Hidden Brain Puzzle # 38: Uncertainty Prompts Individualists to Become Materialistic

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We know that some people tend to define themselves by their possessions, but did you know the level of uncertainty a person feels can influence whether they behave in materialistic ways?

That’s the conclusion of new research by Kimberly Rios Morrison and Camille S. Johnson. The researchers also found that uncertainty does not trigger materialism uniformly across people; it selectively influences individualists rather than people who tend to see themselves as members of a social group.

In a puzzle, posted as always on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, I asked

European and Asian Americans were recently asked whether their jeans reflected who they were. Which group felt defined by their clothes?
A) Asian Americans feeling confident
B) Asian Americans feeling uncertain
C) European Americans feeling confident
D) European Americans feeling uncertain

The correct answer is D. Morrison and Johnson found that European Americans, who tend to see things in individualistic terms, were more likely to identify with their personal possessions when their self-concept was threatened and they were made to feel uncertain.

In a paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they write about a possible implication of the research in the real world:

“Imagine a member of an individualistic culture who is experiencing a midlife crisis or who feels uncertain about her coworkers’ perceptions of her abilities. Assuming that the midlife crisis (or uncertainty about coworkers’ perceptions) instigates feelings of self-uncertainty, this person would likely cling to the objects that best convey her personal characteristics. For example, she might choose not to donate her favorite but worn-out pair of jeans to charity or not to relinquish her old car that no longer functions properly …”

Share your thoughts about this research (or how you feel about your old pair of jeans) here or at

European and Asian Americans were recently asked whether their jeans reflected who they were. Which group felt defined by their clothes?
A) Asian Americans feeling confident
B) Asian Americans feeling uncertain
C) European Americans feeling confident
D) European Americans feeling uncertain

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 37: Corruption tied to "collective responsibility" ethic

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Corruption is more likely in countries where people have a “collective responsibility” ethic as opposed to an individualistic ethic, according to new research.

Poverty matters too — poor countries are likely to see more corruption than rich countries — but this squares with common sense. I can more easily imagine a cop in a poor country taking a bribe (when he may have had to pay a bribe to get his job in the first place) than in a country where cops make a living wage.

The new research looked at both correlational and causational evidence. Countries where business executives expressed greater levels of pride in collective enterprises — workplaces, communities, family etc — were also countries where more corruption is documented.

In an interesting laboratory experiment, researchers Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal at the University of Toronto found that volunteers who were unconsciously primed to prize collective responsibility as opposed to individual responsibility were more likely to say they would offer a bribe to win a contract that would provide them with a lucrative commission. These volunteers felt less accountable for their corruption.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s facebook page, I asked:

Bribery is more likely in countries where
A) Individualism is prized (we’re all on our own)
B) Shared responsibility is prized (we’re in this together)
C) Individualism and shared responsibility are both prized
D) None of the above

The correct answer is B.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 35: Thinking About One's Ancestors Improves Mental Performance

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Why do people spend decades tracing their lineages? Thinking about one’s ancestors provides comfort, improves one’s ability to deal with challenges and actually boosts cognitive performance, new research shows.

In a simple experiment, researchers asked people to think about their ancestors (or something else) and then measured their beliefs about their own performance on several cognitive tests. People who had been made to think about their ancestors expected to do better on the tests.

But did they actually do better? Yes. Researchers Peter Fischer, Anne Sauer, Claudia Vogrincic and Silke Weisweiler found that people who had recently thought about their ancestors actually did better on cognitive tests of intelligence than people who had been made to think of other things.

In a recent puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, I asked

You would have been more likely to solve this puzzle if I had first asked you to
A) Think about a friend
B) Draw a family tree
C) Remember what was in your last shopping list
D) None of the above

The correct answer is B.

The researchers hypothesized, in a piece they published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, that thinking about one’s ancestors increases our sense of control over everyday activities. So the next time someone asks you to solve a puzzle or tackle a difficult test, spend a moment thinking about your great-grandmother first!

Hidden Brain Puzzle #34: Why Ka-Boom! and Ka-Ching! Go Together

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Anger can make people want things more, according to a counterintuitive new study which found that when people associate a product with anger, they desire it more.

Henk Aarts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues showed people a number of objects such as pens and mugs. Before the picture of the object appeared on a screen, Aarts subliminally primed his volunteers with an angry, fearful or neutral face. He found that people later reported wanting the object more when they had been primed with the angry face rather than the fearful face. They also exerted more physical effort in acquiring the object in a subsequent test.

Aarts thinks there is an evolutionary reason for the phenomenon: In a statement issued via Psychological Science, where the paper was published, he said, that in competitive environments such as the struggle over a limited food supply or in battle, “If the food does not make you angry or doesn’t produce aggression in your system, you may starve and lose the battle.”

In a recent puzzle posted on the Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, I asked:

You have to decide whether to buy something. You are most likely to make the purchase when
A) You are angry
B) You are fearful
C) You are angry and fearful
D) You are neither angry nor fearful

The correct answer is A.

Does this theory explain the behavior of all those angry couples we see in movies who patch up fights by having sex?

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 33: Love Isn't All You Need

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Sorry John, Ringo, George and Paul. Apparently, love isn’t all you need. To make a relationship work longterm, self-discipline apparently outscores love.

Love and warm feelings prompt people to make promises of fidelity to one another. The stronger the emotion we feel, the bigger the promises we make. But new research by Johanna Peetz and Lara Kammrath published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that the people who keep promises are neither the ones who have the most positive feelings toward their partners nor the ones who make the biggest promises, but those who have the greatest internal self-discpline.

“People who had the most positive relationship feelings and who were most motivated to be responsive to the partner’s needs made bigger promises than did other people but were not any better at keeping them. Instead, promisers’ self-regulation skills, such as trait conscientiousness, predicted the extent to which promises were kept or broken,” the researchers write.

In the most recent Hidden Brain puzzle, posted first as always on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, I asked

Lovers make promises because they feel an emotional connection to one another. The lovers who KEEP their promises are
A) Those who make the biggest promises
B) Those who make the smallest promises
C) Those who are the most emotionally connected to the other person
D) Those with the most internal discipline

The correct answer is D.

A considerable number of people got the answer right on the Facebook page, which either means this puzzle was way too easy or lots of people have been in longterm relationships and are past the romantic illusions of the Fab Four!

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 31: Tragedy Increases Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior

By | Blog, Business, Cool Findings, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Morality, Puzzle | No Comments Tragedy tends to bring out the best in people, according to new research into cooperative behavior. The more people are affected by tragedy, the more they cooperate and engage in “prosocial” behavior.

In a study of 2,447 residents in five provinces at the epicenter of a 2008 earthquake in China, researchers found that residents who were hardest hit were more generous with their help than people who were slightly affected or not affected at all. The study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, was co-authored by Li-Lin Rao, Ru Han, Xiao-Peng Ren, Xin-Wen Bai, Rui Zheng, Huan Liu, Zuo-Jun Wang, Jin-Zhen Li, Kan Zhang and Shu Li.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page, where all puzzles get posted first, I asked:

After a natural disaster, the people most likely to behave in prosocial (cooperative) ways are
A) Those worst affected
B) Those least affected
C) Those in the middle

The correct answer is A.

The researchers wrote, “residents in more devastated areas demonstrated more prosocial behavior, but the degree of prosocial behavior declined with the passage of time. These findings suggest that prosocial behavior can be induced in individuals by being at a disadvantage. Indirect evidence for our claim includes the fact that commitment works best under harsh conditions: the more individuals are challenged by nature to survive, the more compelled they are to cooperate with each other in durable relationships.”

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 29: Women in Satisfied Relationships Bring Work Related Stress Home

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Lots of people come home from work feeling upset. But it turns out there are systematic gender differences in the way heterosexual men and women bring work-related unpleasant feelings home.

Men, on average, tend to shield their families from unpleasant things that happened at work, and the more satisifed men are in their relationships, the more they seem to shield their families from work-related stressors. Whether or not these men are actually pursuing an effective strategy is questionable, however, because the data suggests that men often tend to withdraw from their emotions as a way to not bring unpleasant conversations and interactions from work to the dinner table.

Women, by contrast, tend to be more open about what happened at work, and the happier they are in their personal relationships, the more likely they are to bring work related stressors home. In a new study, researchers Zhaoli Song, Maw-Der Foo, Marilyn A. Uy, and Shuhua Sun explored the effects of the ongoing recession – and the challenge of finding work for those who are unemployed – on domestic dynamics.

One possible explanation for this is previous research that shows that men are slower than women (on average) to calm down after a stressful event, which may be why men tend to compartmentalize their lives — it’s a way to avoid dealing with painful feelings that would take a long time to process. Women on the other hand seem to be better able to deal with their feelings in an open manner, and to calm down more quickly after experiencing stressful emotions.

I recently posted a puzzle on my Facebook page – all puzzles are posted here first, so click on the “Like” button at to hear about new puzzles: At the end of a long, hard and stressful day, couples often bring their problems home from work. Among heterosexuals, the group most likely to vent anger that is brought home from work are
A) Men in satisfied relationships
B) Men in dissatisfied relationships
C) Women in satisfied relationships
D) Women in dissatisfied relationships

The correct answer is C.

In a paper in The Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers said, “gender differences were amplified for participants with greater marital satisfaction. Women in more satisfying marriages were more likely than dissatisfied women to increase their angry behavior toward their husbands after busier workdays. By contrast, men in more satisfying marriages were less likely than their maritally dissatisfied counterparts to be angrier and more critical toward their wives after negatively arousing workdays. These gender differences in angry responses may reflect different goals in intimate relationships and different responses to negative emotional arousal. Past research suggests that men tend to disengage when negatively aroused whereas women prefer to engage with others and talk about their distress more directly. In laboratory based research on marital interaction, husbands displayed larger autonomic nervous system responses to conflictual discussions with their wives and recovered more slowly from this physiological arousal than wives did. This gender based physiological difference might lead men to rely more on strategies such as withdrawal and avoidance of angry interactions to facilitate their recovery from negative affective arousal after a difficult workday. Women may not be compelled to “compartmentalize” their affective workday experience in this way and, in fact, may be more likely to want to engage with and talk about their stressful day with their partners. The existence of these gender patterns is supported by previous research showing that men were more likely than women to attempt to prevent their job distress from entering the marital relationship.”

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 28: Attractiveness Works Against Subordinates When Managers are Unattractive

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A variety of research studies show that attractiveness helps people in a variety of professional settings. Defendents in the criminal justice system and children in daycare get away with more lenient punishments when they are attractive, compared to when they are not.

But new research shows that there is a downside to being attractive — when people evaluating you are peers, but are not attractive themselves. Subordinates who are attractive are penalized by managers who are unattractive, according to new research by Maria Agthe, Matthias Spörrle and Jon K. Maner.

In many ways, the research confirms an intuition most of us have — while attractive people are, well, attractive, our hidden brain can also perceive them as potential threats. Interestingly, the bias was only observed among same-sex participants — meaning unattractive male managers discriminated against attractive male subordinates and unattractive female managers discriminated against attractive female subordinates.

A recent puzzle I posted on the Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page (where all puzzles get aired first) read:

When a manager evaluates a subordinate belonging to the same sex, the manager is most likely to give a negative review when
A) The manager is attractive and the subordinate is not
B) The subordinate is attractive and the manager is not
C) Both the manager and subordinate are attractive
D) Neither the manager nor the subordinate are attractive

The correct answer is B.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 28: Attractiveness Works Against Subordinates When Managers are Unattractive

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 27: Children Who Like Others Just Like Themselves Tend to Make Friends More Easily

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In any class of children, you’ll see the usual bunch of outgoing kids and those who like to play by themselves or in smaller groups. But being gregarious in itself is not the only predictor of developing friendships – new research suggests that children who are drawn to others who are like themselves (as opposed to children who are drawn to others different from themselves) are more likely to have best friends — and to acquire best friends if they don’t have them already.

That’s the conclusion of research by Julie C. Bowker, Bridget K. Fredstrom, Kenneth H. Rubin, Linda Rose-Krasnor, Cathryn Booth-LaForce and Brett Laursen. The researchers observed fifth and sixth grade children as they made, lost and sought friendships over the period of a little more than a year. One group of children had best friends at the start and best friends at the end of the study period, a second group had no best friend at the start but a best friend at the end. A third group, for whom we may now shed a silent tear, had no best friends at either the beginning nor the end of the study period.

The researchers found that compared to the kids who never had a best friend, the children who always had best friends and those who acquired best friends when they didn’t have one tended to be those who were drawn to others just like themselves – or to use the lingo of the academics, these children were drawn to “similar others.”

I speak at length in The Hidden Brain about how the friendship-formations of children are one of the earliest examples of the hidden brain at work and how, without anyone intending it, friendships are shaped by unconscious biases. Having a close friend from another race, researchers have found, is one of the best predictors of a sympathetic worldview toward the other race in general, whereas not having close friends from another race tends to close the door to a generous view.

The fact that children who make friends easily are drawn to others like themselves is an example of how something that has clearly positive benefits – the ability to make friends – also has a side to it that is less attractive. It also shows why we are stuck with many of the biases that dog us everyday. The same thing that helps us make friends (being drawn to others like ourselves) can also prompt us to close our minds to those from other groups.

No one would recommend that children stop making friends, or stop enjoying the company of those who share the same interests (or race or sports team or socioeconomic background.) The only way to eliminate the bad without eliminating the good is to supplement our unconscious bias to be drawn to others who are like ourselves by consciously encouraging ourselves and our children to form friendships with those who are different in all kinds of ways.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 24: Negative-Emotions-Diminished-by-Difficult-Mental-Challenges

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Have you ever noticed when you are sad or angry that doing something mentally difficult — solving a puzzle or remembering a poem — tends to make you temporarily “forget” to be sad or angry? The moment you finish the difficult and engrossing task, the negative emotion often comes right back.

New research suggests that this phenomenon occurs because emotions are mentally taxing; they take up brain resources. When you focus your brain on something challenging, mental resources that were being previously devoted to producing and experiencing the negative emotion are now being pulled away to solve the puzzle or remember the poem. This is why you experience less of the emotion.

Here is a puzzle I posted recently on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, which is where all puzzles get their first airing. (Navigate over and click on the LIKE button if you want to be alerted about future puzzles — you’ll have to login to Facebook first.)

People experience less sadness, fear and other negative emotions when they …
A) Try to remember the lines of a poem memorized many years before
B) Count backward from 1 to 100 in steps of 7
C) Focus intensely on the negative emotion
D) Multiply the numbers 14 and 23 in their heads

The correct answer(s): A, B, C and D

The hidden brain mechanism involved here is that different experiences/tasks often compete for the same brain resources, and one way to diminish the effects of a negative emotion is to use up some of the resources needed to produce/experience that emotion in some difficult mental task.

I based this puzzle on new research by Assaf Kron, Yaacov Schul, Asher Cohen and Ran R. Hassin who found that “the intensity of both negative and positive feelings diminished under a cognitive load.”

One of the interesting dimensions of the research is that it showed that concentrating on the negative emotion itself — as opposed to experiencing the emotion — also decreased its effects. Concentrating (ie. thinking about) an emotion takes up mental resources. I’ve personally found that when I hurt myself — stub a toe for example — focusing intensely on the pain (thinking about whether the sensation feels like burning, tingling or pressure etc) — reduces my experience of the pain. Probably the same phenomenon at work.

Take note that the same thing holds true for positive emotions as well. What this means is that if you are experiencing a particularly lovely emotion, don’t imagine you can experience the emotion with the same intensity while typing on your blackberry at the same time!

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