Fri, 02 Mar 2018 09:39:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Learned helplessness is darker (and less understood) than you think Fri, 15 Dec 2017 10:15:28 +0000 As a psychological theory, ‘learned helplessness’ has an even worse origin story than the grittiest Batman reboot you can imagine. But the story also has […]

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As a psychological theory, ‘learned helplessness’ has an even worse origin story than the grittiest Batman reboot you can imagine. But the story also has a deeper meaning that’s often lost in the telling.

The gritty origin story behind learned helplessness

In the 1960’s, research ethics were a lot looser than nowadays. You might have read about Harry Harlow’s experiments, tearing baby rhesus monkeys from their parents and slapping them on wire frames fitted with milk bottles to see if the babies would notice (spoiler alert: they super did). Well, learned helplessness comes out of a similarly distressing paradigm. Read on at your own emotional peril.

Martin Seligman, Steven Meier, Bruce Overmier, and almost certainly a bunch of unnamed research students, were interested classical conditioning. This is the kind of learning that happens when you pair a reflex with something neutral. You see the Boost juice sign and your mouth starts watering, that sort of thing. Except in their experiments, there was less juice and more electrocution.

By pairing the sound of a bell to an electric shock, they learned that dogs would eventually start to react to the bell as they would to the shock (i.e. with doggy displeasure). Taking the experiment further, they split the dogs into three groups. In one group, the dogs could stop the shock by pressing a lever. Another group had no control over the shock. The third group weren’t shocked at all. After a while, the experimenters put the dogs into a kind of big cage. When the bell rang, one side of the cage would be shocked (leaving the other side unshocked, or ‘safe’). Both the dogs that weren’t shocked in the previous experiment and the dogs that had control over the shocks quickly learned to jump to the ‘safe’ side of the cage to escape the shock. In fact, if you watch videos of the thing, these dogs eventually start to look positively bored as they get up and pad calmly over to the ‘safe’ side and go back to sleep. However, a large number of the dogs that had no control over the shock in the previous experiment never learned this – they instead appeared to give up, often just laying down and whining when the bell rang.

Is it me, or do you get the distinct feeling that one day the tables will turn… That will be a dark day indeed.

The conclusion Seligman and his colleagues came to was that these dogs had learned that the shock was inevitable. They had learned that they were helpless. And indeed, over the course of a number of follow up experiments, it was found that the ‘helpless’ dogs had trouble learning about the ‘safe’ side by any means. The only consistent success were occasions where the experimenters physically moved the dogs to the ‘safe’ side a couple of times.

The darker truth hiding under the surface

These experiments set the stage for many of the ideas we have about maladaptive thinking today. The recurring idea is that humans, as with these dogs, might go through some series of unfortunate events and in the course of doing so, learn that they have no control over the bad things that happen to them. This thinking goes on to lead to problems like depression or anxiety. The depressed person learns, for example, that things will never get better, or bad things always happen. This of course, amplifies their feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

I generalise here, but you get the gist I hope. This finding, in which dogs (and later other animals too) seem to give up hope, has been intellectualised into complicated theories about how humans process negative life events and perceive their own agency and self-efficacy. Attribution theory is one branch of psychology that has really run with the idea. The attribution theorist might say something like a socially anxious individual makes ‘stable’, ‘internal’ attributions about their negative social interactions – a fancy way of saying that they feel like they always screw up talking to other people because they think they’re bad at talking to other people. But these sorts of complicated theories hide a couple of key features of this original finding by Seligman and his colleagues.

Firstly, I would be extremely surprised to find out that Seligman’s dogs were thinking about such heady concepts as personal agency and making judgements about their locus of control. The technical jargon that has sprung up around, or co-opted learned helplessness hides the fact that if this kind of thinking is going on, it’s probably happening on a level that isn’t really what you would commonly consider thought. In humans, this bias eventually seems to bubble up into our consciousness, but the really meaty work is almost certainly happening long before we ever put words to it. Of course, no clinician or researcher worth their salt thinks anything different. But just talking this way tends to lead us to believe that these things are easier to understand, access, and fix than they really are. Which brings us to point two:

In the telling, a crucial part of the story often gets left out. This is that only some of the dogs who had no control learned that they were helpless and gave up. Others learned about the ‘safe’ side of the cage just about as fast as the dogs who did have control. What’s the difference, you ask? Good question hypothetical reader. It’s becoming less common, but I’m sure you’ve been exposed to the idea that people who have problems like depression and anxiety are somehow weaker than other people. Maybe they were raised too gently, or didn’t apply themselves as hard during tough times. Maybe they haven’t read enough self-help books. Maybe they’re just genetically inferior in some way. It’s a little harder to make these kinds of claims when we’re talking about laboratory animals. I mean, first of all, try telling a dog it doesn’t apply itself enough, and see how dopey you feel.

Go on, tell her she’s bad at being a dog. Now you’re starting to get how pointless that attitude is.

But more compellingly, the point of using lab animals is to minimise developmental, social, environmental, and often physical differences as much as possible. Now, I don’t claim to know under what condition Seligman’s dogs were raised. But the point here is that when you try to apply these human concepts like depression or anxiety, or just the very idea of maladaptive thinking patterns, to animals who are acting in similar ways, all of a sudden it becomes much harder to understand what’s going on. Why do some dogs learn to be helpless, and why do others resist? I don’t have the answers, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

The redeeming light at the end of the story

As much as I’m opposed to electrocuting dogs, it seems particularly timely to rehash the origins of these hugely influential theories of cognition. At a time where the issues that have plagued psychological research for years are coming to a head, and many classic findings are being questioned, returning to the fundamentals often brings old knowledge back into the light. In this case, we relearn what we’ve always kind of known:

  • when we talk about ‘maladaptive thinking patterns’ and life stressors and whatnot, what we really mean is that somewhere deep down, something has gone wrong, and the words we use to try and describe it might not ever quite do the problem justice
  • that we aren’t ever really done understanding why these things happen
  • that people who suffer from problems like this deserve our respect, especially given the last two points
  • and finally, that dogs can get what looks a lot like depression and we should love them so, so much.

If you’re interested in why we’re so bad at finding out what’s wrong, you might be interested in learning why psychologists are so bad at diagnosing ‘crazy’. Or maybe you’d be interested in our series about when things go really wrong; bad brains. We turn scholarship into wisdom by digging up the dirt on trusted psychological theories you can actually use; become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

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Why your unconscious isn’t the bad guy (and how to team up) Wed, 15 Mar 2017 07:40:17 +0000 The idea that humans are on autopilot a lot of the time is not new in psychological research, and it’s probably not new to you. […]

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The idea that humans are on autopilot a lot of the time is not new in psychological research, and it’s probably not new to you. So many of the self-improvement soundbites that are written and rewritten in our feeds and on our Pinterest boards revolve around the idea that freedom comes from unchaining ourselves from the routines of the everyday. But, something very valuable gets lost in these pithy reminders.

office party poster quote success

I mean, c’mon. Is this really a good idea?

The standard narrative; we must conquer our subconscious

Plato described emotion and reason as the horses that pull us in two directions. Isaiah, the biblical prophet, encouraged us to come together and reason, rather than act without thinking. The idea is truly as old as writing. And since writing is not that old, evolutionarily speaking, the idea is probably significantly older again. Daniel Kahneman’s exemplary (if a tad inaccessible) book, Thinking, Fast and Slow neatly breaks down our mental processes into two ‘systems’. System 1 is fast and subconscious, acting based on biases, emotions, and stereotypes. System 2 is slower (or perhaps, lazier), but conscious and calculating. Kahneman tells us that we make many of our decisions with System 1, but we assume that we’re making most of our decisions using System 2. While there is debate as to how neatly our mental processes can be sorted, this idea is fundamental across cognitive science of any kind. Essentially, we place too much emphasis on our own rational judgments, when in reality, we’re more commonly the victim of our unconscious biases.

Logically, what falls out of this kind of thinking, is something akin to mindfulness. The notion that we should spend time working to identify our unconscious biases, and strengthen our critical thinking. By learning how System 1 works, we can help System 2 to be more effective (or, just participate more). In short, we should endeavour to be slow, deliberate, and considered as we make our decisions. We must control our automatic thinking. And of course, as this message gets diluted over time, we start to believe that the speedy and subconscious System 1 is our hidden enemy.


This one is so diluted that it barely makes sense. What even is the box?

Who’s the real bad guy here?

Let’s me ask you something. If you were put in charge of your breathing, instead of the unconscious mechanism that usually does the job, would you be better at it? What about your heartbeat? There’s a scary thought. Do you know what peristalsis is? Do you want to be in conscious control of moving your food from your stomach to your toilet bowl? I would suggest not. Why do we treat our thinking so differently from these other automatic processes?

For whatever reason, a large number (if not the majority) of our decisions are handled by our automatic mental systems. It seems a touch foolish to focus on taking back control, without considering why we aren’t in control in the first place. Consider the poor stereotype. Nowhere has an automatic process been demonised to such an extent as our tendency to stereotype. It’s true enough to say that stereotypes can be harmful. But no one ever mentions the fact that stereotypes can be exceptionally useful in an unfamiliar social situation. It lets a brain short on resources make quick and usually accurate social judgments. Which in turn, is probably at least partially responsible for the fact that you have friends.

What about emotion? The predominant perspective holds that emotions are primarily designed to motivate us to rectify some speedbump on the path to our goals. Once our goals have been internalised (set in stone in our minds), then our brains stimulate emotions to elicit automatic responses if it feels like we’re going off track. Recently, the boom in mindfulness as a tool for wellbeing has placed the emphasis on letting emotions go, and not acting on them. This has led to a kind of hostility toward emotion that neglects their purpose. Imagine needing to hold in your mind all of your goals, and making sure every worldly action is in alignment. Doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else, does it? I’ll admit, true mindfulness doesn’t espouse this kind of anti-emotion. But when the message is distilled over and over again, the automatic process is made out to be the bad guy.

The unconscious has a job to do, and you’re ruining it.


If you don’t know how to do the job, then I’d suggest that you don’t make the rules about how it’s done…

Your brain is an enormously complex organism. It’s got a lot on its plate. It makes sense that it would delegate tasks. We can assume that the tasks it has automated have been selected by generations of evolutionary pressure. Basically, it happens this way because it works. As such, I suggest one should challenge the idea that we should place such an emphasis on controlling these underlying processes. Such an emphasis discourages us from working with our automatic thoughts. From embracing them and letting them do their job. Rather, we should work on understanding them, and using them as teachers to gain insight about ourselves. For instance, our emotions will likely reveal our goals to some extent. Our stereotypes (if they aren’t broken) will grease the way for smoother social interactions. Don’t make your emotions, your desires, and your unconscious into the enemy. Unless you’re Sun Tzu:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting… know your enemy… and fight a hundred battles without disaster – Sun Tzu

Want to embrace your subconscious, but still make sure it’s still working for you? Learn how something called choice architecture can keep your subconscious under control. While you’re at it, you might wanna learn how the big supermarkets and advertisers are using your subsconscious to manipulate you. Turning scholarship into wisdom, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can actually use; become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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Why polygamy might be more natural than you thought Wed, 08 Mar 2017 22:13:51 +0000 Sex is always a hot topic, and people tend to get it wrong more often than not. Let’s talk about a new view on sexuality […]

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Sex is always a hot topic, and people tend to get it wrong more often than not. Let’s talk about a new view on sexuality that ticks a lot of boxes and might make you think twice about how you’re doing things.

You’ve probably heard the traditional views on sex and sexuality. Perhaps you’ve been told that humans are driven to form monogamous relationships, a common anthropological assumption. If you’ve been around The Dirt for a while, you might know the evolutionary perspectives that have it slightly differently; men and women are driven to sleep around but secure at least one partner to get that oh-so-sweet security. Both theories centre on the idea that humans are well-suited for, and biologically disposed toward forming ‘pair-bonds’. But, as with any question of human psychology, any given theory must have an equal and opposite counter-theory. The traditional anthropological and evolutionary perspectives on sex are facing a growing threat from a more recent contender. The idea that human promiscuity is our natural state and community-style lovin’ better explains the state of our modern sexuality.


In case I haven’t made myself clear, I’m talking about orgies.

Some revision

Now, we don’t tend to talk about anthropology directly here at The Dirt too much, but the topic does go hand-in-hand with our understanding of how humans behave across cultures. The classic anthropological perspective on human relationships holds that the nuclear family has been the cornerstone of human societies from the earliest times. Just explore Helen Fisher’s TED talks on the topics. In her work with the Kinsey Institute (founded by Arthur Kinsey, the first scientist to really explore sex), and in her popular book “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray” Helen is adamant that monogamy is the rule, not the exception when it comes to human relationships. It’s a common theme among anthropological work. A fantastic example of the influence of this assumption can be seen in Owen Lovejoy’s ‘Male Provisioning Model‘. He suggests that monogamy is a crucial factor in our evolution from four-legged to two-legged movement, and can be traced back 1.8 million years.

Evolutionary psychologists are similarly enthusiastic about the pair-bond. David Buss, being the most prominant name among the literature, proposed the ‘Sexual Strategies’ theory to explain why men and women seemed to have such different approaches to sex. The theory essentially posits that men are driven to sleep around in order to spread their genes as far and wide as possible. But, since it’s hard for a fella to know whether a child is really his or if it will live through those fragile early years, he’ll pick one woman to build a family with. Make sure she’s not having someone else’s baby and protect her and his new progeny into the future. Women, in contrast, have different aims. They want a genetically healthy baby, so they’ll sleep with the sexiest men (read: those with the most testosterone) but will look to settle down with a man who has lots of resources to take care of her and the baby during those vulnerable early years. Note that while the same man might be the protector and the baby-provider, they don’t have to be, according to Buss. And so, while men and women both might have the urge to get around, both will eventually look to settle down.

A radical new perspective

Now, I won’t blame you if you’re already picking holes in both perspectives. Certainly, the sexual strategies approach has been bashed, and there are many variations on the theme that equally explain the results of research in the area. And speaking anthropologically, there are many examples of cultures with unique and non-monogamous approaches to sex (as we’ll get to in a moment). It is absolutely true to say that neither group has satisfactorily captured the human experience of love, relationships, and sex, as evidenced by the enormous amount of research that abounds on the topic. But recently, a new trend has started to gain momentum that I think is worth exploring here.

Popularised by Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jethá in their recent book ‘Sex at Dawn‘, the new perspective suggests that humans are naturally promiscuous and the trend toward monogamy is a cultural artifact, courtesy of the agricultural revolution. Proponents of this theory begin with the assumption that the hunter-gathering human was a fierce egalitarian. What was his, was everyone’s. The only way such communities could thrive was by sharing the food that was collected and the workload that was required of them; distributing the risk maximised their survivability. Hoarding food was the highest crime, and selfish members would be exiled to meet their death in the wilderness. These aspects of early human communities are assumptions shared by many anthropologists, and examples of this in practice can be found in many hunter-gatherer communities that still exist today. However, the new perspective takes this a step further, suggesting that human sex was approached with a similarly socialist bent.


Essentially, everything is a team activity. Including sex.

The (dare-I-say-it) logical extension of egalitarian resource sharing to the sharing of sex is supported by a number of anthropological and scientific observations. The first being the work conducted on the humble bonobo ape. Our closest ape relative, alongside the chimpanzee, bonobo females not only seek out sexual attention from many males (often at once), they also seem to be the dominant gender. The males tend to be submissive to the females, and females with the most influence seem to run the show. This isn’t achieved through violence or displays of dominance (rare in bonobo world), but instead, through social interaction – who is most liked, is most followed. In bonobo groups, males (or females for that matter) don’t fight over the opposite gender, but merely appear to have sex at a whim. In fact, bonobos do it missionary, like us; they french kiss, like us; and they gaze into each other’s eyes, just like us. Sex appears to play a crucial role in social bonding. A utopic society, no? The fighting occurs instead at the level of the sperm. Just like in humans, bonobo sperm fight it out for the finish line. This is where the competition happens in bonobo sexual reproduction.

Our true relatives?

As you may have guessed, the idea here is that the laissez-faire approach to sex in bonobo groups may have once reflected early human communities, and rather than male competition for women, sperm competition may have actually been the only competition. Such features of human anatomy shared with bonobos include male and female size difference (we are basically the same, unlike in more competitive species like the gorilla), the size of the human testicle (way larger, with more sperm production that seems rational if one man and one woman are paired for life), and the amazing sounds a woman makes when she’s on the end of some good lovin’ (suggested to be the call for more sex from more men, as it is for the bonobo female) are all examples of our multi-sex partner past. And to be honest, that’s just the start. The evidence here is certainly as convincing as any evidence you’ll see in opposition of the idea of multi-partner sexual relationships.


Monkey see, monkey do, am I right? I’m pretty sure these are baboons, not bonobos, but you get the idea.

Looking outside the bonobo, and in more modern times, we can see that many hunter-gatherers share common sexual practices with our vigorous cousins. Consider communities that believe in partible paternity, the idea that a fetus is comprised of all the sperm of all the men a woman sleeps with. The women believe that the baby will share the traits of those men, and so will sleep with all the men who have traits she might want in the child.

The argument suggests that our modern attitude was inculcated by the agricultural revolution. The ability to grow more food lessened the need to share. In fact, more food meant more people. More people meant more likelihood that the food would run out. Which lead to stealing, which lead to hoarding and protecting food and resources. In this way, women (and their babies) became yet another resource to be protected. Who else to pass this newfound property to? I simplify here for brevity, but the importance of the agricultural revolution in (at a minimum) exacerbating our tendency to covet power and protect property is undeniable. The proponents of our new theory of human sexual relationships suggest that we adapted to this new, monogamous way of life as we have to every social change that has characterised our history (consider the cultural variations between ancient societies like the Greeks, the Romans, and the Ottomans). As a result, our scientific approaches are fundamentally biased toward finding evidence to support monogamy and dismiss that which opposes it.

Tie it together

This approach certainly helps explain many of the problems that abound in modern relationships. The prevalence of infidelity, for one. The dissipation of sexual intimacy that is so common in many marriages too, can be explained in this way. If we consider that men and women were never meant to exclusively pair off, we might imagine that such lustful desires would disperse without more men and women in our lives. And most alluringly, consider this approach as a solution for the question of sexual preference. If sex was not solely about reproduction, but instead played a key role in social bonding, what does it matter who one has sex with? All of a sudden, homosexuality, bisexuality, and pansexuality, to name a few, seem far more evolutionarily reasonable.

It is interesting to note that even Dr Buss and colleagues’ evolutionary research supports the claims to some extent. Consider the fact that despite the seemingly cut-and-dried sexual strategies preferred by men and women, both genders most prefer the same three traits in their partners; trust, intelligence, and warmth. None of which particularly support the pragmatic, and resource focused sexual strategies theory.

Consider too the role of attachment. We know that the relationships we have with our parents significantly influence what we seek in our partners. If it’s all about the end result (ensuring our babies live on), then why would the social bond we have matter so much? The opposing views on sexual strategy and the role of attachment are becoming a serious point of debate in the literature, and this new perspective does much to close the gap.


It is certainly true to say that sex in the modern day is much harder than the movies would have us believe. No one who’s been in a relationship for any significant amount of time would boast that it’s easy. Anyone who’s played around under the sheets would know that only rarely does it seem like magic, and we’re often left disappointed. The approach proposed by Ryan very satisfyingly explains many of the pathologies and so-called ‘aberrant’ behaviours that plague modern day relationships. But that isn’t to say that other approaches have no merit. There are no intransigent opposites, except in the hearts of men and I would suggest (as we tend to do here at The Dirt) a more moderate view. What we can conclude is that sex and love are far more fluid than we’ve been led to believe and it is blindingly obvious that our current social norms don’t always meet our needs. Regardless of which perspective tickles your fancy, you’ll save yourself a great deal of heartache by being true to yourself and open with your partners. And most importantly, like Rihanna always says, don’t let the bastards get you down (it really does make for a better weekend).


Unless those “bastards” just want you to please leave them alone. Or are drunk. Or are just not that into you.

While we’re on the topic of evolutionary theory and sex, why not learn three random things that can make you more attractive? Evolutionary theory isn’t the only theory though, nor is it the most important. Learn about the seven major approaches to relationship psychology, and how you can use each to hack your relationships. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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The five stages of grief are a lie Wed, 30 Nov 2016 01:46:19 +0000 Even if you can’t remember them all, I’m sure you’ve heard of the 5 stages of grief. What you almost certainly don’t know is how […]

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Even if you can’t remember them all, I’m sure you’ve heard of the 5 stages of grief. What you almost certainly don’t know is how they’re supposed to work.

The five stages as they’re commonly (wrongly) known

When something bad happens to someone, we move through five emotional stages in response:

  1. Denial: at first people can’t (or won’t) believe the news.
  2. Anger: eventually they’ll switch to rage, railing at the world and those around them for what has happened.
  3. Bargaining: when the anger cools, people tend to try and avoid the truth by trying to bargain the grief away, asking for some implausible trade to make the pain go away.
  4. Depression: when the crazy bargains never eventuate, people begin to despair and fall into a depression.
  5. Acceptance: finally, depression gives way to a more sanguine view – embracing the event and moving forward.

How many TV episodes based their plot around this linear set of stages? Neat and discrete. This view of grief has been so pervasive and sticky that plenty of doctors and psychologists think that this represents the ‘true’ process of grieving. Whether one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or mourning the death of a loved one, if one deviates from this path, many health professionals will do all they can to get you back on track. You wouldn’t want to screw up the grieving process would you?

blur book business composition desk education numbers office pages paper read study text thoughts words writing

Us health professionals are supposed to care. It’s in our textbooks. But plenty care far more about putting in the minimum.

Shame that it’s wrong then

Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who worked a great deal with the terminally ill. In her book On Death and Dying, she described these five reactions to grief based on her observations. But at no time did she outline a specific structure or process for these actions. Merely that people dealing with a terminal diagnosis may experience one or more of these emotional reactions at any time. Sometimes experiencing them simultaneously or perhaps not at all.

In fact, more recently, Dr Kübler-Ross noted that she regretted her original book, highlighting people’s misunderstanding of her original observations. This might explain why there’s no convincing empirical evidence to support her non-model. It might also explain why anyone you’ve ever known to go through a period of grieving didn’t clearly follow Dr Kübler-Ross’ plan. Fact is, grief is the emotion we feel when something incomparably awful happens to us. A quick spot check should have anyone suspicious that such a deep and intense emotion would follow such a neat and ordered process. It’s one of the fundamental flaws of the scientific method. Our search to understand the world better often leads us to create a structure for that understanding, even if no such structure exists.

rollercoaster steel architecture engineering

Grieve how you like. Don’t let anyone tell you that going to a theme park probably won’t fix things.

So next time you or someone you know suffers an awful loss, don’t feel the need to force the experience into a box. Anyone expecting you to follow the five stages of grief probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. A better way to handle it would be to figure out what you’re feeling now and reaching out for support in the moment. Anger requires one type of help. Depression another. And none of that help should have a focus on moving you into the next ‘stage’. Just solving whatever it is that you’re feeling now.

I would hazard a guess that you don’t know what defines a ‘disorder’ from a normal emotional experience. That’s because psychologists rarely know either. Also, you might be interested to know how else scientists are lying to youTurning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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Why the best part of your brain is hiding under the stairs Mon, 28 Nov 2016 01:26:26 +0000 Harry Potter wasn’t the only amazing thing to come out of the cupboard under the stairs. It’s said that art mimics nature, and in this […]

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Harry Potter wasn’t the only amazing thing to come out of the cupboard under the stairs. It’s said that art mimics nature, and in this case, the result is absolutely fascinating (to me).

How quickly can you get up to speed?

Let’s quickly recap evolutionary theory. For those of you who struggle with evolution due to your personal or spiritual beliefs (and this article may be harder to assimilate than others), perhaps you might be interested in skipping over the following and instead checking out the science behind speaking in tongues. Evolutionary theory holds that over time certain physical and psychological traits perform better in the environment than others. So as an extraordinarily hyperbolic example, consider an animal that ranges in colour from green to yellow. It lives in a green bush, so being more green means you’re less likely to be seen and eaten by predators. As a result, over a period of time, fewer yellow versions of the animals are around to mate with other yellow versions and as a result, one day only the green variants remain. With me so far? This process is commonly known as adaptive selection. The trait that is more adaptive is selected for over that which is less adaptive.

automobiles automotives BMW cars parking vehicles

Don’t get too excited. The process often takes many thousands of years. So it’ll be a little while before BMW drivers get wiped out in favour of people who are actually good at driving.

Adaptive selection is problematic

One of the problems with adaptive selection is that it’s hard to explain everything in terms of some adaptive benefit. It’s easy to say that having thumbs is way better than having an extra finger instead. Other things are harder to explain, like belly buttons, or pubic hair. These things are often thought of as by-products of adaptations. For example, belly buttons are the by-product of the adaptive umbilical cord. Pubic hair is a remnant of our hairy past. These no longer serve an adaptive function (that we know about).

So why are they still here? That’s the rub. One logical answer is that while they serve no adaptive function, they also serve no maladaptive function. Consider our hypothetical animal. Being yellow was maladaptive – you get eaten. But let’s say our animals also have black spots. Not super helpful in a green bush, but not really unhelpful either. It doesn’t help them blend in, but doesn’t make them stand out. So the black spots will get passed down the line. Neither selected for or against.

By-products can be adaptive

This is the fun part. First, a lesson in architecture. Do you know what a spandrel is? Most people probably wouldn’t. If you decide to build an archway in your doorframe, you’re left with empty space where the corner usually is. That’s a spandrel. Now, artists are quite averse to empty spaces, so back when arches were a big architectural deal, people started filling those spandrels with artwork. All of a sudden, useless empty space because something beautiful and useful.

ancient arch architecture building craftsmanship door moorish stone carving

Now that’s a damn spandrel and a half. See the triangular shapes in the top right and top left corners? Those are spandrels. I’m not enough into architecture to know whether the rest of the decoration would be called that. Nor to know where this is. Looks Moorish. Do a search and get back to me.

Let’s try a more modern example. When humans started building stairs, we simultaneously became annoyed by the empty space that was used up because of the staircase. Thus the birth of the cupboard under the stairs. All of a sudden, useless space becomes useful (especially once you put Mr Potter in there).

Brains have heaps of useless space

Human brains are enormous and we don’t really understand why. We can explain some of this in terms of processing power. Just like a computer, the bigger the size, the better the processing power. We can kind of measure this with the ‘encephalisation quotient’ (EQ). That is essentially how big your brain is vs how much body mass you have. The bigger the brain in relation to your mass, the smarter you probably are in comparison to other animals around that size. If you graph it, you can see that the more successful animals tend to have a higher EQ. But this only goes so far. Eventually, the EQ stops having any explanatory power. Especially when you look at humans. Look at the below (sorry for the ugly science graphs, both from this paper by Roth and Dicke – it’s just that they’re nice and clear). In the first we can see that the classically ‘smarter’ animals are way above the line – what we might expect as the average brain to body size. But it’s well known that as we move toward the larger end of the scale, it starts to be a less useful measure. In the second graph, look at the brain volume measured against the body weight for some typical primates. Look how damn enormous our brain is in comparison to our smartest brethren (loosely speaking), the chimpanzees. And look how quickly the size ratcheted up. We’re not entirely sure which of the green line we might have descended from, but our brains sure grew fast from one iteration of humanoid to another. Surely processing power couldn’t explain this benefit entirely, or why wouldn’t all apes have EQ’s as big as us?

encephalization quotient

brain size vs body size The only EQ bigger than us are neanderthals and they went extinct because we either ate or screwed them all to death. If they’re as smart as this graph hints that they are, it’s probably the latter.

Well, it might very well be that the human brain is full of spandrels. Think about the computer. It was developed for some very specific purposes. Computing big numbers, storing data and so on. In fact, we buy a computer for very specific functions. I mostly use mine for word processing. But the power of the computer lends itself to far more uses than it’s original design, and so we used that power to create computer games and all sorts of other things that never crossed the minds of the original inventors. If our brain is full of by-products that by happy accident we managed to make useful, then it would certainly explain why our brains got so big, so quickly.

Language is one of the most commonly cited examples of a possible brain spandrel. Almost all animals communicate to some degree. Communication is fantastically useful. But to knowledge, no animal really communicates like humans do. So much of what we talk about is adaptively useless. It might very well be that the size of our brain allowed language to blossom from the communication of ordinary and important information into something far greater. Eventually, language in this new, expanded form became useful in and of itself. And so, our brains continued to grow to accommodate the useful properties of this thing that was originally a useless byproduct. That might have led to writing. Again, plenty of animals leave communication marking on things (think of the dog marking it’s territory). But nothing else writes down stories and memories. Think how useful these by-products have been (if they are indeed by-products). No wonder our brains grew so fast.

Evolution does weird things to our bodies. For instance, did you know that our bodies treat rejection the same as physical pain? It’s the same reason that you would probably jump off a bridge if everyone else was doing it (contrary to your mama’s advice). Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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Alert: your brain leaves you open to manipulation Wed, 23 Nov 2016 00:21:26 +0000 Mind control is less common than TV would have you believe, but it can happen. Problem is, the kinds of shortcuts our brain uses to […]

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Mind control is less common than TV would have you believe, but it can happen. Problem is, the kinds of shortcuts our brain uses to speed things up leaves up open to manipulation. The phenomenon we call ‘priming’ is a good example.

What’s priming?

Priming isn’t the same as subliminal messaging, but it’s in the same sort of area (although I bet you don’t know how subliminal messaging really works – it’s weirder than you think). Essentially, certain types of events change the way you’ll react to later events and a very subconscious level. That’s not super specific, so let me give you an example.

Arguably, the most famous study on this effect was conducted back in the 90’s. A bunch of students were told to create sentences from a ‘randomly’ generated list of words. There were two groupings of words, with two pretty extraordinary outcomes:

  1. Some of the words were associated with rudeness, while others were associated with politeness. Those given the polite words interrupted the experimenter less often than those given the rude words.
  2. Some of the words were reminiscent of the elderly (like: old, wrinkled, and most hilariously, Florida). Those given these words walked more slowly out of the experiment (like an old person would).

I’ll point out that there was a third experiment to do with subliminal messaging, but like we spoke about before, that’s a subject for another time. But for the two outlined above, the effect seems to be pretty clear. Activate a certain stereotype in someone’s mind, and whether they realise it or not, it’s going to have an effect on them. Shouldn’t surprise any of you regulars here at The Dirt, since we know just how powerful (and even useful at times) stereotypes can be.


Everybody’s worst fear, apparently. Enough that even being reminded about getting old leads to a mini existential crisis.

How priming is used to manipulate us

Have you ever walked into a grocery store and mistaken it for a florist, with all the flowers there at the front? Have you noticed all the fresh produce is right at the door? No accident. All that ‘fresh’ smelling goodness is designed to make you feel more confident about all those preservatives. Or if you walk into some place that smells like disinfectant, then it may very well be that the owners are secretly encouraging you to keep the place clean.

They do it on TV too. Marketers will spring way more for ad spots that follow some kind of scene that’ll help sell their product. If an ad is shown in the context of something related, then you’re more likely to be open to buying that product. So for example, showing an ad for MacDonalds after one of those ‘feast’ scenes in GoT. When you see food on the screen, you’re more likely to want food in real life. Innosight is one company that specialises in this kind of context-advert matching, and they cite an 18% increase in the ability of consumers to recall an in context ad. Consumers are also twice as likely to buy the product.

The scarier effects of priming

Priming has long been investigated with something called the Stroop task. The simplest form of this is if you colour a list of words a bunch of different colours, something like:





Then you get people to read out the colours. What you find is that people read the colours slower on words that are more salient (important). So generally speaking, negative words (like sad, above) would lead to the reader taking longer to identify the colour. If you get people thinking about food, then the word potato would cause a similar kind of lag. Prime someone with a beach holiday, and maybe they’d stumble over slothful. Another classic is to prime something and then get them to read a list like the following:




Priming something sad or scary before they read the colour of the ink (as opposed to the colour of the word) means that people will take longer to complete the list than someone who was primed with something neutral or happy.

The point is that when you prime people with something, it’s acting on a subconscious level, whether they realise it or not. More than that, it will affect your thinking long after you’ve been primed. The implications are worrying. We already know that our brains use shortcuts that don’t always make sense. A more in-depth study had experimenters spill hot or cold drinks on participants. Later on, the participants were asked to rate a hypothetical person. If they had a hot drink spilled on them, they were less likely to use words like ‘selfish’ and ‘cold’ than those who had the cold drink spilled.


No word on whether the ‘hot’ participants were more concerned with the fact that coffee never comes out.

One more thing

A follow-up experiment to the old person priming at the top of the article published a couple of years ago had something interesting to add. In trying to replicate the original results, in which people primed with the stereotype of ‘old’ walked more slowly later on, they found nothing. But by manipulating the beliefs of the experimenters, they found something stranger. With people walking the same speed, if the experimenters believed the person had been primed with an ‘old’ stereotype, then they rated the walker as slower than if they believed they had not bee primed. Now, this isn’t to say that priming has no effect. I think we can safely assume that priming is a thing. But what this means is that perhaps our expectations are just as important as our unconscious primings. Either way, our perception of reality has much less to do with actual reality, and far more to do with what’s going on in our mind.

Scary, huh?

Expectations are absolutely critical to how we behave in the world. Learn how expectations shape our reality. Science, as you might have noticed, isn’t always that scientific. Science is pretty hard, you see. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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What do dreams really mean? Mon, 21 Nov 2016 01:07:41 +0000 I bet you’ve heard stories of ‘prophetic dreams’. Or maybe you’ve had one yourself. Well, if you’re here, you probably want to know what the […]

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I bet you’ve heard stories of ‘prophetic dreams’. Or maybe you’ve had one yourself. Well, if you’re here, you probably want to know what the science says.

Dreams as a psychological tool

Dream interpretation has long been a staple of some psychological practices. It all dates back to Sigmund Freud and later, Carl Jung. Freud was a big believer in the idea that dreams possessed symbolic content. That the stories dreams told were a kind of proxy for your internal desires or conflicts and issues from the past that still bother us. Carl Jung extended this idea, suggesting that dreams reveal our anxieties about the future in a kind of coded form. TV and movies took the ball and ran with it. In one episode, Tony Soprano dreams that one of his compatriates is a talking fish, and decided that the man must be an FBI informant. Countless characters have a wacky dream and wake up wondering ‘what does it mean?’. More often than not, the dream turns out to be some portent of the future.


No word on whether these things do anything at all. They sure look cool though.

This kind of popularisation has led a bunch of websites to treat dreams like a kind of fortune cookie. Dream this thing and a great romance will blossom. Dream that thing and you’ll have some kind of financial disaster. It pains me to point out that as fun as that would be, even as crazy as he was, Freud never thought this kind of thing was the case. The point of dream interpretation, in the psychoanalytic tradition, is to look at the content of the dream (the manifest) and identify the themes and patterns that reveal the conflicts of the inner mind (the symbolic content). Since dreams are created using our individual experiences of the world, no psychologist in their right mind would suggest that a single symbol has an immutable and universal meaning. Each dream must be interpreted for each individual based on who that person is and what’s going on for them.

So what do dreams reveal?

The question remains, were Freud and Jung right? Do dreams give us an insight into our inner conflicts? Scientists aren’t very confident about this. During REM sleep (rapid eye movement; happens every hour and a half or so while we’re under) our brains are super active. This is where dreams happen. The common themes of these dreams tend to be common activities, like going to work or school. Often, they don’t make much physical sense and usually have some kind of affective (emotional) aspect to them. Any attempts to identify symbolic content in these messy storylines are hampered by the fact that no one can agree what they might mean. Ask three different psychoanalysts to interpret a dream, and you’ll likely get three different answers.

A more convincing theory comes from a pair of Harvard psychiatrists by the name of Hobson and McCarley. They suggest that the unusual amount and patterns of brain activity during REM sleep force our brain to try to make sense of it all. It does this by cobbling it together into a story. If this is true, and dreams are merely a product of our poor narrative driven brain under the pump, then the notion that these stories might contain clues to our inner psyche is not a very compelling one.

Another very interesting theory comes from Jonathan Gottschall and the work he reviews in his book. He suggests that dreams are a kind of conflict simulator. Our brains work very hard every night to put us through countless tough situations so that we’re better at problem-solving when we wake up. This could explain why the vast majority of dreams seem to be stressful in one way or another. In fact, Gottschall echoes Jung’s assertions that dreams are anxieties about future conflicts that may arise.

This doesn’t mean that dreams have no value as a tool though. Freud and Jung were dead-on when they suggested that our thoughts and feelings do influence our dreams. There’s no doubt that many of our dreams revolve around past issues or future events. The problems only start to come when we try to delve more deeply into an issue than thinking that a dream which reflects reality in some way may tell us we have some kind of concerns about what’s going on for us. Trying to figure out what those concerns might be or seeking out some kind of hotline to our unconscious probably just muddies the waters. The fact of the matter is that our brains go nuts when we go into REM sleep and any kind of message is going to be scrambled by all the crazy brain activity going on.


Some dreams are easier than others to interpret. My advice? Focus on your day-dreams, it’s more fun anyway.

So how does that explain prophetic dreams? Well, it doesn’t, does it? I’m inclined to say that most prophetic dreams are coincidences. Remember that we only selectively attend to and remember things. And our thinking is subject to all kinds of biases and shortcuts that often change what we remember. A prophetic dream might just be a dream that we wanted to be prophetic. But there are some dreams that can’t just be dismissed. Dreams that are so specific and memorable that when they come true later, it’s like you were watching an episode of your own life. How can we explain those? Well, I’m a psychologist, not a magician, so you won’t find those kinds of answers here. Not until our understanding of the brain is way better than it is. In the meanwhile, my suggestion? If you dream something funky, don’t think too hard about it. More often than not, trying to interpret its meaning isn’t going to help you any. Rather than figuring out what your night-dreams mean, focus on making your day-dreams a reality, then you can write a song like this one and make millions.

Freud was wrong about a bunch of things, but one of the most pervasive was the idea that pent up emotions come out in destructive ways, an idea that’s putting you in danger. Not all of the crazier theories to come from the psychodynamic approach are wrong, learn how subliminal messaging really works. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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Why being sad isn't always a bad thing Wed, 16 Nov 2016 14:52:04 +0000 A great deal is made about depression these days. But what this new media narrative misses is that it’s OK to be sad sometimes. In […]

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A great deal is made about depression these days. But what this new media narrative misses is that it’s OK to be sad sometimes. In fact, some would say that being sad can actually be a good thing…

Depression is a real thing, no doubt

Disclaimer up front. Depression is real. It sucks. And it hits people in all sorts of ways. The DSM V (the psychiatrists’ bible on mental health issues) identifies 8 and so does the ICD 10 (the European version; that’s a pdf by the way). None of those include subtypes with comorbid mania (like bipolar disorder). If you or someone you know is down in the dumps for ages, or if things get really bad, then it’s probably a good idea to reach out for help.

But the very fact that there are so many different kinds of depression hints at something deeper. Why do different people experience it differently? A common analogy for many mental health issues is the cup. Picture a cup. It’s got some water in it. That water is your genetic predisposition toward a given mental health problem (in this case, depression). When a stressful life event comes along, it fills that cup with more water. If it’s big enough, or if enough of them happen at once before you can deal with them (drink that water up) then the cup runneth over. Makes sense right? Well let’s extend that cup analogy a little further and explain why depression might look so different from person to person.


You always suspected that dogs weren’t all bad, even that darned black one. I’m about to tell you why.

Being sad is normal

In 2006, two psychologists by the name of Keller and Nesse came up with a theory so straightforward that it makes you grit your teeth that it took so long to come to light. They called it the situation-symptom congruence hypothesis. Basically, they argue that depressive symptoms are an adaptive evolutionary response to characteristic challenges of adverse life events. This means that the kind of stressful life event we have determines what kind of sad we get.

For a long time now, Nesse has theorised that moods are a mechanism developed over the course of evolution that motivates us to manage our resources better. In this case, low mood (sad type feelings) motivates us to “conserve resources and reconsider options”. These kinds of feelings are triggered by a loss of or some kind of percieved threat to things that matter to us. Keller and Nesse updated this by saying that the different kinds of low mood are patterns of feelings that help us to respond to specific kinds of threat or loss.

Different situations lead to different kinds of sadness

Keller and Nesse identify 11 different situation-mood type matches. For example guilt, fatigue, and pessimism seem to come after we’ve failed at something; crying and sadness seem to follow social losses (like a death in the family). More interestingly, the research they’ve conducted on the theory seems to show that these specific patterns of feelings are quite stable in relation to the type of situation. The point of these specific types of depressive symptoms are thought to motivate us to behave in ways that help us claw back those lost resources, or sort our situation out. Take the failure example from earlier; the guilt and fatigue type symptoms are thought to encourage us to take time to reflect more conservatively on what happened and so make us more successful in future. The crying and sadness after a loss motivate us to seek out social support and draw others to us.

Others have taken the baton and run with it. Another researcher by the name of Nettle thoughtfully notes that while depressive symptoms may assist one to conserve resources in a time of loss, severity may eventually require us to jump into action. He suggests such symptoms as restlessness, dysphoric mania and impulsive urges which could act in this way. This neatly extends the theory to cover bipolar type disorders and some of the symptoms that have been more problematic for researchers to explain. The same kind of thinking has already started to pervade anxiety research; we know that anxiety is a normal emotion that focuses us on threatening situations. Take rejection sensitivity for example. Being really sensitive to when people shut you down could probably help you figure out when you’re getting cut out from the pack.


It’s hard to take people seriously when they spend half their time bouncing off the walls in between bouts of sadness. But if you think of their over-enthusiasm as their body deperately trying to fix itself, things start to make more sense.

But it’s not the whole story

The whole premise of Keller and Nesse’s argument is that depressive symptoms are evolutionarily based. That over time, these kinds of reactions to situations have helped people overcome adversity in times gone past. But not all depressive symptoms intuitively lend themselves to loss-type situations and these symptoms are conspicuously absent from their research. More to the point, they don’t explain why some people experience these symptoms to the point that they can’t function at all anymore (what we’d call a depressive disorder or episode). If depressive symptoms are supposed to be helpful, this is kind of counter-intuitive.

So what’s the point?

Let’s go back to the cup analogy. If we imagine that we can fill the cup with different liquids we can start to see why some people experience depression differently. Fill that thing up with olive oil and you’ll spend ages trying to clean that spill up. Fill it with cordial and your table will smell fruity for days to come. Lots of situations can be enough to fill your cup up too fast to deal with and when the cup starts to spill, it’s time to get help. But different situations make people sad in different ways, so maybe that will determine the kind of help you look for (or the kind of help you give to someone who’s come to you).


Sometimes that cup runneth over like the damn tap is broken.

The old adage ‘is the cup half empty or half full’ takes a whole new light doesn’t it? Seems like it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. We just need to worry when the level starts to rise…

If you’re feeling down in the dumps, it’s time to be selfish and look out for yourself. Don’t worry though, being selfish can be a good thing. While we’re on the topic of evolution, learn why your ancestors are the reason you can’t get rid of the crap in your garage. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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The psychology behind why clowns creep us out Mon, 10 Oct 2016 23:57:40 +0000 For the past several months, creepy clowns have been terrorizing America, with sightings of actual clowns in at least 10 different states. These fiendish clowns […]

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For the past several months, creepy clowns have been terrorizing America, with sightings of actual clowns in at least 10 different states.

These fiendish clowns have reportedly tried to lure women and children into the woods, chased people with knives and machetes, and yelled at people from cars. They’ve been spotted hanging out in cemeteries and they have been caught in the headlights of cars as they appear alongside desolate country roads in the dead of night.

This isn’t the first time there has been a wave of clown sightings in the United States. After eerily similar events occurred in the Boston area in the 1980s, Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist who studies the folklore behind mythical beasts such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, came up with something called “The Phantom Clown Theory,” which attributes the proliferation of clown sightings to mass hysteria (usually sparked by incidents witnessed only by children).

It’s impossible to determine which of these incidents are hoaxes and which are bona fide tales of clowning around taken to the extreme. Nonetheless, the perpetrators seem to be capitalizing on our longstanding love-hate relationship with clowns, tapping into the primal dread that so many children (and more than a few adults) experience in their presence.

In fact, a 2008 study conducted in England revealed that very few children actually like clowns. It also concluded that the common practice of decorating children’s wards in hospitals with pictures of clowns may create the exact opposite of a nurturing environment. It’s no wonder so many people hate Ronald McDonald.

But as a psychologist, I’m not just interested in pointing out that clowns give us the creeps; I’m also interested in why we find them so disturbing. Earlier this year I published a study entitled “On the Nature of Creepiness” with one of my students, Sara Koehnke, in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. While the study was not specifically looking at the creepiness of clowns, much of what we discovered can help explain this intriguing phenomenon.

The march of the clowns

Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Historically, jesters and clowns have been a vehicle for satire and for poking fun at powerful people. They provided a safety valve for letting off steam and they were granted unique freedom of expression – as long as their value as entertainers outweighed the discomfort they caused the higher-ups.

Jesters and others persons of ridicule go back at least to ancient Egypt, and the English word “clown” first appeared sometime in the 1500s, when Shakespeare used the term to describe foolish characters in several of his plays. The now familiar circus clown – with its painted face, wig and oversized clothing – arose in the 19th century and has changed only slightly over the past 150 years.

Nor is the trope of the evil clown anything new. Earlier this year, writer Benjamin Radford published “Bad Clowns,” in which he traces the historical evolution of clowns into unpredictable, menacing creatures.

A detail from one of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings.
The Orchid Club/flickr, CC BY

The persona of the creepy clown really came into its own after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970s, Gacy appeared at children’s birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown” and also regularly painted pictures of clowns. When the authorities discovered that he had killed at least 33 people, burying most of them in the crawl space of his suburban Chicago home, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans.

Following the notoriety of Gacy, Hollywood exploited our deep ambivalence about clowns via a terror-by-clown campaign that shows no signs of going out of fashion. Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s 1990 movie “It,” may be the scariest movie clown. But there are also the “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (1988), the scary clown doll under the bed in “Poltergeist” (1982), the zombie clown in “Zombieland” (2009) and, most recently, the murderous clown in “All Hallow’s Eve” (2013).

The nature of creepiness

Psychology, however, can help explain why clowns – the supposed purveyors of jokes and pranks – often end up sending chills down our spines.

My research was the first empirical study of creepiness, and I had a hunch that feeling creeped out might have something to do with ambiguity – about not really being sure how to react to a person or situation.

We recruited 1,341 volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 77 to fill out an online survey. In the first section of the survey, our participants rated the likelihood that a hypothetical “creepy person” would exhibit 44 different behaviors, such as unusual patterns of eye contact or physical characteristics like visible tattoos. In the second section of the survey, participants rated the creepiness of 21 different occupations, and in the third section they simply listed two hobbies that they thought were creepy. In the final section, participants noted how much they agreed with 15 statements about the nature of creepy people.

The results indicated that people we perceive as creepy are much more likely to be males than females (as are most clowns), that unpredictability is an important component of creepiness and that unusual patterns of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors set off our creepiness detectors big time.

Unusual or strange physical characteristics such as bulging eyes, a peculiar smile or inordinately long fingers did not, in and of themselves, cause us to perceive someone as creepy. But the presence of weird physical traits can amplify any other creepy tendencies that the person might be exhibiting, such as persistently steering conversations toward peculiar sexual topics or failing to understand the policy about bringing reptiles into the office.

When we asked people to rate the creepiness of different occupations, the one that rose to the top of the creep list was – you guessed it – clowns.

The results were consistent with my theory that getting “creeped out” is a response to the ambiguity of threat and that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills.

For example, it would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.

This reaction could be adaptive, something humans have evolved to feel, with being “creeped out” a way to maintain vigilance during a situation that could be dangerous.

Why clowns set off our creep alert

In light of our study’s results, it is not at all surprising that we find them to be creepy.

Rami Nader is a Canadian psychologist who studies coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns. Nader believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings.

This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next.

There are certainly other types of people who creep us out (taxidermists and undertakers made a good showing on the creepy occupation spectrum). But they have their work cut out for them if they aspire to the level of creepiness that we automatically attribute to clowns.

In other words, they have big shoes to fill.

The Conversation

Frank T. McAndrew, Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology, Knox College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Clowns aren’t going to hurt you, at least not physically. But being rejected can – our bodies treat it like physical pain. And if you’re at a party with a clown or two, it might be time to get better friends. Better consult the friendship checklist. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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How these 'secret' relationship rules control your life Mon, 29 Aug 2016 19:14:35 +0000 Sometimes our partners confuse us, either by doing things we can't believe they would do to us, or by us breaking some rule we had no idea they had. These invisible rules are part of any relationship and navigating these is one of the hardest things we need to do in a relationship. In this article The Dirt Psychology shows you how these rules come about and better yet, how we can figure them out (before they bite us in the ass).

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There are ‘secret’ rules that govern how you approach life. Granted, you’ll know what some of them are, but many people don’t have that much insight into them and we can never really be sure of them all.

Psychologists call these rules ‘schemas‘ and you make them yourself or learn them from the people around you. Here’s the quick and dirty; schemas are unconsciously formed expectations about how the world works. They’re scaffolds about the characteristics of things that allow us to predict the future and act accordingly. If I do this, the world responds thus. These schemas exist for objects, places and even events (check this article for how schemas even control your emotions). As you might predict, this system of inner oracles determines how you approach almost everything you do, including how you act toward other people. But perhaps more importantly, they also determine how you think people should act toward you.

Today we’ll be concerning ourselves with these rich schemas; those we have regarding how people should act in relationships, what makes them work, and what makes them break down.

“Our brains create relationship ‘rules’ or schemas based on the stereotypes we experience in our relationships and those around us. These become what we expect in our relationships.”

Let’s start big picture. Schemas the pertain to relationships are usually formed by and shared within our communities. For example, we all roughly know what a fling is, a one-night-stand, ‘going steady’ and what it means to be married. These schemas are dictated by the prototypical features of these relationship types; the most stereotypical, immediate and what psychologists would call ‘salient’ characteristics of a relationship. A fling, for instance, is short, intense and passionate. Often associated with overseas travel, or a holiday. When you hear ‘fling’ your schema for that is activated and you think immediately of the most relevant elements of that relationship ‘type’.

Photo courtesy of

If you don’t know what a ‘fling’ is, you had a broken childhood and should watch Grease immediately. Photo courtesy of

This is helpful. This kind of stereotyping is super useful, and saves our brain from using up all of it’s processing power on crunching the numbers on concepts that come up frequently (contrary to what you might have heard, stereotypes aren’t all bad). But schemas aren’t always such a blessing. In the case of relationships, what tends to happen is that people’s scaffolds for relational types diverge. Usually in a harmless way, but sometimes it is a source of immense friction. For example, our idea of a fling might be short, ending with no strings attached but our flingee (what’s even the right word for that?) might have slightly different ideas about what a summer love means (I refer the reader again, to Grease – very important psychological touchstone, I promise). This kind of misunderstanding is a recipe for hurt.

These schemas, you see, contain the ‘rules’ of relationships, both general (in all relationships) and local (in our relationship). For instance, some work conducted in the 1980s by a research team at Oxford showed us that married couples often agreed that ‘faithfulness’, respecting privacy’, ‘secret keeping’ and ‘keeping partners informed of schedules’ were all rules of a marriage.

The astute armchair psychologist may have identified that where rules exist, so too does the potential for a violation. Maybe we’re not having as much sex as we think we should be, or our partner is overly-critical of us. Maybe someone is into polyamory. Whatever it is, if it violates our rules, or our expectations of a relationship, we might conclude our relationship is in trouble. Our rules act in the background to influence our current judgements.

Relationship rules aren’t always that specific either. One of the more global schemas people create about romantic relationships was identified by close relationships expert Dr Chip Knee in 1998. Do you believe in serendipity? Or do you believe that we have to work at it? Do we each have a soulmate, or is it our duty to work through the problems we might have? Knee calls these Destiny (soulmates) and Growth (battle through) schemas. We are all settled more in one camp than the other and the two theories or ‘rules’ have pretty significant impacts on our relationship longevity. People who are more inclined towards Destiny are far more likely to end troubled relationships than those who are more Growth oriented. Relationship satisfaction differs too. Destiny people are far less satisfied in relationships with more conflict, and Growth people are far less fussed.

So these relationship rules can be pretty important. They can impact not only how we act in a relationship, but our relationship satisfaction itself! So, how do we figure these out (I hear you asking)? All you need to do is ask yourself, or the person you’re interested in a couple of questions. Start with something like ‘what’s the worst thing a partner could do?’. The answer might be cheating, abuse or maybe lying. This sort of thing really clearly indicates what their important relationship rules are. What about ‘what are three things my loved one should do for me?’. These sort of questions will quickly and easily cut to the bone of our relationship schemas. Ask them of your parents, your friends, your siblings. They all have relationship rules and knowing and navigating these are big keys to relationship success.

 Schemas are one of the most influential psychological theories. Learn about seven more and how to hack them for your benefit here. Or maybe learn about the three things that control your relationships here. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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