If you wanted to ensure your mind was in top gear, which do you think would provide the better preparation – 15 minutes of calm relaxation, or a 15 minute jog?
A study involving 101 undergrad students suggests you’d be better off plumping for the latter.
Evidence had alreadyaccumulated showing that relatively brief, moderate aerobic exercise – like going for a brisk walk or a jog – has immediate benefits for mental functioning, especially speed and attentional control. A parallel literature has also documented how brief, aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on your mood, including making you feel more energetic, even when you don’t expect it to. In their new paper in Acta Psychologica, Fabian Legrand and his colleagues bridged these findings by looking to see if the emotional effects of exercise might be at least partly responsible for the cognitive benefits.
They asked their participants to rate how energetic and vigorous they were feeling and then to complete two cognitive tests (versions of the Trail Making Test, which involves drawing lines between numbers and letters as fast and as accurately as possible).
Next, they allocated half their student participants to go for a 15 minute group jog around the campus and the others to spend the same time following group relaxation exercises. Finally, two minutes after the jog/relaxation session, the students answered the same questions as before about their feelings of energy, and then they repeated the cognitive tests.
The students who went for a jog, but not the relaxation students, subsequently showed significant improvement on the version of the Trail Making Test that measures mental speed and attentional control (but not the other that taps memory and cognitive switching). Moreover, this improvement in cognition was fully mediated by their increased feelings of energy and vigour, implying – although not proving conclusively – that the jog boosted cognition through its effects on their subjective sense of having more energy (in contrast, the relaxation group actually felt dramatically less energetic).
Among the study limitations was the fact the relaxation session took place inside, while the jog was outside. Notwithstanding this issue and some others, and while recognising the need for more research, Legrand and his team said that their findings “add weight to recent suggestions that increased feelings of energy may mediate the relationship between aerobic exercise and some aspects of cognitive functioning.”
The effect of playing sport on men’s testosterone levels is well documented. Generally speaking, the winner enjoys a testosterone boost, while the loser experiences the opposite (though far less studied, competition unsurprisingly also affects women’s hormonal levels, though not in the same ways as men’s). The evolutionary-based explanation for the hormonal effects seen in men is that the winner’s testosterone rise acts to increase their aggression and the likelihood that they will seek out more contests, while the loser skulks off to lick their wounds. When it comes to vicarious effects of competition on men’s testosterone, however, the findings are more mixed. There’s some evidence that male sports fans show testosterone gains after seeing their teams win, but other studies have failed to replicate this finding.
A new, small study in Human Nature adds to this literature by examining the hormonal changes (testosterone and cortisol) in fathers watching their children play a football game – a situation in which you might particularly expect to see vicarious hormonal effects since it’s the men’s own kin who are involved.
The eighteen participating fathers (average age 47) were recruited in the US state of New Mexico where they were watching their kids (average age 13) play in a local football (soccer) tournament. Nine of them were watching their sons play, the others were watching their daughters. The dads provided saliva samples before and after the matches, and also answered some questions about their child and the game.
Anthropologist Louis Alvarado at the University at Albany and his colleagues, including the psychologists Melissa Eaton and Melissa Thompson at the University of New Mexico, found that the fathers’ testosterone and cortisol levels increased after the experience of watching the games (by 81 per cent and 417 per cent, respectively). These changes weren’t linked to the outcomes of the games, but were to an extent explained by whether or not the fathers believed that the referee had acted unfairly towards their child’s team – if they did perceive unfairness, the fathers’ post-match cortisol and testosterone tended to be higher (fathers with higher pre-match testosterone were also more likely to perceive unfairness).
The researchers said this main result of a link between hormonal changes and fairness perception was “consistent with a functional explanation in which hormonal changes are associated with the potential for future conflict – here, in the context of responding to potential threats affecting one’s own status and that of kin.”
Given that aggression among parents watching their kids has become “an important cultural issue”, the researchers added that their results could “… have implications for the growing body of literature that attempts to curb the problem of sideline violence by identifying the proximate and individualistic factors associated with conflict potential.”
Other findings to come out of the study were that fathers watching their sons showed greater testosterone rises than fathers watching their daughters, as did fathers who felt sports were less important to their child (this latter result was opposite to expectations, and the researchers speculated that it was perhaps connected to the fathers’ frustration or disappointment that their child was not taking the competition seriously enough).
A more technical finding was that gains in the fathers’ “stress hormone” cortisol tended to predict subsequent increases in their testosterone. This result provides tentative support for the so-called “positive coregulation” model of cortisol and testosterone, in which increases in cortisol supplement the effects of testosterone when males are competing, while arguing against the opposite theory that sees cortisol as down-regulating testosterone and reducing the likelihood of the individual engaging in competitive behaviour in times of stress. The researchers said the “positive coregulation” model makes more sense in evolutionary terms, with stress (and cortisol) priming high-ranking male primates to be more competitive when they are faced with the threat of status competition from more junior males.
Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.
It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).
In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.
The study, provisionally titled “Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment?” had two main components. First, 434 Washington University of St. Louis students were texted four times a day for 15 days and asked to rate themselves on four of the Big Five personality characteristics based on how they had felt and behaved during the previous hour: Extraversion, Agreeableness (only “if they reported that they were around others during the target hour”), Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. Of these 434 participants, 311 also wore a recording device paired with an iPod touch that recorded for 30 seconds every nine and a half minutes from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, generating a huge amount of audio data. (Before researchers had full access to the recordings, students were allowed to listen to them and erase anything they didn’t want the researchers to hear, but only 99 files were deleted from a cache that became “152,592 usable recordings from 304 participants.”)
Second, a veritable small army of research assistants – more than a hundred – listened to the recordings and rated the speakers on the same four personality states they had previously rated themselves on. For a subset of the study participants, then, researchers had three useful pieces of information: recordings of them going about their lives, participants’ rating of their own personality states during those periods, and outside observers’ rating of those same states. This allowed the researchers to measure the extent to which self-ratings correlated with other-ratings – that is, did Tom’s view that he was quite extroverted during a given hour match up with how others who heard him on audio interpreted his behaviour during snippets of that period?
And measure they did, generating a pretty cool series of graphs (see above). The more acute the positive, upward slope, the more there was agreement between self- and other-ratings. So as you can see, Extraversion was, by a significant margin, the personality characteristic for which people seemed to have the most accurate self-knowledge. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. For one thing, while intuition isn’t always an accurate guide on such matters, common sense would suggest that people are well aware of the extent to which they are actively and enthusiastically engaging in social activity, and that we’re all pretty good at judging others’ level of extraversion as well. Second, the authors note that this finding is “consistent with a large body of literature demonstrating high self-observer agreement on trait extraversion across a wide range of conditions.” The state with second-highest subject-observer agreement, as the graph shows, was Conscientiousness (again, perhaps because in-the-moment conscientious behaviour is pretty easy for both the self and others to discern).
What about the two other personality states, where there was significantly less subject-observer agreement? The tricky part about interpreting these findings, as the authors point out, is that there are two possible explanations: the first is that the subject really does lack insight into their temporary psychological states and that the external observers’ observations accurately captured this; and the second is that the observer was wrong because they only had access to a limited slice of audio that simply might not be enough to accurately gauge the subject’s state at that moment (remember, the raters had no visual information to go on – no body language, facial expressions, or anything else).
So when it comes to Agreeableness and that rather flat line – meaning little agreement between subjects and observers – the authors argue that “it is plausible that people have less self-insight into their momentary agreeableness,” because Agreeableness has so much more to do with external, observable behaviours, and with other people’s perceptions of your warmth, than with internal “thoughts and feelings” (meaning that other people might naturally be better judges of this personality state). Neuroticism, on the other hand, is different – it’s a state much more characterised by internal feelings than by outward behaviour. So in that case, Sun and Vazire argue that their findings alone shouldn’t be seen as supporting the idea that people are bad at self-rating their present level of Neuroticism – rather, it’s more likely the audio just didn’t give the observers enough to go on.
As is probably clear, this is a complicated topic, and it seems likely that people are much better at understanding their present personality states in some ways than others. Sun and Vazire’s study was quite ambitious, and it offers a useful path forward for researchers hoping to learn more about an important issue. In the meantime, their general takeaway? “Our findings show that we can probably trust what people say about their momentary levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, and likely neuroticism. However, our findings also call into question people’s awareness of when they are being considerate versus rude.” Useful information – and probably not a surprise to anyone who has dealt with a bullying coworker who doesn’t seem to understand the impression he’s making on his colleagues.
Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.