers — who underwent three functional MRI (fMRI) scans while evaluating religious and nonreligious statements as “true” or “false.” The statements were designed to produce near perfect agreement between the two groups during nonreligious trials (e.g., “Eagles really exist”) and near perfect disagreement during religious trials (e.g., “Angels really exist”).

Contrasting belief and disbelief yielded increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), an area of the brain thought to be involved in reward and in judgments of self-relevance.

“This region showed greater activity whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc., or statements about ordinary facts,” the authors said.

The case for belief being content-independent was further bolstered by the fact that while the trial statements accepted by religious believers were rejected by nonbelievers, and vice versa, the brains of both showed the same pattern of activity for belief and disbelief.

A comparison of all religious with all nonreligious statements suggested that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict in both believers and nonbelievers, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks. Activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with cognitive conflict and uncertainty, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements.

The study raises the possibility that the differences between belief and disbelief may one day be reliably distinguished by neuroimaging techniques.

“Despite vast differences in the underlying processing responsible for religious and nonreligious modes of thought,” the authors write, “the distinction between believing and disbelieving a proposition appears to transcend content. These results may have many areas of application — ranging from the neuropsychology of religion, to the use of ‘belief-detection’ as a surrogate for ‘lie-detection,’ to understanding how the practice of science itself, and truth-claims generally, emerge from the biology of the human brain.”

Harris is the author of two New York Times best-sellers, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which have been published in more than 15 languages, and is the co-founder and CEO of the The Reason Project. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and many other journals.
The Neural PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007272
Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief.
Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. (2009)
Background While religious faith remains one of the most significant features of human life, little is known about its relationship to ordinary belief at the level of the brain. Nor is it known whether religious believers and nonbelievers differ in how they evaluate statements of fact. Our lab previously has used functional neuroimaging to study belief as a general mode of cognition, and others have looked specifically at religious belief. However, no research has compared these two states of mind directly.
Methodology/Principal Findings We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure signal changes in the brains of thirty subjects—fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers—as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. For both groups, and in both categories of stimuli, belief (judgments of “true” vs judgments of “false”) was associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area important for self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behavior. This region showed greater signal whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc. or statements about ordinary facts. A comparison of both stimulus categories suggests that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks.
Conclusions/Significance While religious and nonreligious thinking differentially engage broad regions of the frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobes, the difference between belief and disbelief appears to be content-independent. Our study compares religious thinking with ordinary cognition and, as such, constitutes a step toward developing a neuropsychology of religion. However, these findings may also further our understanding of how the brain accepts statements of all kinds to be valid descriptions of the world.

Written by huehueteotl

October 12, 2009 at 7:45 am

Posted in Neuroscience

Body Posture Affects Self-Evaluation

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Sitting up straight in your chair isn’t just good for your posture – it also gives you more confidence in your own thoughts, according to a new study.

Researchers found that people who were told to sit up straight were more likely to believe thoughts they wrote down while in that posture concerning whether they were qualified for a job.

On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept these written-down feelings about their own qualifications.

The results show how our body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“Most of us were taught that sitting up straight gives a good impression to other people,” Petty said. “But it turns out that our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up convincing yourself by the posture you’re in.”

Petty conducted the study with Pablo Briñol, a former postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State now at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, and Benjamin Wagner, a current graduate student at Ohio State. The research appears in the October 2009 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.

The study included 71 students at Ohio State. When they entered the lab for the experiment, the participants were told they would be taking part in two separate studies at the same time, one organized by the business school and one by the arts school.

They were told the arts study was examining factors contributing to people’s acting abilities, in this case, the ability to maintain a specific posture while engaging in other activities. They were seated at a computer terminal and instructed to either “sit up straight” and “push out [their] chest]” or “sit slouched forward” with their “face looking at [their] knees.”

While in one of these positions, students participated in the business study, which supposedly investigated factors contributing to job satisfaction and professional performance.

While holding their posture, students listed either three positive or three negative personal traits relating to future professional performance on the job.

After completing this task, the students took a survey in which they rated themselves on how well they would do as a future professional employee.

The results were striking.

How the students rated themselves as future professionals depended on which posture they held as they wrote the positive or negative traits.

Students who held the upright, confident posture were much more likely to rate themselves in line with the positive or negative traits they wrote down.

In other words, if they wrote positive traits about themselves, they rated themselves more highly, and if they wrote negative traits about themselves, they rated themselves lower.

“Their confident, upright posture gave them more confidence in their own thoughts, whether they were positive or negative,” Petty said.

However, students who assumed the slumped over, less confident posture, didn’t seem convinced by their own thoughts – their ratings didn’t differ much regardless of whether they wrote positive or negative things about themselves.

The end result of this was that when students wrote positive thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more highly when in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to confidence in the positive thoughts.

However, when students wrote negative thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more negatively in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to more confidence in their negative thoughts.

Petty emphasized that while students were told to sit up straight or to slump down, the researchers did not use the words “confident” or “doubt” in the instructions or gave any indication about how the posture was supposed to make them feel.

In a separate experiment, the researchers repeated the same scenario with a different group of students, but asked them a series of questions afterwards about how they felt during the course of the study.

“These participants didn’t report feeling more confident in the upright position than they did in the slouched position, even though those in the upright position did report more confidence in the thoughts they generated,” Petty said.

That suggests people’s thoughts are influenced by their posture, even though they don’t realize that is what’s happening.

“People assume their confidence is coming from their own thoughts. They don’t realize their posture is affecting how much they believe in what they’re thinking,” he said.

“If they did realize that, posture wouldn’t have such an effect.”

This research extends a 2003 study by Petty and Briñol which found similar results for head nodding. In that case, people had more confidence in thoughts they generated when they nodded their head up and down compared to when they shook their head from side to side.

However, Petty noted that body posture is a static pose compared to head nodding, and probably more natural and easy to use in day-to-day life.

“Sitting up straight is something you can train yourself to do, and it has psychological benefits – as long as you generally have positive thoughts,” he said.

For example, students are often told when taking a multiple-choice test that if they’re not absolutely sure of the answer, their first best guess is more often correct.

“If a student is sitting up straight, he may be more likely to believe his first answer. But if he is slumped down, he may change it and end up not performing as well on the test,” he said.

European Journal of Social Psychology
Volume 39, Issue 6, Date: October 2009, Pages: 1053-1064 doi: 10.1002/ejsp.607
Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach.
Pablo Briñol 1 *, Richard E. Petty 2, Benjamin Wagner 2
1Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Madrid, Spain
2Ohio State University, Columbus, USA
email: Pablo Briñol (

*Correspondence to Pablo Briñol, Department of Psychology, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Campus de Cantoblanco, Carretera Colmenar, Km. 15, Madrid 28049, Spain.

AbstractBuilding on the notion of embodied attitudes, we examined how body postures can influence self-evaluations by affecting thought confidence, a meta-cognitive process. Specifically, participants were asked to think about and write down their best or worse qualities while they were sitting down with their back erect and pushing their chest out (confident posture) or slouched forward with their back curved (doubtful posture). Then, participants completed a number of measures and reported their self-evaluations. In line with the self-validation hypothesis, we predicted and found that the effect of the direction of thoughts (positive/negative) on self-related attitudes was significantly greater when participants wrote their thoughts in the confident than in the doubtful posture. These postures did not influence the number or quality of thoughts listed, but did have an impact on the confidence with which people held their thoughts. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Written by huehueteotl

October 8, 2009 at 7:47 am

Posted in Psychology