managing emotions

Women and Leadership. Too nice? Too bossy?

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women_calculator_desk_1600_wht_7996Leaving aside the whole issue of women on FTSE100 boards and the Norwegian “Golden Skirts” have women finally cracked the glass ceiling?

Well according to Herminia Ibarra and her colleagues, writing in the September 2013 HBR, persistent gender bias disrupts the learning process of becoming a leader.

They are talking about what they call “second generation gender bias“. Not direct discrimination but things like the paucity of role models for women, career paths and jobs that have become entrenched with a gender bias, and women’s lack of access to sponsors and networks.

They also talk about the double binds facing women. In most cultures leadership is associated with masculinity. The ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive, and independent. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be nice, caretaking, and unselfish.

Research shows that female leaders who excel in traditional male domains are viewed as competent but less likeable than their male counterparts. Yet research shows that female CEOs are trusted more than male ones and can add real value to teams.

Behaviours that suggest self-confidence or assertiveness in men often appear arrogant or abrasive in women. Female leaders who adopt a feminine approach to their work may be liked but not respected. They are seen as too emotional to make tough decisions and too soft to be strong leaders.

Yet research carried out by Zenger and Folkman in 2011 on over 7,000 executives using 360 degree feedback, showed that women were rated higher than men at every managerial level. However the higher in the hierarchy you went the more men there were. So were companies promoting the right people?

They used 16 competencies in their research, which they had identified as being the most important in terms of overall leadership effectiveness.

These were:

  1. Takes initiative
  2. Practices self-development
  3. Drives for results
  4. Develops others
  5. Inspires and motivates others
  6. Builds relationships
  7. Collaboration
  8. Teamwork
  9. Establishes stretch goals
  10. Champions change
  11. Solves problems and analyses issues
  12. Communicates powerfully and prolifically
  13. Connects the group to the outside world
  14. Innovates
  15. Technical or professional expertise
  16. Develops strategic perspective

Comparing mean scores for men and women the women scored significantly (statistically) higher than the men on 12 of the 16 traits – and not just the ones that women are known to be better at. They scored the same as men on connecting to the outside world, innovating, and technical or professional expertise.

The only trait where men scored higher was on developing a strategic perspective.

So what’s to be done? Ibarra and her colleagues don’t suggest anything dramatically new or innovative.

Progressing to leadership positions means leaving behind your old professional identity and learning new skills (have a look at Charan’s pipeline model).

That can be scary so having supportive mechanisms in place such as providing leadership programmes, mentoring and coaching (and I find in my coaching that women are less defensive and often respond better than men), and providing a support group or a safe space – perhaps an action learning group – can make a real difference.

Resilient Leadership

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bottomlineOver the years there have been many approaches to leadership with trait theories, style theories, functional models, situational/contingency models, transactional/transformational theories, ideas about biological and personality characteristics, and more recently emotional intelligence competencies

So do leaders need to be more intelligent than their followers? Well probably a bit, because that inspires confidence, but not too much more intelligent.

Do they need to be empathetic? It’s probably better if they have tough empathy ie “grow or go” but they do need social skills.

Do they need to be liked? No, but they need to be respected. And since the last recession integrity has become important again.

Difficult times require people to perform better than normal and people need exceptional leaders to help them do that. By exceptional I don’t mean charismatic or heroic leaders – although some people respond to that style of leadership which “encourages the heart” – but leaders who do what they say they will do ie are conscientious, and also act as role models.

And to do that they need to be both self-confident and emotionally stable.

Research among elite performers found that they had a number of characteristics in common. As well as being intelligent, disciplined and bold, with strong practical and interpersonal skills, they bounced back from adversity.

Jim Collins describes in his book “How the mighty fall” people who are exasperatingly persistent and never give up. They are not necessarily the brightest, most talented, or best looking, but they are successful because they know that not giving up is the most important thing they do. He says; “success is falling down and getting up one more time, without end”.

This resilience (from the latin to leap back) is linked to personal attributes such as calmness in stressful situations, reflection on performance through feedback, and learning systematically from both success and failure.

Resilient people generally:

Recognise what they can control and influence and do something about it, rather than worry about what they can’t
Stay involved rather than becoming cynical or detached or simply walking away
Work with others to shape the environment and influence things that affect them most
Act as a source of inspiration to others to counter self-destructive behaviour

Aren’t these the sort of behaviours you would expect from good leaders? So it’s not just about “bouncing back” and carrying on where you left off before. It’s about reflecting and learning from what has happened and then getting back to business.

Resilience seems to be an innate ability for most people and is increasingly found in leadership competency frameworks where it is linked with confidence, authenticity and ethical leadership ideas.

Modern leaders need not just brains and emotional intelligence but also resilience.

Acting as a role model is an essential part of being an effective leader hence the need for them to be hardy and emotionally stable. Research shows that resilient leaders can have a positive effect on the well-being of organisations and their employees so it’s well worth organisations developing such capabilities.

See how you can develop resilience

First posted on SGANDA in 2011

Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: Command & Self-control

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Emotional Intelligence, self-control, and those marshmallowsSuccessful executives see trouble as an opportunity and not a threat“, wrote Carly Chynoweth in the Sunday Times when I first posted this in 2010. Has anything changed?

The article was about the necessity for leaders to take tough decisions in tough times. One contributor said that you had to learn to thrive on pressure or go under, and it was your choice to make basically. He went on to say; “people at the top develop mental toughness… it’s about willpower and not seeing yourself as a victim“.

And a former Chief Executive said; “It’s about mindset and the employees in front of you. If you have a bad day you hide it, because you can be transmitting a virus“.

If self-awareness is the first building block in emotional intelligence, awareness of others’ feelings, or empathy, and self-control come next. And one of the most popular stories reflecting a cornerstone of emotional intelligence is the experiment carried out by Walter Mischel at Standford University in the 1960s using marshmallows to measure self-control.

In a recent post; “Practise makes perfect, probably“, I referred to David Schenk, a writer on genetics, who claims that the case for genetic predisposition is overstated and that if you practise hard enough you can even become a genius. In the same article he cites the marshmallow experiment as an example of how children can learn to develop self-discipline.

Another similar story that caught my eye appeared in the international edition of USA Today (one of the few “English” newspapers you can get on Eastern European airlines). The headline said “The secret of school success. Want your kids to master books? First they need to master themselves. Fortunately new research is finding that self-control can be taught.” The story was about programmes teaching self-regulation in American schools and at the heart of it was a description of the famous marshmallow experiment run by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. The story also criticises some modern parenting methods as undermining the development of self-regulation.

Back in November 2009 both the Observer and the Sunday Times picked up on the findings of a Demos think-tank report. The Sunday Times headline was “Bad parents kill prospects of working class”. It reported on an increase in social mobility between the end of WW2 and the 1970s followed by a period of stagnation up to 2000. The report identified three traits that were most important for children to improve their social lot.

These were:

  1. the ability to concentrate and stick with tasks,
  2. self-regulation – whether someone can control emotions and bounce back from disappointment, and
  3. empathy – the ability to be sensitive to other people.

The report went on to say that the best form of parenting to inculcate these characteristics was “tough love” ie setting clear rules and boundaries, instilled by discussion and affection. And the marshmallow experiment was cited as a predictor of success in life. The report also described disengaged and emotionally callous children and also suggested expanding the role of Health Visitors to provide supportive parenting.

The Observer took a similar tack with “Tough love breeds smart children“. This article contained a number of statistics and found that among the 9,000 families it tracked for the survey only 13% used a tough love approach combining discipline and warmth. Although the research found that it was the style of parenting, rather than income or social background that developed the 3 character traits referred to above, this approach was more common in wealthy families and where parents were married. The parents’ level of education was also an important factor , as was breastfeeding until 6 months.

The report also claimed that these soft skills, or character capabilities, had become increasingly important in life and were now 33 times more important in determining income for those who turned 30 in 2000 than for those 12 years older.

And in advance of a report from the think tank Demos the Times published a piece about the importance of self-control and empathy in children and included a description of Mischel’s now famous marshmallow test.

Mischel had been monitoring the lives of dozens of his subjects since he started the marshmallow experiments at a nursery on the campus of Stanford University, California, in the 1960s. His findings have proved so compelling that 40 of his original subjects, then in their forties, were preparing to undergo scans in the hope of answering a perplexing human question: “why are some of us better than others at resisting temptation?”

Brain imaging provides a very exciting and important new tool,” said Mischel, who now works at Columbia University in New York. By examining the differences between the brains of subjects who turned out to be good at controlling their impulses and those who wolfed down the marshmallow the moment it was offered, researchers hope to come up with new ways of teaching the benefits of delayed gratification.

Update

41n6+3DqQ7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Walter Mischel published a new book in September 2014: “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control”.

Making friends as healthy as regular exercise and your five a day.

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stick_figure_drawing_people_leader_1600_wht_5133Making a new friend is as good for you as regular exercise.

People with a sunny outlook are more popular and have better health.

That’s according to a study reported last week in the Daily Telegraph.

It showed that optimistic people experience more positive emotions because they make more social connections which in turn improves physical health.

So positive emotions could be as important for your health as exercise and your regular fruit and vegetables.

The study, published in the journal Psychology Science, was led by positive psychology pioneer Prof Barbara Frederickson, at the University of North Carolina, and Dr Bethany Kok from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany.

They observed the physical effects of positive emotions  by studying participants’ vagal tone – the body’s control over the vagus nerve which helps to regulate heart rate among other things.

People with a high vagal tone ie more control over the vagus nerve, tend to be better at regulating their emotions. It was hypothesised that those with higher vagal tone experienced more positive emotions. The optimism arising from that should improve social connections, further increasing vagal control and thereby improving physical health in an upward spiral.

The researchers wanted to know if participants could cultivate optimism and thereby improve their chances of better health. So participants were randomly assigned to either a 6-week loving-kindness meditation (LKM) course or left on a waiting list for the course. All of them had their vagal tones assessed at the start and end of the study.

Those on the course learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion and goodwill towards themselves and others.

The results showed that those with higher vagal tone in the LKM group showed steeper emotions over the course of the study. As their positive emotions increased so did their reported social connections  which in turn led to an increase in their vagal tone. Those on the waiting list showed no change in vagal tone over the course of the study.

Prof Frederickson was reported to have said that “positive emotions may be an essential psychological nutrient that builds health, just like getting enough exercise and eating your fruit and vegetables”.

The ability to manage your emotions is an important aspect of emotional intelligence which has been posted elsewhere on this blog.

It appears that this study was carried out in a scientific way unlike an earlier report from Germany about alternatives to going to the gym  which turned out to be an urban myth.

How our instinct can deceive us

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Breathe London

In this blog I explore why it’s so important to slow down and examine our emotions, and those of people around us.

Making decisions based on gut instinct

Research over the last 20 years increasingly suggests we perceive our decision making processes to be dominated by logic, when in fact the way we tend to problem solve and reach conclusions is firstly out of instinct, and then through engaging our analytical side to justify our decisions. Malcolm Gladwell turned this topic into a whole book called ‘Blink’

The problem with this decision making process, is that our gut instinct is primed by our ancestral reptilian brain, our upbringing, current stress levels and how we are primed at every moment by environmental factors. Once we have made a decision based on gut instinct and backed it up with thought it’s very difficult for us to change our attitudes – they become…

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Smile! 

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Trying to influence or establish contact with people by smiling only works with sociable people, according to research at Stanford University (2002).

Their brains respond and react with positive emotions but smiling has no impact on negative people, introverts, or those more neurotic.

The more extraverted you are, the more you allow yourself to be infected by the other person’s smile.

People make judgements based on your appearance in 1/10 of a second or less, to know whether or not they like you or think you are trustworthy. But after a couple of seconds they are distracted by what you say or do anyway.

Research by UK psychologists for Comic Relief in 2003 found big variations in the way people responded to smiles. In Edinburgh only 4% responded but in Bristol 70% smiled back (Birmingham was 31%). NB Smiling responses probably depend on the setting and the context.

Women smile more than men but it is discounted more as it is expected. 30 years ago researchers thought it was because of status differences between men and women but it may be more about relieving anxiety. Generally men only smile to be sociable.

Smiling is good for you as it lowers your heart rate and improves you immune system eg happier people resist catching colds better than unhappy people.

Cultural differences need to be taken into account too eg in former Soviet Union countries the older generation tend not to smile at strangers, even in shops and customer service settings (Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Lithuania).

There is also a cost to smiling when you are required to do it for your job. Emotional Labour, the so-called “have a nice day syndrome”, is the cost of appearing happy and reasonable no matter how you really feel. Having to fake it for your job eg in medical settings, teaching and call centres, can make you feel exhausted, detached from other people and your own feelings, and can eventually lead to job dissatisfaction. If you want to see how good you are at detecting fake smiles go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/surveys/smiles/index.shtml

Regulating empathy in this way is taking management control a step further than requiring staff to behave in certain ways. “You can’t force people to smile, they have to be satisfied with their lives, their jobs and their performance” said the HR Manager at IKEA, Russia.

There are things organisations could do:

  • Recruit extroverts who are generally more optimistic and positive
  • Give people who aren’t, role models to emulate (introverts can learn how to behave in extrovert ways)
  • Help people to get into positive moods through visualisation or by remembering positive events
  • Give people satisfying jobs to do!

If you need an incentive to smile it also looks like people who smile may live longer. http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/06/say-cheese-big-smilers-in-photos-are.html

It seems dimples are in fashion (influenced by Cheryl Cole) and a “dimpleplasty” operation – cutting a hole in your cheek and stitching it to your muscles – is now all the rage. The problem is that, unlike real dimples which disappear when you stop smiling, your grin is permanent and as Carol Midgley in the Times magazine says, it might be awkward having a permanent grin when your neighbour tells you the dog has just died.

First posted 2010

Charisma pays off

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Not least for charisma coach Olivier Fox Cabane who charges $150k per client, according to a recent interview with her in the Times, and whose book The Charisma Myth is selling very well.

And that’s not bad for someone who has business and law degrees but is a self-taught psychologist.

She is described as an extreme leadership guru who uses neuroshaping or “playing chemist with your own brain” to help people become more charismatic and persuasive.

Like other top end coaches she offers shadowing and video analysis and concedes that the charisma label is just a hook she uses to attract clients.

Starting off by offering free charisma courses to students at MIT she soon developed programmes for Harvard, Yale and the UN. She says she still does pro bono work for charities and refuses to work with politicians.

She is adamant that charisma is not just a genetic gift bestowed on people like Bill Clinton but is mostly learnt. Cabane also says that there are different kinds of charisma e.g. a warm likeable charisma (think Tony Blair at his peak and Bill Clinton) or a colder uncompromising style such as personified by Steve Jobs.

Mmm .. I’ve used a model borrowed from actors which suggests that charisma is a combination of warmth and status. Think of Gordon Brown as high status but hardly warm and cuddly. And that model ties in with US research on charismatic Fire Chiefs who score high on the Big 5 factor of Agreeableness.

Despite the reference to “neuroshaping” (which hints at he current interest in neuroscience) it seems much of what she teaches clients is about assertiveness and the use of NVC (she mentions the MIT research I’ve posted about previously). She also uses visualisation and anchoring techniques used by sports psychologists and NLP practitioners.

Here are the 5 steps outlined in the Times article

Stand like a big gorilla and take up as much space as possible. This is a technique well known to actors and is an example of demonstrating high status

Don’t wave your head about or nod as it indicates low status and confidence. Especially important for women who tend to move their heads to the side when theys peak. This is more a courtship/flirting signal

Make good eye contact but with warmth. Again a sign of confidence.

Lean back rather than froward when closing a deal as this suggests high confidence. In the past people were trained to lean forward and invade personal space to intimidate people.

Be aware of how you are feeling. Be in the moment. Mindfulness is very popular now and anything like it will help you relax and concentrate.

Good emotional intelligence and empathy will also be invaluable.

Botox reduces empathy

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Over a year ago I posted “Body language and the B problem” and about some research by psychologists at Wisconsin-Madison University on the effect of Botox on interpersonal relationships.

This suggested that if you had a Botox treatment your inability to show appropriate emotions, especially sadness or empathy, would be interpreted as a lack of sympathy or interest. More interestingly it said it might actually slow down your own empathetic response.

Now Research at Duke University Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina has confirmed that as well as reducing frown lines Botox reduces a person’s ability to empathise with others. This is important for everyday interactions, particularly at work where we spend most of our time.

Empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence as is managing your emotions but it seems Botox would make you appear to be over-controlling your emotions or that you are lacking in empathy. Already researchers are saying that Generation Me students are 40% less empathetic than they were 20 to 30 years ago.

The Duke University researchers talk about embedded cognition, which is the idea that our bodies reflect the way we think and feel. For example if you see someone in pain you wince and that sends a message to your brain about the pain. (This sounds a bit like the idea of mirror neurons). NB I suspect that this wouldn’t work if you were a psychopath.

The researchers were initially interested in the effect of Botox on romantic relationships and the effect on that when one person has been treated with Botox and becomes less empathetic.

Also the idea that long-married couples start to look alike because they have been copying each other’s facial expressions for so long. (Could the same apply to people who start looking like their pets?)

btw if you are interested in having Botox the trend now is to have preventative Botox before you actually develop any frown lines!

Developing Resilience

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Research among elite performers found that they had a number of characteristics in common. As well as being intelligent, disciplined and bold, with strong practical and interpersonal skills, they bounced back from adversity.

Jim Collins describes in his new book “How the mighty fall” people who are exasperatingly persistent and never give up. They are not necessarily the brightest, most talented, or best looking, but they are successful because they know that not giving up is the most important thing they do. He says; “success is falling down and getting up one more time, without end”.

Early research on resilience focussed on survival in extreme situations (and we still see examples in the recent events in Japan). However resilience is now seen as a more regular phenomenon and the evidence is mounting that most people recover from traumatic events and regain their emotional equilibrium fairly quickly.

In doing so they may use seemingly dysfunctional coping strategies, for example boosting their egos almost to the point of narcissistic behaviour. Or they may choose to repress negative thoughts or emotions – what some psychologists might see as denial. George A Bonanno calls this “coping ugly”.

In his research after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the SARS epidemic, he found that up to 2/3 of survivors experienced few if any symptoms and after 6 months there were only about 10% who needed help.

Until recently disaster sites would be inundated with counsellors offering critical incident stress debriefing, something now considered unnecessary and possible harmful. And after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the World Health Organisation actually warned against using this technique. It only takes one person in a group to react badly to re-living the trauma for the whole group to be affected.

Linked theoretically with positive psychology and CBT resilience is partly about filtering negative messages, to enable you to take a more realistic perspective, and partly about being single-minded about what you can and cannot control.

It is also linked to personal attributes such as calmness in stressful situations, reflection on performance through feedback, and learning systematically from both success and failure. Resilient people generally:

  • Recognise what they can control and influence and do something about it, rather than worry about what they can’t
  • Stay involved rather than becoming cynical or detached or simply walking away
  • Work with others to shape the environment and influence things that affect them most
  • Act as a source of inspiration to others to counter self-destructive behaviour

So it’s not just about “bouncing back” and carrying on where you left off before. It’s about reflecting and learning from what has happened and then getting back to business.

So can you learn to be more resilient? Clarke & Nicholson, authors of “Bounce back from whatever life throws at you”, think so and set out a 10-point plan.

  1. Visualise success
  2. Boost your self-esteem
  3. Enhance your efficacy – take control
  4. Become more optimistic
  5. Manage your stress
  6. Improve your decision-making
  7. Ask for help
  8. Deal with conflict
  9. Learn
  10. Be yourself

And the US Army certainly thinks so as well. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, is currently delivering a multi-million dollar contract to teach over 1 million soldiers how to be more resilient and using a “train the trainer” approach to train NCOs how to cascade the programme.

Based partly on the Penn University resilience programme the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Programme incorporates large chunks of positive psychology eg looking at character strengths, emotional intelligence elements such as empathy, self-awareness and impulse control, and CBT techniques such as Ellis’s ABC model.

Because it also incorporates elements about family and spirituality it may appear to have more in common with life-coaching than executive coaching but it is designed to reinforce the warrior ethic and to make better leaders.

Research shows that resilient people can have a positive effect on the well-being of organisations and their employees so it’s well worth organisations developing such capabilities.

If you want a free report on character strengths go to: http://www.viacharacter.org/

Make better use of your brain

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High achievement has little to do with your IQ but to a partnership between your brain and behaviour.

So say Drs Brown and Fenske, regular contributors to the Harvard Business Review, in their book “The Winner’s Brain”.

They also believe that the brain retains the capacity to change throughout adulthood (also see “Old doesn’t mean stupid“).

They say if you put in the work you can enhance brain function which in turn will help you become more self-aware, more resilient and with better control over attention and emotional responses (some of the key aspects of emotional intelligence).

Using neuro-imaging techniques researchers can now see which parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in specific tasks and also what impact certain activities have on those areas. They believe that those functions can be enhanced –  literally fine-tuning the brain.

They suggest a number of strategies to help us perform better.

  1. Meditation for stress relief can affect visible changes in areas of the brain which in turn have an impact on our ability to control attention and our emotional response
  2. The bigger the task the more likely you are to procrastinate. Therefore you nedd to reframe the problem and break it into small, concrete steps (bite size chunks as trainers might say). It is the ability to change the way you look at a task or problem that is important and the more you do it the more success you have.
  3. Brain functions that provide focus break down when you are multi-tasking or have distractions. To work optimally you can’t multi-task because the brain has limitations when doing multiple things (see “Multi-tasking makes you stupider than smoking pot“). So eliminate distractions but not all of them. To be at your best you may need to reduce activity in parts of the brain involved in self-monitoring and self-criticism. So us a gentle distraction like background music or ambient sounds just enough to keep your critical self-conscious occupied so you can focus and work more easily. But avoid abrupt distractions like phone calls or e-mail alerts.

Source: HBR September 2010

Updated 5 November 2010: Neuroscientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that passing electricity through the brain, from the right parietal lobe to the left, improves mathematical ability. If you pass the current in the opposite direction however it reduces your ability.

The research was looking for ways of treating dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia, which is thought to affect 6% of the population. Such a treatment might also be useful for people who have suffered a stroke or brain injury.

Of course there would be nothing to stop people with normal ability in maths using such a treatment to improve their ability eg when taking exams. This could replace the smart drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil used by some people as cognitive enhancers by improving attention and alertness. (See my earlier post; “Keeping up with speed“).

Strategic thinking involves emotions

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Many of us think that strategy is a higher level activity than its actual execution.

Even business schools make a distinction between strategy and operations and managers are urged to become more strategic if they want to progress.

However both kinds of thinking draw on socio-emotional reasoning and more so for the more adept strategists. Researchers in the USA asked managers to react to fictional strategic and tactical management dilemmas whilst measuring their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers were particularly interested in how different areas of the brain interacted. The pre-frontal cortex is the executive part of the brain and normally associated with strategic thinking ie pattern recognition, risk assessment, abstract thinking, and anticipation.

Whilst these abilities help managers solve problems the researchers found that in the best strategic thinkers there was less neural activity in that region and more in the areas of the brain associated with instinctive reactions, empathy and emotional intelligence viz the insula, anterior cingulate cortex and the superior temporal sulcus.

The conscious executive function was downplayed whilst the regions associated with unconscious emotion processing was operating more freely.

Furthermore the strongest performers’ tactical reasoning relied not only on the emotional processing part of the brain and that part used for making choices based on past decisions, but also the part of the brain used to anticipate other people’s thoughts and emotions.

So although IQ based reasoning is valuable in both strategic and tactical thinking high performers have the ability to take a more holistic approach by integrating their brain processes. Strategic thinkers may even repress rational thought to allow their emotional and intuitive processes freer reign.

Source: HBR September 2010

Moral judgements & decision-making under the influence

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You  might think your moral compass is pretty reliable – you know what is right and what is wrong and make decisions based on that and also judge other people accordingly.

So would you push someone under a train if it would save 5 other people? Probably not if you are on antidepressants according to research at Cambridge University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in New Scientist recently; “Take antidepressants and you’ll be a soft touch”.

An antidepressant citalopram, which raises your serotonin levels (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI), was administered to 24 healthy volunteers who were then given this moral dilemma. Compared to other volunteers given a placebo they were 10% less likely to inflict harm on someone. In another experiment the drugged volunteers were more likely to accept unfair treatment than punish the other person’s greed.

The researchers pointed out that antidepressants are the most widely prescribed class of drugs (in the USA) so it’s important to investigate their effects on users’ social behaviour and moral judgement.

But what if instead you asked people to clean themselves or think clean thoughts?

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that asking people to clean their hands with antiseptic wipes or priming them to feel clean by reading passages about how clean they felt had the same effect ie they made harsher moral judgements on a range of social issues including pornography and littering than those who were primed to feel dirty or who didn’t follow the cleaning procedure.

The researchers concluded that: “Acts of cleanliness not only have the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgement of others“.

And if you are a woman and you think you are too trusting, a drop of testosterone could increase your guardedness. Researchers in the Netherlands and South Africa placed a  drop of testosterone on women’s tongues and asked them to judge the trustworthiness of a series of male faces.

They also asked other women to whom they gave a placebo, then repeated the experiment but swapped the treatment. Women who had just been given testosterone were less trustful of the men than those given the placebo. And the effect was more pronounced amongst women who were normally more trustful. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol 107 No 22)

Makes you wonder about juries or other situations where people judge others – not just so-called talent shows but more mundane things like selection panels or performance reviews.

Updated 6 January 2011: Having sweat samples hung under your nose in teabags sounds like something only a psychologist would devise. But it showed that when people are anxious they release a chemical signal that is detectable at an unconscious level by those nearby.

Participants were exposed to sweat from both anxious and non-anxious participants without knowing which was which. When exposed to anxious sweat they took longer but made riskier decisions.

Haegler ‘s research in Neuropsychologia showed that the participants rated both kinds of sweat equally unpleasant and couldn’t consciously tell the difference. Earlier research had shown that sweat collected from an anxious person triggered extra activity in emotion-related brain areas.

Haegler wondered if the perception of emotional chemical signals might alert individuals to danger but said that the results certainly suggested that; anxiety in humans can be communicated through chemical senses unconsciously”.