Research Roundup

Talking about ourselves is just too fun to resist

Why do we like to reflect and talk about ourselves to others? Our brains find it pleasurable, according to research by Harvard University social psychology student Diana Tamir, published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Why do we like to reflect and talk about ourselves to others?In a series of five studies, Tamir examined the neural and behavioral components of self-disclosure. Three fMRI experiments, in which participants alternately talked about their own or someone else's opinions and personality traits, showed that sharing information about oneself sparked activity in the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, two brain regions associated with reward.

In one experiment, 37 people answered a series of questions about their own or President Barack Obama's opinions, or answered true or false to a trivia item. Each choice was linked to a small amount of money that participants would receive at the end of the trial. Tamir found that people were willing to give up 17 percent of potential earnings for the chance to answer more questions about themselves.

Another experiment showed that people would forgo money for the chance to introspect, and give up even more potential earnings to communicate those thoughts to another person.

"Thinking about the self is rewarding, as is sharing information," Tamir says. "So sharing information about the self is doubly rewarding."

People with schizophrenia over-detect eye contact

When asked whether a face was looking at them, people with schizophrenia were more likely to say "yes" than healthy controls, according to a study led by Ivy Tso, a clinical psychology student at the University of Michigan.

In the experiment, 26 people with schizophrenia and 23 healthy participants viewed a series of faces that varied in gaze direction, head orientation and emotion. Tso and colleagues found that participants with schizophrenia showed more uncertainty in perceiving eye contact and were more likely to say ambiguous faces were looking at them. Furthermore, uncertainty in detecting eye contact was significantly associated with flatter emotions, poorer neurocognition and lower emotional intelligence.

The results, published in January in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, suggest that some of the social challenges people with schizophrenia face could stem from the belief that people are looking at them when they aren't. They might feel threatened by the unwanted attention and become paranoid or begin to avoid social interactions altogether, Tso says. "Human beings, even from infancy, can use eye gaze direction as referential information," she says. "If someone cannot use that information to guide their social behavior, it will be very problematic to their social adaptation."

People feel less moral when they stifle sympathy

When people suppress their feelings of compassion, they change their beliefs about the importance of morality, according to a study led by Daryl Cameron, a social psychology student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Participants became more ethically flexible after suppressing feelings of sympathy, but not distress, while looking at pictures of crying babies, researchers foundIn the study, published in the March issue of Psychological Science, 101 undergraduate students viewed images depicting homeless people, crying babies, and victims of war and famine. Researchers randomly assigned the participants to one of three conditions. The first group was told to try to avoid feeling sympathy while looking at the pictures, the second was told to suppress their feelings of distress and the third group was directed to feel whatever emotions came to mind. After the task, the participants rated how much they wanted to be honest, caring, helpful, fair and kind. They also answered questions about how often it is acceptable to violate ethical rules.

Cameron found that people who suppressed their sympathy did not endorse strict ethics if they also highly valued being a good person because, due to cognitive dissonance, "people who avoided compassion couldn't consistently claim to be a moral person and to believe that one always has to be moral," Cameron says. "That did not happen for the other two conditions. There's something about regulating compassion that forces this trade-off."

Sex therapy may backfire for women in unhappy relationships

Sex therapy that relies on cognitive behavioral techniques may make women who are unsatisfied with their romantic relationships more distressed, according to research published in the June issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior.

For women in troubled relationships, improved sexual functioning correlated with increased distress, a study suggestsKyle Stephenson, a clinical psychology student at the University of Texas at Austin, used a data set from a previous study evaluating the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral sex therapy. Stephenson looked at information on 31 women who met criteria for hypoactive sexual desire disorder, female sexual arousal disorder and/or female orgasmic disorder, and who underwent eight weekly sessions of individual therapy. Before and after treatment, the women answered questions about their relationship satisfaction, sexual functioning, distress related to sex and sexual satisfaction.

On average, the women said they felt more desire and arousal and reached orgasm more easily following therapy, regardless of how satisfied they were with their relationships. However, the unhappily coupled women whose sexual functioning improved became even more distressed about their sex lives after therapy than before.

The research suggests that, for women in unhappy relationships, successful sex therapy can raise a host of other issues. "Sexual difficulties may have represented a scapegoat," Stephenson says. "When you take that away, it becomes apparent that the problems may be widespread in the relationship." The findings show it is important for sex therapists and patients to understand the potential downside of improving their sex lives. "It's not one-size-fits-all," he says.

Rose Pastore is a writer in Chicago.