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Some ‘heavenly’ and ‘hellish’ psychology studies you may (or may not) wish you had participated in

“We searched the annals of psychology for studies that sounded simply heavenly, from swimming with dolphins to receiving a free back massages!” writes psychologist/journalist Christian Jarrett.

One study asked participants to go swimming with dolphins and have their well-being measured before and after the experience.
REUTERS/Paul Hanna

Research Digest, the British Psychology Society’s always interesting blog on the latest research involving brain and behavior, ran an article over the weekend on 10 psychology studies that “you’ll wish you’d participated in.”

“We searched the annals of psychology for studies that sounded simply heavenly, from swimming with dolphins to receiving a free back massages!” writes psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett.

Jarrett’s summaries of the studies make fun reading, but what I also found interesting were the studies’ results. Several had fairly predictable findings. For example, employees who received free massages at their workplace reported less anxiety and tension. And heart-surgery patients who were prayed for by 12 religious congregations fared no better after their operations than those who weren’t at the receiving end of those devout appeals. No real surprises there.

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But the results of some of the other studies — including the one involving swimming with dolphins — were a bit more unexpected, as Jarrett points out (with British spellings):

Go swimming with dolphins. … In this research from 2001, psychologists asked dozens of participants, in groups of four, to swim with four wild dolphins in the ocean off a beach in Australia. The participants completed well-being measures before and after the experience and the change in their scores was compared to a control group who went swimming after the dolphins had gone. Although the dolphin group felt more positive after their experience than the control group, they’d actually started out feeling more positive, so they didn’t enjoy a greater gain than the control group. Sceptics have pointed out that most research on the benefits of swimming with dolphins has lacked methodological rigour. Writing in 2007 [PDF], Lori Marino and Scott Lilienfeld warned that: “The surprising paucity of scientific evidence for the long-term effects of DAT [dolphin-assisted therapy] raises profoundly troubling ethical questions regarding its widespread use and promotion.”

Eat toffee made at one of the world’s most famous restaurants. Many psychology experiments give participants an excuse to sample chocolate, ice cream and other naughty delights. But this study is more heavenly than most in the genre because it involved paying participants to eat some toffee prepared at the experimental kitchen attached to chef Heston Blumenthal’s  … famous Fat Duck restaurant. As the participants tasted the toffee, they were either played low-pitched brass instrumental music specially prepared to be congruent with bitter taste or higher-pitched piano music selected to be congruent with sweetness. The participants’ experience of the toffee varied depending on the music they were listening to at the time they tasted it – specifically, they described the toffee as sweeter when it was accompanied by the piano music. This shows “the taste of a food can be systematically altered by playing a soundscape that shares a crossmodal correspondence with the taste in question,” the researchers said.

Have more sex. Plenty of research has revealed a rather unsurprising correlation – people who are happier report having more sex. But of course the causal direction could go either way (or the correlation could be explained by other factors that increase both happiness and frequency of sex). To find out if sex boosts happiness, George Loewenstein and his colleagues recruited 70 heterosexual married couples aged between 35 and 65 and instructed them to have more sex (none of them reported any relevant sexual problems that might complicate the results). To take part, the couples’ current frequency of sex had to lie somewhere between once a month and three times a week. The simple instruction to the couples was to double their usual frequency for the next 90 days. Surveys completed before, during and after the study showed, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, that although people instructed to have more sex did have more sex, they actually suffered reductions in happiness and the enjoyment of sex, as compared with a control group. “Perhaps being in the experimental treatment changed couple members’ construal of sex, from a voluntary activity engaged in for pleasure to a duty, engaged in at the behest of the experimenter,” the researchers concluded.

‘Hellish’ studies, too

Jarrett’s article serves as a kind of bookend to another one he wrote last March on the “10 hellish psychology studies you’ll be glad not to have participated in.”

And, yes, most of these studies sound very … well, if not hellish, then uncomfortable  — such as lying in a brain scanner while a corn snake is released near your head and being asked to complete a water-tasting test while having a full bladder.

This batch of studies also had some interesting and even surprising results. For example, mothers who were asked to smell soiled diapers (without knowing which babies the diapers came from) tended to rate the smell of their own child’s diaper as less disgusting.

And students who were asked to do four embarrassing tasks (including imitating a toddler’s temper tantrum) in front of their classmates were found to be more willing to help other people afterward than a control group of students who didn’t perform the tasks.

One of the studies, though, sounds not just uncomfortable, but definitely hellish — so much so, that I wonder if it would have made it past an institutional review board (IRB) today. (It was conducted in the 1950s.) The study’s disturbing results have some resonance today, however, given recent calls by President Barack Obama and others to investigate and reform our prison policies on solitary confinement. Here’s Jarrett’s description of it:

“Lie in Bed in a Cell Doing Nothing For Days” (purpose: studying sensory deprivation). At McGill University in Canada in the 1950s, male college students were paid $20 a day to don translucent goggles, wear cotton gloves and to lie on a bed in a tiny room, air conditioning humming in the background. They stayed for as many days as they could bear, with breaks for meals and toilet visits. The idea wasn’t to test complete sensory deprivation but to see “how human beings would react in situations in which nothing at all was happening.” The students soon became irritated and paranoid, their mental function impaired, and they experienced increasingly disturbing hallucinations, including seeing squirrels marching with bags over their shoulders, and having the feeling of being hit by pellets from a miniature rocket ship. “Prolonged exposure to a monotonous environment has definitely deleterious effects,” one of the researchers concluded in his write-up.

You can read all of Jarrett’s selections of “heavenly” and “hellish” studies on the Research Digest website.