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The Pitfalls of Perspective-Taking

February 9, 2014

By Jacquie D. Vorauer and Matthew Quesnel (University of Manitoba)

You probably take it for granted that when you have a conflict or disagreement with your partner, one of the best things you can do is to step back and try to see the situation from your partner’s point of view. Seeing the situation through your partner’s eyes will help, won’t it?  You’ll likely gain a better understanding of your partner’s behavior and feel less upset, right? Perhaps such perspective-taking might be especially helpful for individuals whose own personal point of view is colored by doubts and insecurities–namely, individuals lower in self-esteem.

It turns out that the opposite is true. In fact, recent research (Vorauer & Quesnel, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013) reveals that perspective-taking can actually make things worse rather than better, especially for people with a less-than-positive sense of self-worth.

To understand this counter-intuitive finding, consider that when individuals try to step into their partner’s shoes, the first thing they are likely to see is themselves. They are then apt to wonder what their partner is thinking and feeling toward them (e.g., “Is he mad at me?” “Is she bored with this conversation?”). A lot of prior research tells us that people are generally concerned with being accepted by others and are always monitoring how they are viewed in the back of their mind (e.g., Leary & Downs, 1995). What happens with perspective-taking–an active effort to appreciate a partner’s unique perspective (“What is she thinking?”)–is that these thoughts are brought to mind, such that they take up more cognitive energy and become preoccupying (“She’s thinking bad things about me!”). It appears that this preoccupation with evaluation and resulting negative twist to the thoughts that arise are evident for individuals lower in self-esteem because of their doubts and insecurities.

Specifically, in one of our studies (Study 2), participants who had previously completed a self-esteem measure were asked to write about a day in the life of their romantic partner in which they and their partner had had a conflict or disagreement. Those in the control condition received no further instructions. Those in the “imagine-other” perspective-taking condition were instructed that they should imagine as clearly as possible everything that they would think and feel if they were their partner, taking into account everything that they knew about him/her and trying to adopt his/her own way of looking at things. Participants then did a two-minute open-ended thought-listing task in which they wrote down any thoughts that were on their mind. Next, they completed measures assessing how much they felt that their partner loved them, how satisfied they were with their relationship, and how close they felt to their partner.

Results revealed that individuals lower in self-esteem felt less satisfied with their relationship and less close to their partner when they engaged in imagine-other perspective-taking as compared to when they did not! Moreover, analyses suggested that these effects were due to lower self-esteem individuals feeling less loved by their partner if they had engaged in imagine-other perspective-taking. Indeed, in their open-ended thought-listing responses lower self-esteem individuals expressed more spontaneous negative thoughts about their partner’s feelings toward them (e.g., “He knows I don’t like it when he talks to her yet he won’t stop for me,” “I wish he cared more about me”) if they had engaged in imagine-other perspective-taking than if they had not. So, trying to look inside their partner’s mind led these individuals to dwell on the negative thoughts that he or she might be having about them, which ultimately led them to feel less loved and thus less happy with the relationship. Another study (Study 1) documented a similar pattern of effects when individuals simply described any day in the life of their partner. That is, the effects were not specific to cases where individuals thought about a conflict or disagreement, but were more general, arising even when individuals reflected on typical daily events.


Perceptions of Partner’s Love as a Function of Self-Esteem and Perspective-Taking Condition.
Notes. The response scale ranged from 1 to 9, with higher numbers reflecting perceptions of more love from partner. These data are from Study 2, in which all participants reflected on a day in which they had a conflict or disagreement with their partner.

Yet there are some important qualifications to these results. First, the negative effects of imagine-other perspective-taking were only evident for individuals lower in self-esteem: Those with more favorable self-views were not affected by the imagine-other perspective-taking instructions.

As well, the effects were only evident for imagine-other perspective-taking, which involves trying to take into account unique, individuating characteristics of another person, such as whether the person is impatient by nature, generally hates talking about feelings, or is shy in social gatherings. In contrast, the effects were not evident for a different kind of perspective-taking, referred to as “imagine-self” perspective-taking, which involves trying to put oneself in another person’s position (e.g., “What if I had been the one who showed up late?”). Indeed, when participants in our research instead engaged in imagine-self perspective-taking, they viewed their partner’s traits more positively regardless of whether they were higher or lower in self-esteem.

The distinction between these two types of perspective-taking is rather subtle. We think that the reason that they had such different effects is that trying to understand a particular person’s unique way of thinking is more likely to lead individuals to think about how they themselves are evaluated by the person than is simply trying to put themselves in the other person’s position.

Although the results of our research suggest that perspective-taking might not be the best approach for individuals lower in self-esteem to take in their romantic relationships, happily there are other strategies that these individuals can use that are much more likely to be beneficial. What these strategies share in common is that they explicitly direct individuals toward positive relationship information. For example, in “abstract reframing,” individuals are prompted to think about a time when their partner complimented them and then to explain why their partner admired them (see Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007). These prompts have a variety of beneficial effects on individuals with lower self-esteem.

Thus, although it may seem a “given” that perspective-taking is always good,  it is not. Moreover, for individuals lower in self-esteem, perspective-taking can be harmful rather than beneficial by virtue of exacerbating negative thought processes that reinforce their insecurities.

Author Information

Jacquie Vorauer 4x6Jacquie D. Vorauer is a Professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Her work centers on the sources and consequences of individuals’ concerns regarding how they are viewed by others and seeks to identify ways of reducing these concerns. Her research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


matthewMatthew Quesnel is a master’s candidate studying social psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. His primary research interests are in the areas of intergroup relations and interpersonal relationships.



Leary, M. R., & Downs, D. L. (1995). Interpersonal functions of the self-esteem motive: The self-esteem system as sociometer. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem (pp. 123-144). New York:  Plenum Press.

Marigold, D. C., Holmes, J. G., & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232-248.

Vorauer, J. D., & Quesnel, M. (2013). You don’t really love me, do you? Negative effects of imagine-other perspective-taking on lower self-esteem individuals’ relationship well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1428-1440.

Image Credit: David Castillo Dominici, published on 08 September 2011
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Science Tackles People’s Beliefs about Good and Evil

January 18, 2014

By Russell J. Webster (North Central College) and Donald A. Saucier (Kansas State University)

Adolf Hitler and Mother Theresa are two very well-known historical figures that likely conjure two very different sides of human nature: pure evil and pure good. Pure evil and pure good may exist, but our research is more concerned with people’s beliefs or perceptions about pure evil and pure good.  Inspired by previous scholarly thinking (Baumeister, 1999), our goal was to scientifically test whether we could measure beliefs in pure evil and pure good, and then examine how these beliefs impact people’s attitudes about various social and political issues. Ultimately, we conducted a series of studies that confirmed that beliefs in pure evil and pure good are psychological concepts that can and should be studied. Our article can be found in the November 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.

To begin, what do we mean by pure evil and pure good?

Belief in pure evil is the extent to which people believe that there are individuals in the world that fulfill narcissistic and sadistic impulses by intentionally inflicting harm on others. Further, because pure evil is the antithesis of order and peace in the world, and because these impulses cannot be controlled or diminished, we should not bother to understand such “evildoers” and focus on eliminating them from society. People are inclined to think that when somebody acts in an undesirable manner, such as harm-doing, it is because the individual has a disagreeable personality (what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error or correspondence error; Malle, 2006). So, it is reasonable that in order to maintain the perception of an orderly and just world, some people develop the belief that “behind evil actions must lie evil individuals” (Darley, 1992, p. 202).

We predicted that belief in pure evil helps rationalize or justify prejudice, discrimination, and aggression toward perpetrators who (are perceived to) threaten one’s way of life—whether it is challenging one’s values or threatening one’s physical safety. Indeed, in our first studies we found that people who more strongly believe in pure evil more aggressively punish criminals, a very salient perpetrator group. Specifically, people who more strongly believe in pure evil supported the death penalty and desired harsher mandatory sentences for a variety of crimes, while simultaneously opposing criminal rehabilitation.

Further, such individuals also preferred more aggressive approaches over more peaceful routes to resolve foreign policy problems. People who more strongly believed in pure evil report greater prejudice toward Arabs and Muslims, view the world as a fundamentally dangerous place, and feel that preemptive violence (i.e., attacking a group before they have the chance to attack you) is more justifiable; in fact, among the many sociopolitical variables we looked at, the only predictor of preemptive aggression was belief in pure evil. Moreover, on the domestic front, people who more strongly believed in evil also exhibited more anti-Black racism and opposed pro-racial programs as well as opposed social programs benefiting disadvantaged groups in the US.

Meanwhile, belief in pure good is the extent to which people believe that there are individuals in the world, although very rare, that selflessly (i.e., without expectation of intrinsic or extrinsic rewards) and impartially help others in need (even adversaries) without resorting to violence, if at all possible.

We found that people who more strongly believed in pure good expressed a more empathic, peaceful, and nuanced orientation toward others. They were more likely, for example, to be opposed to the death penalty but stronger supporters of criminal rehabilitation programs. They were also stronger supporters of social programs benefiting those most unfortunate and those who are unable to help themselves (needy children). Thus, in line with our predictions, people who more strongly believe in pure good were more impartial in helping others—by wanting to give a second chance to criminals and providing children the means to meet basic needs.

Overall, such individuals also preferred more peaceful routes over more aggressive approaches to handling foreign policy problems. Most telling, people who more strongly believed in pure good reported that they were better able to take the perspective of and feel empathy for others’ plights,  saw the world as a less competitive place, and strongly supported diplomacy and humanitarian efforts by the US.

We even reason that people may dismiss “pure good” as lofty and unattainable to help justify their apathetic behavior: “Why bother helping when acting impartially and selflessly is impossible to do?” People may consciously or unconsciously choose to not believe in pure good to justify more “selfish” impulses.

However, we stress that we are not rendering judgments about whether our participants are actually evil or good themselves, or whether it is right or wrong to believe in pure evil or pure good (including whether being “selfish” is a good or bad thing). The purpose of this research was only to examine whether we could and whether it was valuable to study people’s beliefs in pure evil and pure good; our research indicates that the answer is Yes.

Does that mean belief in pure evil and belief in pure good are just opposite sides of the same coin, as many people seem to believe (Baumeister, 1999)? Our research indicates that the answer is actually No. Our research to date consistently shows that belief in pure evil and belief in pure good are not even weakly related to each other. This result surprised us, but we reasoned that people who strongly believe in pure evil and people who strongly believe in pure good both want to better the world; what differs between these sets of beliefs is actually how to get there. Their similarities and differences “cancel” each other out, and thus we do not find any consistent relationship between belief in pure evil and belief in pure good.

Nonetheless, some people are more apt to believe that there are “demons” in this world, and such individuals hold more pre-emptively aggressive stances in dealing with others; meanwhile, some people are more apt to believe that “angels” walk this world and exhibit more rehabilitative, peaceful, and diplomatic orientations toward others.

Author Information

websterRussell J. Webster is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, IL. He received his PhD in Social/Personality Psychology from Kansas State University in 2012. Dr. Webster’s research focuses on how individual differences and situational factors contribute to intergroup aggression and prosociality as well as how magical thinking (e.g., fantasy and superstition) helps people cope with a chaotic and stressful world.

saucierDonald A. Saucier is an Associate Professor of Social/Personality Psychology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Vermont in 2001. Dr. Saucier’s research focuses on the individual differences and situational factors that contribute to the justification and suppression of antisocial behavior (e.g., prejudice, aggression), as well as to decisions to behave prosocially (e.g., to give or withhold help).


Baumeister, R. F. (1999). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Henry Holt.

Darley, J. M. (1992). Social organization for the production of evil. Psychological Inquiry, 3(2), 199–218. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0302_28

Malle B. F. (2006). The actor–observer asymmetry in causal attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 895-919

Webster, R. J., & Saucier, D. A. (2013). Angels and demons are among us: Assessing individual differences in belief in pure evil and belief in pure good. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1455-1470.

Image Credit: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license and in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

When Visibility Matters: The Costs and Benefits of Visible versus Invisible Support

January 18, 2014

By Yuthika Girme (University of Auckland), Nickola Overall (University of Auckland), & Jeff Simpson (University of Minnesota)

Your romantic partner wants to “get healthy and fit.” In fact, it is something that he or she has been struggling with for years, with only partial success. In situations like this one, providing your partner with support is great – you not only earn brownie points but you also help your partner feel better and cope with setbacks. But nothing is ever that simple –providing the right kind of support is hard to do!

On one hand, there is good evidence that being a source of support for your romantic partner helps them achieve their goals and fosters their health and happiness (Overall, Fletcher & Simpson, 2010; Uchino, Cacioppo & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996). When people perceive their partners as supportive, they are more motivated to go for their daily run and they feel better about their progress. On the other hand, actual supportive acts can increase partners’ anxieties and undermine their belief they can overcome challenges and achieve their goals (Bolger, Zuckermann & Kessler, 2000; Howland & Simpson, 2010).  So how do our partners’ feel when we grab that chocolate treat out of their hand?  They might get upset that they couldn’t resist temptation and needed our intervention.

Why does support sometimes have benefits and sometimes have costs? Recent advances in social psychology suggest that the answer lies in the relative visibility of support. When support is direct and overt—called visible support— it tends to trigger anxiety and depressed mood in support recipients because it communicates that they need help from others and produces feelings of incompetence and indebtedness (Bolger et al., 2000). In contrast, when support is indirect and covert and goes unnoticed by support recipients — called invisible support— it bypasses these costs. So, for example, telling your partner you didn’t buy chocolate so they don’t get tempted is behavior that supports the partner’s goal but is obvious or visible to the partner and probably makes him/her feel as though you have little confidence in them (and that you think they shouldn’t have chocolate!). In contrast, background helping behaviors such as buying healthier food when you go grocery shopping without mentioning your reasons for doing so or referring to your partner’s goal, supports the goal but also avoids making your partner feel incompetent and in need of your help.

In our recent research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Girme, Overall & Simpson, 2013) we asked two novel questions that research had yet to provide answers to: Do the costs of visible support depend on the contextual needs of the support recipient? Does invisible support have long-term benefits by facilitating actual goal achievement? Sixty-one couples engaged in two video-recorded discussions in which one partner (support recipient) discussed a personal goal with the other partner (support provider). The degree to which emotional forms of visible and invisible support behaviors were enacted by the support provider were rated by independent coders. We gathered reports of the support recipients’ distress during the discussion, how supported they felt, and how successful they felt the discussion was in facilitating their goal achievement. Recipients also reported their goal achievement at 3-month intervals over the following year.

Visible support involved directly providing reassurance and advice (e.g., being a cheerleader: “you can do it, that’s a great idea!”). Consistent with prior research, and despite the positive and supportive nature of this reassurance, the more partners were rated as providing visible support, the less confident support recipients felt about achieving their goal. But, this was only for those people who were less stressed and upset (see Figure 1, solid line). In contrast, we found that greater visible support was very beneficial for recipients who were distressed and therefore needed their partner’s direct reassurance. For these distressed recipients (see Figure 1, dotted line), greater visible support by the partner was associated with feeling more supported and more confident about achieving their goal. Thus, these results suggest that visible support only has costs when partners don’t really need high levels of reassurance and direct support.

Girme Data

Figure 1. Interaction between support recipients’ level of distress and visible emotional support provided by the partner on support recipients’ perceptions of discussion success.

In contrast to visible support, invisible support involved subtle and conversational forms of care and reassurance. Extending work by Howland & Simpson (2010) we identified three key principles of invisible support:

(1) subtle and indirect forms of support that go unnoticed (e.g., affection disguised as accidental touch or fixing of clothes, use of “we/our/us”)
(2) de-emphasizing who was the support provider and who was the support recipient to avoid making the recipient feel they lack competence and need the partners help (e.g., guiding questions framed as information seeking: “oh, so how does that work?”)
(3) reframing the locus of the problem away from the recipient onto shared experiences to boost efficacy and control about how others have managed similar issues (e.g., 3rd party examples about alternative ways of coping: “Amy is loving this new gym she joined.”)

This kind of subtle support went completely unnoticed by support recipients—that is, it was not associated with support recipients felt support or confidence about achieving their goal. But, these invisible support behaviors that went unnoticed during the discussion predicted greater goal achievement over the next year. We think these behaviors facilitate goal achievement because they guide the partner in ways that ‘plant the seed’ of goal-related strategies that recipients adopt as their own, enable recipients to take ownership over their own coping and problem solving, and thus bolster actual goal accomplishment.

These results help to reconcile the conflicting costs and benefits of support by taking into account the needs of the support recipient. Visible and direct support are most effective in the short-term for recipients who are experiencing distress and need their partners’ overt reassurance and care to make them feel better. In contrast, invisible and subtle forms of support that go unnoticed in the short-term are most effective in facilitating recipients’ long-term goal achievement. The conclusion: Being a supportive partner is not always about providing direct forms of care, love and affection, but about being responsive to whether partners need comforting in the short-term versus subtle encouragement to own their goal progress and achieve long-term success.

Author Information

YuthikaGirme_PhotoYuthika Girme is a PhD Candidate at the University of Auckland. Her primary research goals involve identifying the ways people can effectively provide support, generate closeness and overcome insecurities in order to maximize the health benefits arising from supportive relationships.

NickolaOverall_PhotoNickola Overall is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her research interests focus on dyadic processes within close relationships, including identifying the factors that determine the relative success of different communication strategies used when couples are trying to resolve relationship problems or support each other.

JeffSimpson_PhotoJeff Simpson is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota.  His research interests center on adult attachment processes, evolution and social behavior, communication and social influence in relationships, and how early life experiences affect adult health and relationship outcomes.


Bolger, N., Zuckerman, A., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Invisible support and adjustment to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 953-961.

Girme, Y. U., Overall, N. C., & Simpson, J. A. (2013). When Visibility Matters: Short-term versus Long-term Costs and Benefits of Visible and Invisible Support. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Howland, M., & Simpson, J. A. (2010). Getting in under the radar: A dyadic view of invisible support. Psychological Science, 21(12), 1878-1885.

Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., & Simpson, J. A. (2010). Helping each other grow: Romantic partner support, self-improvement, and relationship quality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (11), 1496-1513.

Uchino, B. N., Cacioppo, J. T., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1996). The relationship between social support and physiological processes: A review with emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 448-531.

Image Credit: Couple Having Breakfast, Ambro, published on 10 March 2011
Stock Photo – image ID: 10033543

Does Cultural Exposure Partially Explain the Association Between Personality and Political Orientation?

January 17, 2014

By Xiaowen Xu (University of Toronto), Raymond A. Mar (York University), & Jordan B. Peterson (University of Toronto)

Differences in political orientation have an important impact on people’s attitudes and behavior. Given the evident political divide regarding various social issues, there is little doubt that liberals and conservatives differ in how they approach the world. But what are the underlying factors that contribute to these political differences? What exactly makes one person liberal and another conservative?

One key factor in predicting differences in political orientation is personality. The two personality traits most commonly associated with political orientation are Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness. Specifically, people who are politically liberal tend to be higher on Openness to Experience, a trait that emphasizes creativity, intellect, curiosity, and the desire to be exposed to new ideas. In contrast, people who are politically conservative tend to rate themselves as higher in Conscientiousness, which is characterized by a preference for structure, rules, and organization, and the orderly pursuit of goals (Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008).

Although the link between political orientation and personality is consistent, it is still unclear how exactly differences in personality traits cause political orientation. One potential explanation could be that personality differences drive exposure to cultural products and activities (e.g., reading books, watching films), which then in turn shape political orientation. This assumption is sensible, seeing as how cultural exposure plays an important role in how people acquire knowledge and perceive social and political information. Furthermore, preferences for different types of cultural products and activities have been linked to personality.

In our own research (Xu, Mar, & Peterson, 2013), we examined whether cultural exposure might provide a partial explanation of the relationship between personality and political orientation. Specifically, we focused on exposure to books (Study 1) and films (Study 2) as two examples of cultural products that could help account for this association. As well, we examined whether one potential outcome of increased cultural exposure, namely increased historical knowledge (Study 3), might also help explain the association between personality and political orientation. We predicted that people who are higher in Openness to Experience would show increased exposure to culture, which would then predict an increase in political liberalism. In contrast, we predicted that individuals who are higher in Conscientiousness would report decreased cultural exposure, which would then predict an increase in conservatism.

In our first two studies, we examined whether increased exposure to books and films might partially explain the link between personality and political orientation. Books and films both constitute major forms of cultural products, and both reading and film viewing have the potential to change the way people think and behave across many domains of life. In the first study, we assessed participants’ exposure to books by asking them to select, from a list of names, those that they recognized as belonging to authors and writers. In the second study, exposure to films was measured by asking participants to identify the films they had personally viewed from a list of film titles. As well, we measured the participants’ personality traits and political orientation. We found that participants who rated themselves as being high in trait Openness to Experience also recognized more author names and viewed more films, and this greater exposure to books and films was related to increased liberalism. On the other hand, we found that participants who were higher in Conscientiousness recognized fewer author names and viewed fewer films, and these lower levels of cultural exposure predicted more conservative political orientations. These relationships were robust even after taking into account the potential influence of other variables, such as age, gender, education, and intelligence. In sum, these patterns of associations are consistent with the idea that cultural exposure can partially account for how personality traits shape political orientation.

Lastly, we examined whether one potential outcome of increased cultural exposure (i.e., increased American historical knowledge) could also help to explain the relationship between personality traits and political orientation. To measure knowledge of American history, participants were required to indicate recognition of names belonging to American historical figures from a list that included American scientists, politicians, inventors, et cetera. Similar to the first two studies, higher Openness to Experience predicted better recognition of American historical figures, and this increased historical knowledge predicted higher levels of political liberalism. Furthermore, these results remained even after accounting for the influence of age, gender, education, and intelligence. In contrast, however, knowledge of American history did not help to explain the link between trait Conscientiousness and political conservatism.

Thus, across three studies, we found evidence suggesting that certain personality traits, specifically higher Openness to Experience and lower Conscientiousness, were related to increased exposure to culture, which in turns predicts greater political liberalism. People who are higher in trait Openness to Experience tend to be more inquisitive and curious, and would be more motivated to seek out new experiences and information, which can be found in cultural products and activities. Cultural exposure, then, would likely lead to new and diverse information and perspectives, which may then foster more liberal political beliefs. In contrast, people who are higher in trait Conscientiousness place greater value on order, structure, and goals, and may therefore engage in cultural activities less frequently, in order to maintain familiarity and avoid distraction from goals. The desire for familiarity and stability is consistent with more politically conservative ideals (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). Increased cultural exposure, then, provides one potential explanation for how differences in trait personality influence political orientation and beliefs.

Author Information

Xiaowen XuXiaowen Xu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She is interested in studying how differences in political orientation manifest in people’s beliefs, social behaviours, and trait personality. As well, she is interested in examining how individual differences (e.g., personality traits, political orientation) may affect people’s responses to different types of meaning threats.

Raymond MarRaymond A. Mar is an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto.  He employs the methods of personality psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience to research the real-world influence of imaginative experiences, including engagement with fictional narratives in various media (e.g., novels, films, videogames). Dr. Mar is a co-editor of, an on-line magazine on the psychology of fiction.

Jordan PetersonJordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, with two main areas of study: the psychology of belief (including religion, mythology and political ideology), and the assessment and improvement of personality (including the prediction of creative, academic and industrial performance).


Carney, D. R., Jost, J. T., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The secret lives of liberals and conservatives: Personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behind. Political Psychology, 29, 807-840.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375.

Xu, X., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J. B. (2013). Does cultural exposure partially explain the association between personality and political orientation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1497-1517.

Image Credit: By Kittisak, published on 12 November 2011 Stock Photo – image ID: 10064370

New Semester, New Goal? Goal Change in College Students over Four Years

January 9, 2014

By Katherine S. Corker (Kenyon College), M. Brent Donnellan, and Ryan P. Bowles (Michigan State University)

For many college students, the new year signals the start of the new semester, and with those new classes comes the possibility of new goals. College students are vowing to strive for mastery of course material, to best their classmates in terms of performance, or both. Others are just trying not to perform poorly or to avoid failing to learn important course concepts. But for all the opportunities for goal change, do these academic goals (known to researchers as achievement goals) actually change that much? The results of a recent study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggest that the magnitude of change depends on the goal in question.

Study author Katherine Corker (of Kenyon College), together with Michigan State University colleagues Brent Donnellan and Ryan Bowles, wanted to understand more completely how achievement goals develop over time in college students. Previous studies had largely neglected college students, preferring instead to study goal change in childhood. The few published studies of college students typically lasted just one semester (Senko, Hulleman, & Harackiewicz, 2011).

By contrast, Corker and colleagues surveyed a representative sample of 527 incoming Michigan State University students over the course of four years when students were in their in their first, second, fourth, and eighth semesters of college. The students completed a 12-item questionnaire each semester that asked them about their goals for their courses, generally, in terms of whether they were trying to learn course material, outperform peers, avoid failing to master course content, or avoid poor performance (Elliot & McGregor, 2001).

The researchers examined whether students, on average, tended to increase, stay the same, or decrease their level of endorsement of these four goals. The results showed that three of the four goals tended to decrease over the course of college, and most of the change occurred in the first two years of the study. That is – students tended to enter college rating their goals to learn course material, avoid failing to master course material, and avoid poor performance relatively high, but these goals declined as they progressed through school. The one exception to this trend was the goal to outperform peers. This goal stayed at a relatively high and constant level over the course of college.

The researchers also examined goal stability or how consistently students were ranked in terms of their goals. When stability is high, students tend to maintain more or less the same ranked standings on a given goal, and when stability is low, rankings are inconsistent. Low stability implies that students are frequently changing up their goals, perhaps in idiosyncratic ways. However, and perhaps contrary to intuition, all four of the goals investigated were remarkably stable over time, implying that students are fairly consistent in terms of the goals they adopt.

Considering these results, educators might be interested to know that students’ motivation for learning course material dips later in college compared to initial levels. With this finding in hand, curricula might be restructured in such a way as to make upper level classes especially interesting and applicable for junior and senior students. Further, parents can rest assured that students’ initial worries about performing poorly in classes and failing to master course material will likely subside from the first to the second year of school. Finally these results suggest that goal choices are fairly stable individual differences – suggesting that goal change, as with behavioral change, may be more difficult to execute than imagined.

Author Information

katie_corkerKatherine S. Corker is assistant professor of psychology at Kenyon College, where she runs the Personality, Achievement Goals, and Education Research (PAGER) lab. Her current research considers how changes in student characteristics are reciprocally linked over time. Her blog is


brent_donnellanM. Brent Donnellan is associate professor of psychology, Michigan State University. Dr. Donnellan is Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Research in Personality and maintains a blog, The Trait-State Continuum ( His research examines lifespan personality development with a focus on measurement and methods.


ryan_bowlesRyan P. Bowles is assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Michigan State University. Dr. Bowles is the co-director of the Early Language and Literacy Investigations laboratory at MSU. His research investigates the development of literacy in children using modern statistical techniques (see for more information).



Corker, K. S., Donnellan, M. B., & Bowles, R. P. (2013). The development of achievement goals throughout college: Modeling stability and change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1401-1417.

Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 x 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 501-519.

Senko, C., Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2011). Achievement goal theory at the crossroads: Old controver­sies, current challenges, and new directions. Educational Psychologist, 46, 26-47.

Image Credit: Photo by Lori Ann of MamaWit ( Creative commons license 2.0.

Mindsets Matter: Understanding When Attitudes Predict Gender Bias

December 30, 2013

By Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette (University of Richmond)

The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.

~John F. Kennedy~

US President John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 State of the Union address, claimed he was certain about uncertainty: that “the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.” Do you agree with him?  And, more specifically, do you believe that this perspective even applies to human nature?  In social psychological terms, do you have a growth mindset of people, believing in the malleable nature of human attributes? Or, do you believe that people are what they are–that change is the exception, and sameness the rule. Do you adopt a fixed mindset?

The answers to these questions are consequential, for research demonstrates that mindsets matter for a host of important outcomes ranging from self-regulation to forgiveness to discrimination (Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013). For example, in our research recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Hoyt & Burnette, 2013), we found that mindsets about the nature of people influence evaluations of women in positions of authority. Although we have witnessed an enormous shift toward accepting women in positions of power and influence in society, women are still perceived as not having what it takes to be an effective leader. The more traditional division of labor where men hold positions of power relative to women has given rise to consensually shared attitudes about what women should or should not do, called gender roles (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Unfortunately, one outcome of these gender roles is that women are often judged as less competent leaders, in part, because of the stereotype that “men should take charge, whereas women should take care.” Individuals who support these status quo traditional gender roles tend to discriminate against women, in, for example, hiring decisions and leader evaluations. In contrast, people who reject traditional gender roles are more likely to show favor towards women leaders.

However, the extent to which people rely on these preexisting gender role attitudes when judging female leaders depends on their mindset. If you have a growth mindset of people (e.g., you believe people can fundamentally change), you are more likely to process the dynamic nature of human behavior and to consider the situational context. In contrast, if you have a fixed mindset of people (e.g., you believe that people do not change), you are more likely to process information in terms of explicit traits such as gender.  In our research, across two studies, we found that traditional attitudes toward women in authority significantly predicted a pro-male gender bias in leader evaluations, and progressive attitudes predicted a pro-female gender bias with an especially strong effect for those with more fixed, relative to growth mindsets about the general nature of people (Hoyt & Burnette, 2013).

A fundamental goal of applied social psychological research is to understand factors that can help to reduce social inequality. Our work sought to understand the factors that reduce biased evaluations of female leaders. History suggests these evaluations are shifting. For example, a recent Gallup Poll (2011) showed that although preferences for working for a male boss (32%) outnumbered those for a female boss (22%), the most popular response was no preference (44%), which is notably less traditional than responses in 1995 (46% preferred a male boss, 19% preferred a female boss, and 33% indicated no preference). The findings from our work offer additional optimism for surmounting traditional attitudes about the role of women in the upper echelons of society. Namely, if we want to reduce bias, we can focus not only on changing attitudes about the role of women, but also changing mindsets.

Author Information

HoytCrystal L. Hoyt is associate professor of leadership studies at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She holds a Ph.D. from University of California, Santa Barbara. As a social psychologist, she brings a psychological perspective to the field of leadership studies. Her research and curricular interests include social behavior, leadership and group dynamics, research methodology in the social sciences, examining the effects of stereotypes and discrimination on women and minority leaders, leader perception, and the role of confidence in shaping group leadership.

BurnettJeni Burnette is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond. Dr. Burnette’s research applies basic social psychological theories to understanding fundamental social issues such as obesity and healthy relationship functioning. She primarily focuses on how mindsets matter for self-regulation and person perception. Her work has been published in journals including Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.


Burnette, J. L., O’Boyle, E., VanEpps,* E. M., Pollack, J. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Mindsets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 655-701. doi: 10.1037/a0029531

Hoyt, C. L., & Burnette, J. L. (2013). Gender bias in leader evaluations: Merging implicit theories and role congruity perspectives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1306-1319. doi: 10.1177/0146167213493643

Eagly, A. H. & Karau, S.J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109, 573-598.  doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.109.3.573

Gallup Poll, August, 2011. Retrieved June 26, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, September, 1995. Retrieved June 26, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Image Credit: Image courtesy of Ambro, image ID: 10046913;

The Things You Do for Me: How Your Partner’s Investments Can Make You More Committed

December 19, 2013

By Samantha Joel, Emily Impett, & Geoff MacDonald  (University of Toronto)

Imagine that your partner uproots his or her life and joins you in your home city, leaving behind friends and family to start completely over. But after a few months, you begin to feel unhappy with your partner and the relationship. Would you end the relationship because of your unhappiness, or would your partner’s great sacrifice motivate you try to find a way to work things out?

People tend to invest a great deal into their romantic relationships, such as time, energy, emotions, material possessions, and sacrifices such as the one described above. Past research has focused entirely on the consequences of investments for the self: how do my investments affect my feelings toward the relationship? Such research has converged on the idea that a more invested partner is a more committed partner (Le & Agnew, 2003). However, no past research has examined the consequences of a partner’s investments for your own commitment. Beyond making your partner feel more committed, will your partner’s investments also make you feel more committed to the relationship?

We predicted that they would (Joel, Gordon, Impett, MacDonald, & Keltner, 2013). Specifically, we hypothesized that people would feel more appreciative of romantic partners who are willing to put more resources into the relationship. In other words, a highly invested partner is a partner worth committing to. Overall, we expected that when people perceive that their partners have put a great deal into the relationship, those investments would lead them to feel more grateful for their partners (i.e., to value their partners more), thus motivating them to continue the relationship.

We tested these hypotheses in a series of three studies. Study 1 was an online experiment conducted with participants currently in relationships. Some people were randomly assigned to think about the various ways in which their partners had invested in their relationships, whereas others were assigned to think about all the ways in which they themselves had invested into the relationships. A third group of participants skipped this manipulation entirely. Then, we asked participants a number of questions about their relationships, such as how appreciative they felt of their partners, and how committed they felt to their partners. Participants who thought about their partners’ investments subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships – even more committed than participants who had thought about their own investments! As predicted, thinking about the partners’ investments made participants feel more appreciative of their partners. These feelings of gratitude helped to explain why the participants who completed this exercise subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships, compared to participants who thought about either their own investments, or no investments at all.

For Studies 2 and 3, we recruited people in relationships and asked them to report back to us daily about how much their partners were investing in their relationships for either seven days (Study 2) or 14 days (Study 3). We then followed up with them either nine months later (Study 2) or three months later (Study 3) to see if their commitment to the relationship had changed. In both studies, when people thought that their partners were putting more into their relationships on a daily basis, their own commitment to the relationship tended to increase over the course of the study. This was explained by feelings of appreciation: participants felt more appreciative of more highly invested partners, thus leading them to feel more committed to the relationship.

Together, these studies show that when one partner invests time, energy, emotions, and other resources into the relationship, the other partner is likely to appreciate that person more and subsequently be more willing to stay in that relationship. Importantly, both gratitude (Gordon et al., 2012) and commitment (Rusbult et al., 2004) are associated with positive relationship outcomes. So, one implication of this work is that investments can be helpful for relationships: they elicit positive relationship feelings that are known to have downstream benefits. Joint investments in particular – such as merging finances, moving in together, or getting married – may produce powerful boosts in relationship wellbeing by making both members of the couple feel more grateful for, and committed to, one another.

On the other hand, the effects in all three of these studies extended even to participants who were less satisfied in their relationships. In other words, even people who were unhappy with their relationships felt more committed to those relationships if they felt their partners were more invested. Thus, investment decisions may be a double-edged sword in that although they promote gratitude and commitment, they may also motivate people to persevere even with chronically unfulfilling relationships. So, as conventional wisdom would predict, upping the relationship ante (by getting a house, or a pet, or a child) really may not be the best move for couples who are on the rocks. Such decisions may carry the risk of motivating people to stay in bad relationships not only because of their own investments, but because of their partners’ investments as well.

Author Information

joelSamantha Joel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto. Her research examines how people make decisions about romantic relationships, such as whether to pursue a love interest, whether to invest in a foundling relationship, or whether to break up with a romantic partner.

emilyEmily Impett is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses broadly on interpersonal relationships and well-being, and she is particularly interested in understanding when “giving” in relationships contributes to versus detracts from the quality and success of relationships.

MacDonaldGeoff MacDonald received a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Waterloo in 2000.  He is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.  His research focuses on relational insecurity and experiences of intimacy.


Joel, S., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.

Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.

Le, B. M., & Agnew, C. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the investment model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.

Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. A. (2004). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In H. T. Reiss & C. E. Rusbult (Eds.), Close relationships: Key Readings (pp. 287-303). New York: NY: Psychology Press.

Image Credit: By nixxphotography, published on 19 January 2012
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