Category Archives: Social psychology

It is better to give than to receive

Is it better to give than to receive?(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

Is it better to give than to receive?
(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

This particular idiom has its origins from the Bible but despite these religious beginnings many people, including those without religious beliefs, use the saying, ‘it is better to give than to receive’. The phrase itself is pretty self-explanatory and is often thrown about at Christmas time, particularly to small children, to emphasise the importance of giving presents rather than trying to ensure that they get everything they want on their Christmas list. I can still vividly remember the first time I experienced the truth behind this saying. It was a Christmas many years ago and I had made my mum what I believed to be a truly incredible Christmas present, whether or not it was is beside the point! Had I been given the choice between giving it to her and receiving my present I would have gone for the former, no questions asked (a sentiment nicely portrayed in last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert).

The question of interest here is whether there is any evidence to show that we do in fact feel better when giving than receiving and if so, why that might be. A recent study by Aknin, Hamlin and Dunn looked at these pro-social acts in toddlers. They did indeed find that toddlers were happier when giving treats to others rather than receiving the treats, which extended to costly giving when they forfeited their own treat. The authors suggest that this emotionally rewarding behaviour is a proximate mechanism for human co-operation in the groups that we are part of.

An earlier study looked at the effect of income on happiness and found that how we spend our money could be at least as important as our income itself. Dunn, Aknin and Norton found that, regardless of income, spending more of it on others made you feel happier and that people randomly assigned to spend money on others felt happier than those who were assigned to spend it on themselves. So, not only do we feel happier when we give things rather than receiving them but this appears to start at a young age, possibly as a way of maintaining human co-operation.

However, this is assuming that the phrase means ‘better’ is equivalent to ‘happier’ though this is perhaps up for interpretation. Some people use the word in this context to mean virtuous and morally good which in turn seems to imply that you’re not doing it for your own (selfish) benefit of feeling happier. Our preference to give presents and the like, instead of receive them, is because this behaviour makes us feel happy which isn’t virtuous in the traditional sense as it’s for our own benefit. So I do agree with this phrase, that it is better to give than to receive, even if that’s only because it will make us feel happier by doing so.

Beauty is only skin deep


Is beauty really skin deep?

‘Beauty is only skin deep’ is an idiom used to imply that a person’s character is more important than their physical appearance. The phrase also suggests that beauty refers to physical attractiveness alone, which is only skin deep, and that someone’s beauty and character are not related.Few people would deny that physical attractiveness has a role to play in the early stages of a relationship or just in initial attraction. The importance of physical attractiveness in new relationships has been demonstrated by Walster et al. (1966). They randomly paired men and women for a blind date and measured intelligence, various personality factors and physical attractiveness (decided by four independent judges). They found that only physical attractiveness predicted whether they would want to go out on a second date.

However, this is only in the early stages of meeting someone in which, you could argue, that physical attractiveness is all you can really tell about a person. So does this feature of ourselves also determine how attractive we are and how we are perceived after we’ve known someone for a long time. McNulkty et al. (2008) found that physical attractiveness does also predict the success of marriages to a certain extent. Husbands, who were considered more physically attractive than their wives, reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. Also, relative differences between partners’ levels of attractiveness was important in predicting marital behaviour whereby when the wife was more attractive, both spouses behaved more positively though when the husband was more attractive, they both behaved more negatively in their relationships. This suggests that physical attractiveness is not only important in predicting the success of new relationships but that relative physical attractiveness also plays a role in the success of long-term relationships.

In some ways this is contrary to what we like to believe about ourselves, that we’re not shallow and don’t continue to judge people based on their physical attractiveness after getting to know them. A possible explanation for the continued use of physical attractiveness as an important attribute in judging someone’s beauty is the halo effect. Edward Thorndike coined the term, the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias whereby our judgment of a person’s character can be influenced, unconsciously, by other irrelevant attributes of that person. There are many examples of this robust effect; one particularly relevant example is a study by Landy and Sigall (1974).

They showed that female student’s essays were judged, by male students, to be of a higher quality when the essay included a photo showing the essay writer to be physically attractive rather than unattractive. Perhaps we unconsciously judge people to be nicer, as well as better essay writers, when we consider them to be more physically attractive.

Despite all this, a person’s character does seem to play a role in how attractive we perceive them to be though maybe this is only in extreme cases. If you have a very unpleasant character then no matter how physically attractive you are, the halo effect may be unable to influence someone into believing you’re nice. Physical attractiveness is only skin deep but it does seem to affect our opinion on someone’s inner beauty- so maybe beauty is not as skin deep as we thought.

Put on a brave face

‘Put on a brave face’, a phrase often used to get someone to put up a strong front in a difficult situation. On hearing such words, it often seems like a piece of useless advice – is it even possible to put on a brave face when you feel so nervous?

Everybody needs to put a brave face on sometimes… (Attribution: Gage Skidmore)

For many years there has been a debate as to the answer of the question: do you run (from a bear) because you are afraid or are you afraid because you run? In 1884, William James argued for the latter, that emotion (fear) is the perception of bodily sensations (running away). Stanley Schachter developed this idea further proposing that the emotion we feel is determined by the cognitive interpretation of our bodily reaction. Schachter and Singer (1962) conducted an experiment which clearly demonstrated this idea. Participants for this study were under the pretence of testing the effect of a new drug on vision when in fact they were being injected with adrenaline, not some new vitamin. They were divided into three groups; the first group were informed of the likely effects of the ‘vitamin’, the second were misinformed of the effects and the third group were told nothing at all of the effects. Each participant was told to wait in a room with a stooge, someone who they believed to be doing the same experiment as them. This stooge then acted euphoric or angry and the participant was asked to rate their own emotional state. If our emotions were based purely on our bodily reaction then you would assume that all three groups would rate their emotional state in the same way. However, they found that those in the misinformed or ignorant group based their emotional rating in a way that was congruent with the stooge’s expressed emotion whilst those participants that were informed of the drug’s effect attributed their feelings to the physiological effects, not to their emotions.

This study, along with many others, suggests that our emotion is determined by how we interpret our physiological reaction. Maybe this means that if we can force ourselves to smile we may interpret this as feeling happy and therefore act more confidently. A study by Strack and his colleagues supports this suggestion. He got participants to hold a pencil, horizontally, between their teeth or between their lips and then to watch cartoons. When holding a pencil between your teeth you use the muscles normally used for smiling unlike when holding the pencil between your lips (try it for yourself). When these participants then rated the cartoons, those people who had been holding the pencil between their teeth found the cartoons funnier than those who were holding it between their lips. So maybe just smiling, even if we don’t feel like it, will actually make us happier? So next time somebody tells you to put on a brave face it is worth remembering that there have been studies that suggest they may have a point! Smiling even if we don’t feel like it does seem to make us feel happier and maybe if our heart rate is up we should tell ourselves that it’s because we’re excited for whatever it is we need a brave face on for.

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