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Motivated Forgetting by Remembering the Way Things Were

December 18, 2013

By Gennaro Pica,  Antonio Pierro, Jocelyn J. Bélanger (La Sapienza, Università di Roma), & Arie Kruglanski (University of Maryland)

Imagine you want to remember an episode from the past, but related memories interfere with the one that you wish to retrieve selectively. If the interference of such unwanted memories is difficult to overcome then you might experience cognitive confusion and your goal-directed retrieval would be undermined. For instance, what if you are trying to remember a former teacher’s name from your childhood, when at the moment of retrieval other teachers’ names come into your mind. How does your mind resolve competition among memories and how does your mind achieve goal-directed retrieval?

Recent research in cognitive psychology suggests the mind is able to recall goal-directed materials through the forgetting of competing unwanted memories, a phenomenon called as retrieval-induced forgetting (Anderson, Bjork & Bjork, 1994). This type of forgetting occurs because the interfering unwanted memories are inhibited and serves a fundamentally adaptive function: Forgetting (by inhibiting) some information may afford remembering other, more useful, information and avoiding unmanageable cognitive confusion.

The human capacity for inhibition and suppression (see Kunda & Spencer, 2003; Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002) suggests that forgetting need not always be passive (due to memory decay), but may also be driven by an active striving to advance one’s current goals: Inhibiting information that is unnecessary, inappropriate, and irrelevant to one’s current concerns may serve to remember information that is necessary, appropriate, and relevant (Storm, 2011).

Although the goal-directed nature of retrieval-induced forgetting appears to be evident, prior research has neglected its motivational aspects. In our work (Pica, Pierro, Bélanger, & Kruglanski, 2013) recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we considered the retrieval process as a form of judgment (about the way things were), affected by motivational factors that influence all judgments (e.g., Need for Cognitive Closure; see Kruglanski, 2004). Need for cognitive closure (NfCC) is a motivation to make assured judgments and to protect them from interference. Under a heightened NfCC, individuals tend to become impervious to subsequent information that could potentially undermine their prior judgments and impressions. Retrieval of items from memory requires a focus on the class of items to be recalled and imperviousness to other items that could run interference with the retrieval process. Accordingly, we hypothesized that a heightened NfCC would augment such imperviousness.

We assumed, building our hypotheses based on Cognitive Energetics Theory (CET; Kruglanski, Bélanger, Chen, Köpetz, Pierro, & Mannetti, 2012), that the retrieval process (with its forgetting effects) is energy-dependent and results from a driving force arising from a combination of cognitive resources (available mental energy) and epistemic motivation (Need for Cognitive Closure). The occurrence of such process is contingent on the relative magnitudes of the driving force (resources and epistemic motivation) versus the restraining force, reflecting the magnitude of the activity’s requirements determined by difficulty (task demands) presented by the activity. The higher the restraining force the higher must be the driving force for the activity to operate.

Metaphorically, imagine an athlete that is performing in a pole vault competition: If the pole is posited at an accessible level (e.g. 4,00 m; easy condition), then little aspirations (i.e. motivation) and weak trainings (i.e. resources) is needed in order to jump over this level; if, on the other hand, the pole is posited at an higher level (e.g. near the men’s pole vault world record, 6,14 m; difficulty condition), then very strong motivations (i.e. winning/getting the world record) and very hard training (i.e. high resources) is needed in order to reach this goal.

The results of our two studies offered consistent support for our hypotheses. In Study 1, where difficulty of the inhibitory task was uniformly high, we found that the RIF effect was obtained only where the interfering items were in a high taxonomic category, that is, where they created significant distraction (attentional competition), warranting their inhibition (replicating the competition dependence assumption of RIF, Anderson et al., 1994). Furthermore, a significant amount of RIF appeared to be greater where a high degree of the NfCC was coupled with a relatively ample presence of cognitive resources (i.e., in the circadian match vs. mismatch conditions).

Our second study provided additional evidence for the CET analysis. It replicated the results of Study 1 in a condition where the inhibition difficulty was assumed to be relatively high (i.e., in the two practice retrievals condition), but not in a condition where the inhibition difficulty was assumed to be low (i.e., in the four practice retrievals condition). As in Study 1, where the inhibition difficulty was high, RIF appeared to be greater where high NfCC was coupled with a high degree of cognitive resources. In other words, consistent with the CET, the mere availability of resources did not suffice to produce the RIF effect; instead, motivation was needed to appropriately draw on those resources.

It is of interest to consider how our findings bear on personality and social psychological phenomena. It appears that given sufficient resources, persons who are high on the NfCC (whether as a stable personality trait or because of situational conditions) should exhibit a variety of memory biases by focusing on momentarily (or chronically) accessible category items. For example, they might remember their successes more than their failures, as well as stereotypic traits about persons (e.g., related to their gender, ethnicity, or age) more so than other less accessible details. The combined effects of resources and motivation (e.g., NfCC) in sharpening memory for given categories of material (as reflected by the RIF effect) may have significant interpersonal consequences where the same individuals have different memories of seemingly the same event (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954) leading to disagreements and potential conflicts. Finally, inhibition of interfering items could mean restriction of one’s memory search and false confidence in items that for some reason were highly accessible to the individual. This might limit individuals’ flexibility in interpersonal interaction and reduce their ability to “think on their feet” as it were.

Author Information

Dr. Gennaro Pica

Gennaro Pica has recently completed his PhD in Social Psychology at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. He is now a postdoctoral student at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. His research interests focus on motivated cognition, epistemic motivations and self-regulation.

Prof. Antonio PierroAntonio Pierro is Professor of Social Psychology at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. His current main research interests include power and leadership, persuasion, group processes and self-regulation. In general, his research interests concern the interface motivation and cognition.

Dr. Jocelyn J. BélangerJocelyn J. Bélanger has recently completed his PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Maryland, USA. He is now a postdoctoral student at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. His primary research interests focus on goals, passion, and self-sacrifice.

Prof. Arie W. KruglanskiArie Kruglanski is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. He is past editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: attitudes and Social Cognition and past editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. He has over 300 publications on topics in motivated cognition and is a founding member of the National Center of Excellence for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START).


Anderson, M. C., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: Retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 20, 1063-1087.

Hastorf, A., & Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game: A case study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 129-134.

Kruglanski, A. W. (2004). The psychology of closed mindedness. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Kruglanski, A. W., Belanger, J., Chen, X., Kopetz, C., Pierro, A., & Mannetti, L. (2012). The energetics of motivated cognition: A force field analysis. Psychological Review, 119, 1-20.

Kunda, Z., & Spencer, S. J. (2003). When do stereotypes come to mind and when do they color judgment? A goal-based theoretical framework for stereotype activation and application. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 522-544.

Pica, G., Pierro, A., Bélanger, J., & Kruglanski, A.W. (2013). The Motivational Dynamics of Retrieval induced Forgetting: A Test for Cognitive Energetics Theory. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 39, 1530-1541.

Shah, J. Y., Friedman, R., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2002). Forgetting all else: On the antecedents and consequences of goal shielding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1261-1280.ological Bulletin, 129, 522-544.

Storm, B. C. (2011). The benefit of forgetting in thinking and remembering. Current Direction in Psychological Science, 20, 291-295.

Image Credit: stockimages, published on 02 December 2013, Stock Photo – image ID:


Social Competence and Not Losing One’s Cool

December 14, 2013

By Michael D. Robinson (North Dakota State University), Adam K. Fetterman (Knowledge Media Research Center in Tübingen, Germany), Kay Hopkins (North Dakota State University), Sukumarakurup  Krishnakumar (North Dakota State University)

A co-worker repeatedly ignores your good ideas. How effective might it be to yell at him?

Other people can do things that are rude and insulting. It is human nature to experience anger under such circumstances and anger wants us to act assertively, sometimes to the point of aggression. But are these sorts of behaviors effective? It might “depend on the situation” to some extent but in many situations the answer is probably “no”. For example, yelling at the co-worker might convince the co-worker that you are a hot-head who is unlikely to have very good ideas!

Being successful in life is likely to require some social competence – knowledge about effective and ineffective ways of dealing with the situations that confront us. Thorndike (1920) originally proposed something like social competence and he said that it might often be more important than IQ in determining our life courses. Robinson, Fetterman, Hopkins, and Krishnakumar (2013) recently proposed a way to measure this ability or skill. People read about 10 situations and rate the effectiveness of different ways of responding to them. These ratings are compared to what an expert sample thinks and then each person gets a social competence score based on his/her agreement with experts. Perhaps because no one ever gave us the “rule book” for life, there are some people who receive pretty low scores. They are socially incompetent by this measure. Other people, though, get very high scores and could be labeled socially competent.

How might socially incompetent people differ from those who are socially competent? One answer is that socially incompetent people might be more prone to acting aggressively when they feel irritated – something called “reactive aggression”. Why so? According to Strack and Deutsch (2004), people can act on impulse or they can act more thoughtfully. However, acting thoughtfully requires social knowledge and socially incompetent people lack this knowledge. As a result, they should be less capable of over-riding their tendencies toward reactive aggression when acting aggressively would not be a good idea.

Robinson et al. (2013) tested these ideas in three studies, each involving about 100 people. Social competence was measured by the situation-based knowledge measure described above. Study 1 asked people whether they had a tendency to act aggressiveness when angry or irritated (a measure called trait anger). Study 2 used a scenario-based measure which asked participants how they would respond to various provocations (e.g., a person cutting in line ahead of them), including options related to direct, indirect, and symbolic forms of aggression. The Study 2 participants were also asked whether they would be motivated to “get back” at the provoking miscreants (e.g., the line-cutter). In study 3, respondents reported on their lives for 14 days. They told the researchers whether they were frustrated by events on each day and also told us whether they had engaged in hostile behaviors (e.g., arguing, criticizing others) on each day.


Figure 1. Daily frustrating events and Social Competence (SC) interact to predict daily hostile behaviors.

There were several interesting findings. Study 1 found that higher levels of social competence were predictive of lower levels of trait anger and this was true even after controlling for personality variables. Although people high in social competence wanted to “get back” at others who provoked them in Study 2, they were much less likely to endorse aggressive responses in these same situations. This was true for all forms of aggression examined. Social competence was also inversely predictive of daily hostile behaviors in Study 3, particularly on days involving high levels of frustration. In other words, there was a much stronger relationship between daily frustrations and daily hostile behaviors among people low in social competence (see Figure 1).

The research (Robinson et al., 2013) demonstrates that social competence is an important skill. People lacking this skill are more aggressive when they are provoked or irritated. Socially competent people, on the other hand, can “get mad without getting even”, likely because they recognize that aggression sometimes creates more problems than it solves – i.e., this behavior is often ineffective. The strength of the results encourages future research in which the possibility of improving social competence through feedback and training is systematically explored, particularly among populations who are violence-prone.

Author Information

RobinsonMichael D. Robinson is a Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. He is a prolific researcher in the areas of personality, cognition, emotion, and self-regulation. He has served as an Associate Editor for a number of journals including Emotion, Journal of Personality, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

FettermanAdam K. Fetterman is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Knowledge Media Research Center (KMRC) in Tübingen, Germany. He received his PhD in social/personality psychology from North Dakota State University in 2013. He is a productive researcher who publishes in the areas of metaphor, embodiment, personality, motivation, and emotion.

Hopkins_Kay2Kay Hopkins has an MBA degree. She is currently a Professional Academic Advisor for pre-professional majors in the College of Business at North Dakota State University. In addition, she is a PhD student in Occupational and Adult Education, also at North Dakota State University.

Kumar 2Sukumarakurup (Kumar) Krishnakumar is an assistant professor of Management at North Dakota State University. His research focuses on the potential benefits of social and emotional abilities in the workplace. He has published papers in the areas of scale development, emotional intelligence, and workplace ethics.


Robinson, M. D., Fetterman, A., Hopkins, K., & Krishnakumar, S. (2013). Losing one’s cool: Social competence as a novel inverse predictor of provocation-related aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1268-1279.

Strack, F., & Deutsch, R. (2004). Reflective and impulsive determinants of social behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 220-247.

Thorndike, E. L. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper’s Magazine, 140, 227-235.

Image Credit: Shouting Boss, by imagerymajestic, published on 08 July 2012 Stock Photo – image ID: 10091465

Not So Simple To Express Ambivalent Attitudes…

December 10, 2013

By Vincent Pillaud (University of Lausanne), Nicoletta Cavazza (University of Modena-Reggio Emilia), & Fabrizio Butera (University of Lausanne)

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

Laurence J. Peter

Are you ambivalent about something, such as an issue, practice, or policy? If you are, you probably know how it feels to weigh, without final resolution, both the positive and negative aspects in an issue. Ambivalence is a very common experience and everyone feels ambivalent towards some kind of issue. Researchers in psychology have often considered ambivalence to be a weakness–a temporary phase people pass through before reaching certainty. But our research suggests that ambivalence can be strategically displayed to signal a positive social value.

Psychological research suggests individuals holding an ambivalent attitude often exhibit a polarized attitude when they have the opportunity to do so. Such an attitude shift is commonly interpreted as a way for these individuals to feel better, but it may also indicate that individuals are not inclined to express their ambivalence when dealing with others who hold a more clear-cut attitude. Cavazza and Butera (2008) notably showed that respondents who were ambivalent about traffic restrictions as a solution to pollution did not truly change their attitude when being confronted with a majority of people displaying a clear attitude; they simply mirrored the others’ position on the attitude’s core (direct level) but not on other related aspects (indirect level). It is therefore plausible to think that ambivalence could lead individuals to purposely express just a part of their attitude in their answers in order to satisfy the expectations of others when they have to defend a position, leaving the potentially conflicting part unexpressed. Following this reasoning, in this work we formulated two hypotheses. First, individuals should be able to strategically control the extent to which they express ambivalent attitudes as a consequence of self-presentational concerns. Second, displaying an ambivalent attitude could be helpful in achieving a positive self-presentation, as ambivalence can indeed indicate that one has thoughtfully pondered the pros and the cons of an issue. If this is true, then the strategic expression of ambivalence should be only found on debated and controversial attitude objects; the expression of clear-cut attitudes should be prevail on clear and consensual attitude objects.

We used the self-presentation paradigm and tested these two hypotheses in a set of four experiments recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Pillaud, Cavazza & Butera; 2013). This paradigm has been designed to study how individuals strategically modulate the expression of an attitude with self-presentational intentions. It consists of three conditions. First, participants are asked to answer with no specific indication (standard condition). Then, they have to answer the same questions again but depending on the condition, either in order to give a positive image of themselves (self-enhancement condition) or a negative one (self-depreciation condition). Because we were interested in showing that individuals can purposely alter their level of ambivalence as a function of the demands of the environment, we used this paradigm with a within-participant design. Participants thus had to answer three times: the standard condition was always presented first and the two other were presented in a random order. If the attitude score in the self-enhancement condition is significantly different from that in the self-depreciation condition, this means that the respondents know the social norms that regulate the expression of that attitude and they can deliberately adapt their answers to be positively (or negatively) evaluated.

The first two experiments were conducted on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), a controversial issue. Indeed, Séralini and colleagues published in 2012 an article that revealed the potential danger of genetically modified corn on rats, eliciting a crossfire of official and public debates. Our results revealed that participants did indeed alter their level of ambivalence as a function of the self-presentation conditions. They displayed more ambivalence on both the standard condition and the self-enhancement one in comparison with the self-depreciation condition. Furthermore, the level of ambivalence did not vary between the standard condition and the self-enhancement one, sustaining that a high ambivalence level was portrayed by default. Hence, individuals displayed a more ambivalent attitude by default as well as when they tried to present themselves positively as opposed to negatively on GMOs.

We argued that the purpose of displaying ambivalent attitudes is to signal that one has a highly diversified vision of a controversial issue, which turned out to be the case with controversial GMOs. Thus, this should not be the case if an issue is consensual. The third experiment was therefore conducted on a totally consensual attitude object, namely tooth brushing, a truism. Results revealed the reverse pattern of the above experiment: Participants significantly displayed more ambivalence to give a negative image of themselves in comparison with both the standard condition and the self-enhancement one.

Finally, we additionally manipulated the perception of controversy or consensus within the same attitude object: Participants saw a bogus graph demonstrating either that GMOs are not really socially debated, with a majority of cons, or that GMOs are often debated, with an equal number of pros and cons. Results revealed that individuals displayed more ambivalence in the standard and in the self-enhancement condition than in the self-depreciation condition in the controversy condition. Of interest, the opposite was found in the consensus condition (see Figure 1 below).

Fabrizio Data

Figure 1.

Since Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction, expressing ambivalence has been described in negative terms. These four studies, instead, support a new vision of ambivalence as being useful in adapting to different social situations. It appeared that people are able to express ambivalence to give a good image of themselves, especially when dealing with a controversial topic.

Author Information


Vincent Pillaud has recently completed his PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He is now a post-doc student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada. His research interests concern attitude expression and social judgment as well as stereotypes, social control, motivation and performance.

CavazzaNicoletta Cavazza is an Associate professor in Social Pychology at the Department of Communication and Economics, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy). Her current main research interests include attitude change, political psychology, persuasive communication, social aspects of eating. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Italian Journal of Social Psychology.

FabrizioFabrizio Butera is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, as well as Director of the Social Psychology Laboratory. His research interests focus on social influence processes, conflict, and social comparison; in particular, he studies the regulations of conflict that may hinder or favor changes in perceptions, motivations, attitudes, learning and behaviors. He currently is the President of the European Association of Social Psychology.


Cavazza, N., & Butera, F. (2008). Bending without breaking: Examining the role of attitudinal ambivalence in resisting persuasive communication. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 1-15.

Pillaud, V., Cavazza, N., & Butera, F. (2013). The social value of being ambivalent: Self-presentational concerns in the expression of attitudinal ambivalence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1139-1151.

Séralini, G. E., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., Gress, S., Defarge, N., Malatesta, M., Hennequin, D., & Spiroux de Vendômois, J. S. (2012). Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 4221-4231.

Image Credit: imagerymajestic, published on 28 June 2012 Stock Photo – image ID: 10089370/

Conservatives Say Why (Oughts); Liberals Say Why Not (Ideals)

December 9, 2013

By James Cornwell & E. Tory Higgins (Columbia University)

“Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say why not?”  This paraphrase of a line from a play by George Bernard Shaw was brought into the American political imagination by Robert F. Kennedy during a speech delivered at the University of Kansas in 1968, less than three months before his assassination (Kennedy, 1968).  The year marked a break from the general post-World War II political consensus and the movement of the country’s liberals and conservatives to opposite poles of the political spectrum.  But that quotation may have an even deeper wisdom beyond the purposes to which RFK put it: it may hold a key to understanding the motivations behind differences in our political commitments.

Researchers have noted that our political differences inevitably result in different emphases when it comes to morality (Graham et al, 2011).  According to moral foundations theory, morality is divisible into five basic areas: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.  The first two are referred to as “individualizing” foundations in that they focus on the rights of and relationships between individuals, whereas the latter three are referred to as “binding” foundations because they represent rules affirming the embeddedness of individuals in natural orders such as the family, the nation, or religious groups.  Both liberals and conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of the individualizing foundations, but differences between political groups consistently appear with respect to the binding foundations (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009).

In our view, these differences in foundation emphasis are a reflection of a fundamental motivational distinction.  According to the regulatory focus theory of motivation, goal pursuit is organized around two distinct systems of motivation: the promotion focus and prevention focus (Higgins, 1997).  The promotion focus is associated with hopes and aspirations and achieving progress and growth (ideals).  The prevention focus is associated with duties and obligations and maintaining safety and security (oughts).  These motivational systems offer a way of thinking about moral differences between political groups.

According to this view, conservatives “see things as they are and say why.”  They view the status quo as the product of the wisdom of prior generations and of the internal logic of current social, economic, and political arrangements.  Their political thought is generally devoted to the reaffirmation of existing states of affairs as either the inevitable outcomes of natural processes (such as the free market) or as reflective of a deeper natural order (such as a divine law).  Liberals, in contrast, “dream things that never were and say why not.”   They view the current status quo in light of shared aspirations and constantly work towards bringing the former into line with the latter, of which we as a nation fall short.  Their political thought is devoted to improving existing states of affairs towards closely held ideals about society (such as equality) and personhood (such as autonomy).

Both of these positions involve pursuing goals, but there exists a fundamental difference in the kind of basic concerns that underlie goal pursuit, which are related to the motivational distinction between promotion and prevention focus.  We therefore hypothesized that the differences in moral foundation emphasis that is reflected in political differences may be the product of differences in regulatory focus.

Our first study showed that those who are more effective at achieving promotion goals placed a lower emphasis on the binding moral foundations and identified as more political liberal.  In contrast, those who are more effective at achieving prevention goals placed a higher emphasis on the binding moral foundations and identified as more conservative (Cornwell & Higgins, 2013).

The second study we conducted showed that people are somewhat malleable in these moral beliefs as a function of whether a current situation makes promotion more relevant or prevention more relevant.  By simply having participants write an essay about either their hopes and aspirations (promotion) or their duties and obligations (prevention), we were able to significantly influence the degree to which they endorsed the binding foundations.  Those who wrote about their ideals became more morally liberal (endorsing the binding foundations less) whereas those who wrote about their obligations became more morally conservative (endorsing the binding foundations more), over and above their self-identified political ideology when compared to a control condition (Cornwell & Higgins, 2013).

Our research shows that both liberals and conservatives appear to be motivated to emphasize particular aspects of ethical reality, but they are also able to see the other moral point of view when properly motivated.  Put another way, liberals can be brought to see things as they are and ask why, and conservatives can be influenced to see things as they might be and ask why not.

Considering the growing moral chasm between representatives of the American Left and Right, which has introduced an unprecedented level of political paralysis in Washington, it is especially important to understand what motivations underlie the different political viewpoints held by our fellow Americans, and recognize that these viewpoints can change when motivational focus changes.  This research brings us not only a step closer to viewing the current state of political divisions in America and answering why, but it also suggests a way to dream of a better political culture and start asking why not.

Author Information

CornwellJames Cornwell is a doctoral student of psychology at Columbia University. His research has investigated the motivational underpinnings of moral judgments, ethical decisions, and political ideology. His work also focuses on how different fundamental motivations contribute to our sense of virtue or “the good life,” and how this concept relates both to moral behavior and to personal well-being.

HigginsE. Tory Higgins is the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology, Professor of Business, and the Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. His work is in the areas of motivation science and social cognition, with particular emphasis on where value comes from and how value, truth, and control work together. He is the author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works (Oxford, 2012), and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


Cornwell, J.F.M. & Higgins, E.T. (2013). Morality and Its Relation to Political Ideology: The Role of Promotion and Prevention Concerns. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(9), 1164-1172.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B.A. (2009). Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046.

Graham, J., Nosek, B.A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R.,  Koleva, S., & Ditto, P.H. (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366-385.

Higgins, E.T. (1997). Beyond Pleasure and Pain. American Psychologist, 52(12), 1280-1300.

Kennedy, R.F. (1968, March). Speech presented at the University of Kansas.  Lawrence, KS.

Image Credit: By nirots, published on 24 August 2012, Stock Image – image ID: 10098919.

Never Let Them See You Cry

December 9, 2013

By Michael J. Bernstein (Penn State Abington), Heather M. Claypool (Miami University), Steven G. Young (Fairleigh Dickinson University), Taylor Tuscherer (Miami University), Donald F. Sacco (The University of Southern Mississippi), & Christina M. Brown (Arcadia University)

Be it a romantic break-up, friends not inviting you to a party, or a person declining your friend request on Facebook, social rejection is intensely unpleasant. Imagine, however, taking a psychological test and receiving feedback that you’re the type of a person who will live life alone, devoid of social connections — a sort of “social death” from which there is no recovery. You might think your self-esteem would be devastated. As it turns out, however, the story is not so simple.

Though some prior research shows that ostracized individuals experience reduced self-esteem (e.g., Williams, 2007), other work has not. In a recent review, researchers argued that social exclusion has no effect on self-esteem (see Blackhart, Nelson, Knowles, & Baumeister, 2009). One possible reason for these inconsistencies may be due to differing methods used to manipulate exclusion. For example, some studies exclude participants publicly (e.g., an experimenter tells participants that no one wanted to work with them), whereas others exclude participants privately (e.g., anonymously in a private cubicle). Previous work has shown that when self-presentation concerns are high (e.g., when one is being observed), participants want to appear unbothered, even while experiencing distress (Ansfield, 2007). In other words, people work very hard to appear as though nothing is wrong to prevent others from knowing they are upset. Thus, we hypothesized that self-presentational pressures to communicate that one is “feeling fine” may be a factor in understanding whether people report lower self-esteem following exclusion.

In this work (Bernstein, Claypool, Young, Tuscherer, Sacco, & Brown, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013), we had participants report self-esteem both explicitly (by answering survey style questions) and implicitly (using a speeded categorization task in which responses are very hard to fake or control) following an episode of exclusion or non-exclusion. In the first three studies, the exclusion likely felt somewhat “public” to participants, where self-presentational concerns would be high. In the last study, we directly manipulated whether exclusion was public or private. We predicted exclusion would always lower implicit self-esteem relative to a control condition because implicit reactions should be fairly immune to strategic self-presentation. We also predicted, however, that exclusion would only lower explicit self-esteem when such concerns were low (i.e., when exclusion was or felt private).

In the first three studies, we employed the “future-life” paradigm (see Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). In it, participants take a personality test for which the computer analyzes their results, and then gives accurate feedback regarding participants’ levels of extroversion. This is done to bolster the believability of what comes next, which is “fake” feedback designed to create feelings in participants (i.e., the experimental manipulation). In our research, some participants were told they were the type of person who would have numerous and long lasting relationships throughout their lives (our inclusion condition). Others were told the opposite: they would lose their current friends, have difficulty making news ones, and would end up alone. In one of the three studies, a third condition was included in which participants were told their personality profile was indicative of a person who is very accident-prone (like social rejection, this is a negative experience but it is not a social one). We then measured their self-esteem by using both self-report scales and by using an implicit measure called a Self-Esteem IAT (e.g., Greenwald & Farnham, 2000; see Project Implicit). The IAT works by assessing how quickly people associate “good” with themselves as opposed to “bad” with themselves. It is a way of assessing self-esteem that is very difficult for people to control because it relies on the speed with which people make simple judgments.

We found that among excluded participants, explicit self-esteem appeared unaffected; explicit self-esteem did not differ between included and excluded participants. However, the results were strikingly different for implicit self-esteem: excluded participants had lower implicit self-esteem compared to those included. In the study with a control condition, as predicted, all three groups reported equivalent levels of explicit self-esteem, but excluded participants displayed reduced implicit self-esteem.

In the first three studies, participants probably felt their exclusion and their reaction to it was somewhat public. They likely believed that the experimenter would “see” their exclusion feedback which, after all, was delivered and recorded by the computer, and that the experimenter would also see their reported self-esteem. We argued that victims of public exclusion are motivated to exaggerate their self-esteem (and thus report feeling fine) because of self-presentation concerns. Participants can easily alter their reports of explicit self-esteem to reflect this motivation, but participants are not able to alter their reports of implicit self-esteem. Thus, when individuals experience rejection, we find that they do have lower self-esteem if they cannot alter their responses to reflect self-presentation concerns.

If this logic is correct, we also reasoned that explicit self-esteem should decrease too if excluded participants do not have self-presentational concerns. In our final study, we tested this hypothesis directly. Participants were given the exclusion or inclusion feedback publicly (where self-presentation concerns should be high) or privately (where self-presentation concerns should be low) and then completed the same implicit and explicit self-esteem measures. The results confirmed our hypothesis. In the public condition, the pattern was identical to what was found in our first three studies. However, when participants were given the rejection feedback privately, and therefore self-presentational concerns were no longer salient, excluded participants showed both lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to included participants.

Anecdotally, rejection hurts. Nonetheless, research has not always supported this collective intuition. In this work, however, we identified one potential explanation for this contradiction: the impact of self-presentation concerns. When such concerns are high, exclusion only lowers implicit reports of self-esteem that cannot be altered by participants. However, when self-presentation concerns are low, exclusion lowers both implicit and explicit self-esteem. Understanding the effect that self-presentation concerns have on the way people respond to social exclusion has theoretical and practical implications; in both cases, just because people say they feel fine after being rejected, it does not necessarily mean they are not hurting.

Author Information

BernsteinMichael J. Bernstein is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Pennsylvania State University at Abington College. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from Miami University in 2010. His research focuses on interpersonal and intergroup relations, particularly as they pertain to social exclusion.

ClaypoolHeather M. Claypool is a Professor of Social Psychology at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Her work explores the cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral consequences of social exclusion and the impact of fluency (processing ease) on social judgments and actions. Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, and she currently serves as an Associate Editor at the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

YoungSteven G. Young is an Assistant Professor of Psychology. He received his PhD in Social Psychology at Miami University. His research examines how motivational and emotional states influence cognition and behavior.

TuschererTaylor Tuscherer is a doctoral candidate studying social psychology at Miami University in Oxford, OH. He received his BA from Lake Forest College north of Chicago. His primary research interests are stereotypes and prejudice, especially as they relate to perceptions of nontraditional couples (e.g., interracial, same-sex).

SaccoDonald Sacco is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at The University of Southern Mississippi. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from Miami University. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of social inclusion and exclusion, face perception and nonverbal behavior, and the role of motivation in cognition and perception.

Christina-BrownChristina M. Brown is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Arcadia University. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from Miami University and has also taught at Saint Louis University and Earlham College. Her research explores the critical role of the self in social experiences and behavior.


Ansfield, M. A. (2007). Smiling when distressed: When a smile is a frown turned upside down. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 763-775.

Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection elicits emotional reactions but neither causes immediate distress nor lowers self-esteem: A meta-analytic review of 192 studies on social exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 269-309.

Greenwald, A. G., & Farnham, S. D. (2000). Using the Implicit Association Test to measure self-esteem and self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1022-1038.

Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., Tice, D. M., & Stucke, T. S. (2001). If you can’t join them, beat them: Effects of social exclusion on aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1058-1069.

Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425-452.

Image Credit: Crying Doll By Theeradech Sanin, published on 29 May 2012
Stock Photo – image ID: 10084481/

Venturing out of Reductionism: Taking a Deeper Look Through John Lennon’s “Lucy”

December 3, 2013

By Tim Kasser (Knox College)

On the first day of my upper-level personality class, I pose a series of questions to my students.  I begin by asking how many of them have ever been in a psychology study; everyone raises their hands. I then ask a few of the students to describe the studies they were in; they typically tell me about such things as filling out surveys or pressing keys on a computer quickly or choosing between different options of potential mates, consumer goods, or goals.  I then ask those students to tell me what they believe the researchers have learned about them from their participation in the study.  After a pause, they usually reply with statements such as “I have moderate self-esteem” or “I am pretty bad at math problems” or “I like guys with broad shoulders.”  Finally, I ask what percentage of their whole personality the researcher has learned about from this one study.  That is, if they think about the totality of who they are, what percentage has been uncovered from that one study?  The modal answer is well below 1%.

I pose these questions to my students to begin a conversation about the philosophy of reductionism that drives most research in social and personality psychology.  I try to help them to see that the philosophy of reductionism holds that if researchers can understand each and every little piece of what makes up the phenomenon of interest (in this case, the person), then those pieces can be combined eventually so as to present a full understanding of the phenomenon.  At this point, many of my students, rightfully I think, begin to balk.  They say that while reductionism may provide a substantial understanding of pieces, understanding each piece is not the same as understanding the whole person, or how all of those pieces interact to “create” a person.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the current state of social and personality psychology will probably recognize that my students’ critique of our field is a fitting one.   While some marvelously integrative theories and tremendous lines of research have illuminated crucial features of the human being, far less success has been attained in putting it all together, in understanding how to understand a whole person in all his or her complexity, in understanding the seven-way interactions that probably account for people’s on-going behavior at any moment in their lives.  Perhaps it is not surprising that the field has accomplished so little in this particular regard, given how little financial support there is for such efforts, how rarely we teach our students how to make this grand attempt, and how rarely we engage in such efforts ourselves.

Having spent most of my professional life in the standard reductionistic paradigm, studying materialism, values, and other constructs, and writing articles of the type found in journals like JPSP and PSPB, I decided to de-prioritize this work for a few years and try my hand at deeply understanding why one person did one thing at one point in his life.  I chose to explore why John Lennon wrote the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the winter of 1966/1967.   In doing so, I of course wanted to maintain a scientific approach to this question, relying on real data and good theorizing instead of anecdotes and hunches.  If we are to have a science of the individual, I believe it must be a science first and foremost.

I began my venture out of reductionism by first describing that which I was trying to understand:  Lennon’s song.  To this end, I adapted various established psychological techniques (such as linguistic analyses, scripting, and association analyses) in order to describe as fully as I could the song Lennon had created at this particular time in his life.  The data I collected from these methods suggested that Lennon’s song:  a) was stripped of emotion; b) was highly distanced from the present moment (rather than immersed in immediate experience); c) was organized around a narrative of long-standing importance to Lennon, namely his unsuccessful desire to be close to a powerful female figure; d) used words Lennon seemed to associate with themes of separation, love, sadness, being comforted, hiding one’s feelings, being insulted, jealousy, and death; and e) had musical characteristics Lennon seemed to associate with feeling depressed, being separated, and desiring connection.

I then studied the man Lennon was when he wrote the song.  I investigated the facts of his childhood and adolescence, and found that I needed to learn more about attachment theory and grief in order to understand his early life.  I read deeply about the year that preceded Lennon’s composition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and found that I needed to learn more about the effects of stress, of major life transitions, and, especially, of taking frequent doses of the drug LSD.  I also explored what I came to call the “activating event,” the moment that spurred the creation of this song.  In this case, that was when Lennon’s almost four-year-old son Julian came home from school with a picture he had made of his friend, Lucy, up in a diamond-filled sky.  So I needed to understand more about Lennon’s relationship with his son and his feelings about being a father.

Once I had brought all of this information to bear, I came to conclude that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, with its manifold characteristics, was created through a complex interaction of Lennon’s attachment style, the way he had (not) grieved over his mother’s death when he was a teen, the stresses he had recently been under, the manner in which LSD had weakened his defenses and allowed long-standing emotional concerns to begin to rise to the surface of his awareness (albeit in a highly disguised manner), and the way in which his own son reminded him of his own childhood.  I then set about testing some aspects of this hypothesis on songs Lennon wrote in the 3 years following his composition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

As I hope readers can see, the explanation I provided for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is not a simple one.  Multiple types of data-analytic approaches were necessary, numerous theories and research literatures had to be integrated, and, the best I can count, a five-way interaction was at work.

Having now completed the project, my reflections on my experience have left with me with a couple of questions for my field.  I wonder if any of us, despite our love of our pet theories and constructs, really and truly believes that anything crucial in our own lives can come close to being fully explained solely by the theory or construct(s) we prefer?  And I wonder if any of us truly believes that a discipline which is so dominated by a reductionistic approach and by uni-theoretical, uni-methodological scientific studies can ever provide a full explanation of what it means to be a person?

As a scientist, it seems to me these questions are worthy of further study.   And as Alan Elms (in Uncovering Lives, 1994, p. 16) said so wonderfully, perhaps “…it’s time for psychologists to sniff a rose or two, instead of merely measuring the mean attitudes of a thousand-person random sample toward red roses versus white.”

Author Information

kasserTim Kasser, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.  He is the author of many articles on values, consumer culture, and well-being.  His most recent book is Lucy in the Mind of Lennon (2013, Oxford University Press).


Elms, A. C. (1994). Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kasser, T. (2013). Lucy in the Mind of Lennon. New York: Oxford University Press.

Image Credit: Cover image, Lucy in the Mind of Lennon, Oxford University Press.

Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples’ Daily Lives: The Mediating Role of Psychological Intimacy

November 26, 2013

By Anik Debrot (University of Fribourg), Dominik Schoebi (University of Fribourg), Meinrad Perrez (University of Fribourg), & Andrea B. Horn (University of Zürich)

You get home late after a hard day’s work, very tired and maybe not in the best mood. Your partner is at home and asks you how your day was. You begin to recount the day’s ups and downs but feel too tired to even talk about it. So you just fall on the couch and ask your partner to join you and give you a hug. As simple as this hug may be, it helps you relax and the hassles of the day seem suddenly far away.

Maybe most of us know this comforting feeling of the beloved one’s touch, and it seems quite obvious that a hug of your dear one does good. Yet, despite the possible importance of such behaviors, researchers have paid little attention to how a simple touch or hug might influence partners in a romantic relationship.

Physiological research tells us that physical contact can have very positive effects. In fact, massage may lower blood pressure, stimulate development in infants, or enhance the immune functioning; it also reduces depression and aggressive behaviors (Field, Diego, & Hernandez-Reif, 2007).  In couples, too, touch seems to have a beneficial effect on several stress sensitive parameters (Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, and Light, 2008). But is it only the physical contact that matters? Could we get a “massage robot” to enhance our health? Probably not. Recent research underlines the importance of the relationship between the partners being close. For example, the positive effect of simply holding hands on mood and neural correlates in a distressing situation was found to be stronger with the partner as compared as with a stranger. Moreover, the better the relationship quality, the stronger the positive effect (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006).

This evidence is based on laboratory studies, but in our work recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Debrot, Schoebi, Perrez, & Horn, 2013) we examined the effects of responsive touch in couples as it occurs in daily life.  To do so, we gave a handheld computer to each partner in 102 couples, and we had them report their experiences four times a day during one week of their normal life.  We were surprised to find how frequently partners touched each other in a non-sexual way. In about 85% of the situations where they had been together, they reported having caressed, hugged, or touched their partner in a nonsexual manner. As expected at times of the day when a person indicated having been touched by his or her partner recently, a positive mood increase was reported. So touch not only benefits the body, but also the emotional state of mind. And not only did the touched partner benefit; our findings suggest that touching partners also felt better shortly after they were physically tender with their beloved during the day. Thus, there is a mutual benefit that underlines the importance of interpersonal ways of regulating mood in daily life.

Could it be that this all is a mere consequence of reduced physical stress, totally independent relationship-related processes? Our results suggest otherwise. As one would expect when it comes to interpersonal ways of regulating mood, felt closeness is an important pathway of the effects we observed. In fact, when touching the partner or being touched by him or her, participants experienced increased feelings of psychological intimacy toward each other following this tender contact. Our data suggest that hugging not only strengthens the bonds partners feel, but also in part explains individual’s mood increase in daily life.

Another important finding in our study is that this subtle (but yet significant) increase of positive mood in the normal daily fluctuations of mood of couples is not short lived. Six months after the initial study we contacted the participants again. We found that the ones that had been touched most across the duration of the study improved most in their psychological well-being–so there seems to be an enduring, accumulative effect.

In sum, even small caring touch gesture can have an impact on our emotional and social lifes and these accumulated in benefits that can be perceived even several months later. So, no hesitation: go and hug your partner–you doing something good for both of you!

Author Information

debrotAnik Debrot has done her PhD at the unit of Clinical Psychology of the University of Fribourg. She is currently working at a Swiss Psychiatric Clinic and training to become a psychotherapist. Her research interests involve emotions regulation, close relationship processes as well as affective and personality disorders.

Schoebi_DDominik Schoebi, PhD., is Associate Professor for Clinical Family Psychology and the Director of the Institute of Family Research and Intervention at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His research focuses on emotional dynamics in intimate relationships and its connection with relationship quality and stability, well-being and health. In his research, he uses primarily momentary assessment approaches in combination with longitudinal surveys and laboratory interactions.

Meinrad-PerrezMeinrad Perrez is Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology of the University of Fribourg. Over his career, he has been particularly interested in stress and family processes. His research method of predilection is the Ambulatory Assessment, which he helped develop over the last 30 years.

Horn_AndreaAndrea B. Horn is senior researcher at the Division Psychopathology and Clinical Intervention of the Institute for Psychology of the University of Zurich. Her research interests encompasses primarily intra- and interpersonal emotion regulation in the context of mental and physical health. Expressive writing, and language use are further research topics of hers.


Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032–1039. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x

Debrot, A., Schoebi, D., Perrez, M., Horn, A. B., (2013). Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples’ Daily Lives: The Mediating Role of Psychological Intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(10), 1373–1385. doi:10.1177/0146167213497592

Field, T., Diego, M., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2007). Massage therapy research. Developmental Review, 27(1), 75–89. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2005.12.002

Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. A., & Light, K. C. (2008). Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 976–985. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318187aef7

Image Credit:By photostock, published on 13 March 2011, Stock Photo – image ID: 10034243