Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fear or romance

Fear or romance could make you change your mind, U of Minnesota study finds

People's primal emotions alter effectiveness of persuasion tactics

Each day people are confronted with innumerable pieces of information and hundreds of decisions. Not surprisingly, people seldom process each piece of information deeply, instead relying on quick mental shortcuts to guide their behaviors. For example, people often use the conformity-based mental shortcut of following the crowd. This hasn't gone unnoticed by advertisers, who often tout that specific products are best-sellers or are particularly popular. But new research from Vladas Griskevicius, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, suggests that the effectiveness of such common persuasion tactics can be dramatically altered by two primal emotions - fear and romantic desire.

In the forthcoming paper "Fear and Loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, Emotion, and Persuasion," Griskevicius and his co-authors find that the emotion we are currently feeling has a strong effect on whether we decide to conform or to go against the grain "Being afraid especially leads people to go along with the crowd, activating a 'safety-in-numbers' psychology," said Griskevicius. "A feeling of lust, however, motivates people to go it alone, activating a desire to be seen as unique. Feeling scared or amorous can greatly change the way people make decisions."

To test the idea, the researchers had people watch a short clip from a frightening or a romantic film. Afterward, people viewed ads for Las Vegas that contained commonly used persuasive appeals either rooted in conformity ("over a million sold") or rooted in uniqueness ("stand out from the crowd"). After watching a scary film, people were especially persuaded by conformity-based appeals that presented the trip as a popular option. In contrast, after people watched a romantic film clip, they were not only less persuaded by the same conformity-based appeal, but such appeals were counter-persuasive. The romantically minded individuals especially did not want to visit Las Vegas if they knew that many others are already going. Instead, people in a romantic state were much more persuaded by appeals that presented the trip as a unique, unusual, or exotic choice that others might not make.

The fact that emotions can dramatically influence people's tendency to go with or go against the group should not be overlooked by marketers. For example, advertisements often use persuasive appeals depicting products or ideas as being particularly popular or top sellers. The well-established tendency to conform makes such appeals generally quite effective. But when people view such ads on television, advertisers rarely consider that these viewers have often just been taken on an emotional roller coaster by the program they are currently watching. Indeed, Griskevicius and colleagues find that different types of commonly used persuasion appeals are differentially effective depending on the emotion that a viewer is feeling.

"The effects of this study extend to everyday activities like watching the nightly news," Griskevicius said. "Much of the news is full of fear invoking material. Advertising during that news show should focus on collective, 'everyone's doing it' messages rather than individual or unique messages that might work better during a romantically themed show like 'Sex and the City'."

Middle and High School Predicts Sexual Behavior

Peer Victimization in Middle and High School Predicts Sexual Behavior School Predicts Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents

Peer victimization during middle and high school may be an important indicator of an individual's sexual behavior later in life. These are the findings of Binghamton University researchers Andrew C. Gallup, Daniel T. O'Brien and David Sloan Wilson, and University at Albany researcher Daniel D. White. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Personality and Individual Differences, the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences (ISSID).

According to Gallup, peer aggression and victimization during adolescence is a form of competition for reproductive opportunities. Female college students who were frequently victimized during middle and high school reported having sex at earlier ages and more sexual partners than their peers, while males reported just the opposite.

In a sample of over 100 college students, surveys showed that over 85 percent of all victimization occurred between members of the same sex, and that indirect victimization (e.g., teasing, demeaning, isolating) predicted sexual behavior, while physical aggression did not.

According to the researchers, the relevance of victimization and sexual behavior may be embedded in our evolutionary past. "Aggression may resolve intrasexual competition for the same resources, often including members of the opposite sex" said Gallup. "Adolescence serves as a premier age in which to study competition for reproductive access. As the life span of our ancestors was greatly diminished, those who began having children at younger ages would have been selected over those who postponed their sexual behavior."

Competition among peers for a boyfriend or girlfriend may be influenced by these socially aggressive behaviors. Interestingly, study results indicate different effects for males and females.

"Nearly inverse outcomes were observed between the sexes in terms of victimization and sexual behaviors," said Gallup. "And according to evolutionary theory, these types of aggressive and socially dominant strategies operate by different means between males and females. For instance, females preferentially seek status when choosing mates, while males place a larger emphasis on physical attractiveness."

The researchers believe that victimization acts to lower social status in males, and thus females find these males less attractive. It is also proposed that limited physical prowess or physical immaturity may be contributing to this effect, by promoting both an increased likelihood of being victimized and reduced sexual opportunity.

The study presents multiple explanations for females as well. One interpretation is that females who are highly victimized by other girls may have lower self-esteem and could be more susceptible to male sexual pressure. Therefore, the heightened sexual activity of female victims could be an artifact of male coercion.

Another possibility is that attractive girls may simply be the target of aggression by other girls out of envy and resentment over male attention. For instance, research has shown that females often try to slander good-looking girls in front of men in an attempt to make them less desirable. As males focus on physical appearance and not status, attractive female victims do not suffer reduced sexual opportunities. It is important to note however, that this study did not measure physical attractiveness.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Romance can last in long-term relationships

Contrary to widely held beliefs, romance can last in long-term relationships, say researchers

Romance does not have to fizzle out in long-term relationships and progress into a companionship/friendship-type love, a new study has found. Romantic love can last a lifetime and lead to happier, healthier relationships.

"Many believe that romantic love is the same as passionate love," said lead researcher Bianca P. Acevedo, PhD, then at Stony Brook University (currently at University of California, Santa Barbara). "It isn't. Romantic love has the intensity, engagement and sexual chemistry that passionate love has, minus the obsessive component. Passionate or obsessive love includes feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. This kind of love helps drive the shorter relationships but not the longer ones."

These findings appear in the March issue of Review of General Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

Acevedo and co-researcher Arthur Aron, PhD, reviewed 25 studies with 6,070 individuals in short- and long-term relationships to find out whether romantic love is associated with more satisfaction. To determine this, they classified the relationships in each of the studies as romantic, passionate (romantic with obsession) or friendship-like love and categorized them as long- or short-term.

The researchers looked at 17 short-term relationship studies, which included 18- to 23-year-old college students who were single, dating or married, with the average relationship lasting less than four years. They also looked at 10 long-term relationship studies comprising middle-aged couples who were typically married 10 years or more. Two of the studies included both long- and short-term relationships in which it was possible to distinguish the two samples.

The review found that those who reported greater romantic love were more satisfied in both the short- and long-term relationships. Companion-like love was only moderately associated with satisfaction in both short- and long-term relationships. And those who reported greater passionate love in their relationships were more satisfied in the short term compared to the long term.

Couples who reported more satisfaction in their relationships also reported being happier and having higher self-esteem.

Feeling that a partner is "there for you" makes for a good relationship, Acevedo said, and facilitates feelings of romantic love. On the other hand, "feelings of insecurity are generally associated with lower satisfaction, and in some cases may spark conflict in the relationship. This can manifest into obsessive love," she said.

This discovery may change people's expectations of what they want in long-term relationships. According to the authors, companionship love, which is what many couples see as the natural progression of a successful relationship, may be an unnecessary compromise. "Couples should strive for love with all the trimmings," Acevedo said. "And couples who've been together a long time and wish to get back their romantic edge should know it is an attainable goal that, like most good things in life, requires energy and devotion."

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Article: "Does a Long-Term Relationship Kill Romantic Love?" Bianca P. Acevedo, PhD, and Arthur Aron, PhD, Stony Brook University; Review of General Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 1.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/gpr13159.pdf.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sex is in the brain

Sex is in the brain, says new research from Stanford

More than 40 percent of women ages 18-59 experience sexual dysfunction, with lack of sexual interest — hypoactive sexual desire disorder, or HSDD — being the most commonly reported complaint, according to medical researchers. While some question the validity of this diagnosis, a multidisciplinary team from the Stanford University School of Medicine is devoted to objective investigation of such problems.

Here is a quick briefing on new research on this problem from Bruce Arnow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Leah Millheiser, MD, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

The question: What role does the brain play in some women's lack of sexual desire?

Background: Studies of factors affecting sexual performance have largely focused on men, and on physiology of the body rather than the brain. But the brain, rather than peripheral organs, may play the key role in female sexual dysfunction.

The study: The trial is the first to compare brain-activation patterns of females who have HSDD with those who don't. Sixteen women diagnosed with HSDD, along with 20 normal control subjects, took part in the study. All subjects identified themselves as heterosexual.

The experiment: Subjects were shown erotic video segments interspersed among footage of female sporting events. These segments were separated by intervening tranquil sequences of such subjects as flowers, mountains or ocean waves to bring the women's brains to a resting state between more-active segments. Their brain activity was monitored by functional magnetic-resonance imaging, which allows the activity of different brain regions to be assessed in real time. The women also reported their subjective levels of sexual arousal throughout the viewing. Meanwhile, the researchers also collected objective measurements of the women's level of genital arousal.

The findings: Activity patterns throughout most of the brain were more or less identical among the HSDD and normal groups, but with a few notable exceptions. There was a bigger jump in relative activity in three brain areas of HSDD women — the medial frontal gyrus, right inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral putamen — compared with the control subjects when shown the erotic clips. In another brain area — the bilateral entorhinal cortex — the opposite effect occurred. This finding establishes specific locations in the brain where activity in women with HSDD is altered in comparison with women not reporting this problem.

Discussion: Two of the brain areas where the HSDD women had increased activity (the medial frontal gyrus and right inferior frontal gyrus) have been previously associated with, respectively, heightened attention to one's own and others' mental states, and suppression of one's emotional response. The research suggests that increased attention to one's own responses to erotic stimuli plays some part in the sexual dysfunction. The increased activation in the entorhinal cortex observed in the control subjects may correlate with an improved ability among women with no sexual dysfunction, compared with HSDD women, to lay down emotional memories related to sexual events.

Caveats: Correlation is not cause and effect. The study could be showing how paying too much attention causes inhibition of sexual desire — or how the lack of desire in a sexually charged situation causes heightened self-consciousness.

Bottom line: "The results of this study provide yet another valuable tool for understanding the complexity of female sexual function as it relates to desire," Millheiser said. "The next step is to translate this information into the clinical realm, specifically as it relates to cognitive and pharmacotherapeutic approaches."

Published: The results appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of the journal Neuroscience.