Saturday, 22 December 2012

Merry Christmas...Psychology

(Congratulations to all those who survived the end of the world! I hope you live peacefully... until the next one of arrives...)

It’s that time of the year again. Christmas carols, mince pies, endless queues at the local post office, Starbucks red cups, Doctor Who..  Thankfully, psychologists are curious creatures that study almost every aspect of human behaviour including… Christmas. So here are a few Christmas related studies/links:
1) Most people like decorating their house for Christmas. Some of them go too far, as you can see in this video. One possible reason for this behaviour could be the desire to communicate friendliness and cohesiveness with neighbours. Werner et al. examined whether strangers can accurately identify the more friendly residents, and what aspects of the homes’ exteriors contribute to their impressions. They also examine the possibility that residents who decorate for Christmas but who have few friends on the block may be using the decorations and other cues as a way of communicating their accessibility to neighbours.
Participants rated residents based only on photographs of their home and front yard. Stimulus homes had been preselected to represent the four cells of a two by two factorial design crossing the presence/absence of Christmas decorations with the resident’s self-rated social contact with neighbors (low/high). As expected, a main effect for the decorated factor indicated that raters used Christmas decorations as a cue that the residents were friendly and cohesive. Decoration interacted with sociability in a complex but interpretable way. In the absence of Christmas decorations, raters accurately distinguished between the homes of sociable and nonsociable residents; in open ended comments, they attributed their impressions to the relatively more ‘open’ and ‘lived in’ look of the sociable residents’ homes. When Christmas decorations were present, raters actually attributed greater sociability to the nonsociable residents, citing a more open appearance as the basis for their judgments. The results support the idea that residents can use their home’s exterior to communicate attachment and possibly to integrate themselves into a neighborhood’s social activities.
I have a feeling that extreme Christmas decorations probably fail to achieve this purpose and result in (further) alienation.
2)  What makes for a Merry Christmas? Not consumerism according to a study by Kasser et al. More specifically:
More happiness was reported when family and religious experiences were especially salient, and lower well-being occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated. Engaging in environmentally conscious consumption practices also predicted a happier holiday, as did being older and male. In sum, the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisīŦed.
You can read the full study here.
3) Christmassy stuff make you feel better if you’re a Christian or if you celebrate Christmas. Schmitt et al. examined the differential psychological consequences of being in the presence of a Christmas display on participants who did or did not celebrate Christmas, or who identified as Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh. Participants completed measures of psychological well-being while they were in a cubicle that was either decorated or not with a Christmas display. The Christmas decorations harmed non-celebrators and non-Christians well-being scores. The opposite effect was found on Christians. I’m wondering what’s the effect on atheists that were raised in Christian families/societies..
4) If you still believe in Santa Claus you might have to skip this one. Still here? You’re probably over 8. According to a (locked) study by Blair et al. this is the mean age at which disbelief in Santa Claus occurs  for both boys and girls. Another study (Anderson et al., 1994) examined the children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth.
Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth. Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery.
5) And finally, Christmas phobias, or the 12 neuroses of Christmas. Not very scientific but funny (unless you’re suffering from Ho-Ho-Phobia).
 PS: I’m a bit surprised by the lack of neuroimaging studies on Christmas! I was hoping for something catchy and pointless like “Your brain on Santa Claus” or “The neuroscience of Christmas Carols”.

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