How to increase children’s patience in 5 seconds

A single act increases adults’ compliance with researchers. The same act makes students more likely to volunteer to solve math problems in front of others. Moreover, it makes four-year-olds more patient. What sounds like a miracle cure to everyday problems is actually the oldest trick in the book: human touch.

How do researchers know this? Here is one experiment. In a recently published study (Leonard et al., 2014), four and five year old children were asked to wait for ten minutes in front of candy. The experimenter told them to wait before eating the candy because he had to finish paperwork. How long would children wait before calling the experimenter in because they wanted to eat the candy earlier? Four-year-olds waited for about six minutes while five-year-olds waited for about eight minutes. The task was similar to the classic Marshmallow test shown in the video.


The positive effect of touch

However, it all depends on whether the experimenter gave children a friendly touch on the back during the request to wait. If she did, four-year-olds waited for seven minutes (versus 5 minutes without touch) and five-year-olds waited for nine minutes (versus seven minutes without touch). A simple, five-second-long touch made four-year-olds behave as patiently as five-year-olds. It’s surprising how simple and fast the intervention is.

Touch across the ages

This result nicely fits into a wider literature on the benefits of a friendly touch. Already back in the eighties Patterson and colleagues (1986) found that adults spent more time helping with the tedious task of scoring personality tests if they were touched by the experimenter. Interestingly, the touch on the shoulder was hardly ever reported as noteworthy. In the early noughties Gueguen picked this effect up and moved it to the real world. He showed that touch also increases adults’ willingness to help by watching after a large dog (Gueguen & Fisher-Loku, 2002) as well as students’ willingness to volunteer to solve a math problem in front of a class (Gueguen, 2004).

The reason underlying these effects remains a bit mysterious. Does the touch on the back reduce the anxiety of being faced with a new, possibly difficult, task? Does it increase the rapport between experimenter and experimental participant? Does it make time fly by because being touched feels good? Well, time will tell.

Touch your child?

There are obvious sexual connotations related to touching people, unfortunately this includes touching children. As a result, some schools in the UK have adopted a ‘no touch’ policy: teachers are never allowed to touch children. Research shows that such an approach comes at a cost: children behave less patiently when they are not touched. Should society deny itself the benefits of people innocently touching each other?


Guéguen N, & Fischer-Lokou J (2002). An evaluation of touch on a large request: a field setting. Psychological reports, 90 (1), 267-9 PMID: 11898995

Guéguen, N. (2004). Nonverbal Encouragement of Participation in a Course: the Effect of Touching Social Psychology of Education, 7 (1), 89-98 DOI: 10.1023/B:SPOE.0000010691.30834.14

Leonard JA, Berkowitz T, & Shusterman A (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 1-11 PMID: 24666195

Patterson, M., Powell, J., & Lenihan, M. (1986). Touch, compliance, and interpersonal affect Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10 (1), 41-50 DOI: 10.1007/BF00987204



When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.



Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.



So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261

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Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on government approval

Romney should pray for rain because rain improves a conservative’s chances of getting elected. Having covered this ‘Republican rain advantage’ in my last post, I will turn to a second reason why the presidential candidates should monitor the election day weather in this post. It turns out that the weather influences how well the government is perceived. Could this be exploited by the candidates?

George Bush; Ariel Sharon; Mahmud Abba; Red Sea Summit

Bush finding approval under the sun.

The weather has got a curious effect on the government’s approval ratings. Alex Cohen looked at Bush’s approval ratings of the year 2005. He found that they were significantly better when the sun was out at the respondent’s location compared to ambiguous weather. Note that this is opposite to the ‘Republican rain advantage’ covered in the last post suggesting that a different explanation needs to be found to explain this one.
The easiest explanation would be this: it is a simple coincidence. However, German researchers Michael Mutz and Sylvia Kämpfer did a similar analysis for German polling data gathered in 2008. Just like Cohen they found sunshine to increase government satisfaction. Going beyond this ‘incumbent sunshine advantage’, they found that a rainy day actually reduced government satisfaction. It should be noted that in 2008 Germany was ruled by a so called grand coalition formed by the two main centre-right and centre-left parties. Therefore, the Republican rain advantage cannot account for this effect either. So, given a replication in a different year and a completely different democratic system, there must be a reason for this effect other than coincidence.
But is it worth our time to dwell on this issue? Yes it is. Compared to what sort of things political candidates – and the media – usually focus on, the weather effect is substantial. In Germany it was found to be stronger than the effect of gender and appeared comparable to the effect of education. In the US study it was, depending on season, stronger than the effect of age, unemployment or income. In other words, if it is worth worrying about ‘the female vote’ or the ‘pensioner vote’ it is also worth looking at the weather effect.
Brack Obama; Joe Biden; White House; Sun; Golf

Obama during a time of high approval.

The reason given for this ‘incumbent sun advantage’ mirror to some degree what I suggested to be the reason for the ‘Republican rain advantage’. The effect of weather on mood is the key link. By and large, sunshine improves mood. Whether it does so directly by increasing the availability of the neurotransmitter serotonin or indirectly by facilitating outdoor events with friends does not matter. Once the weather has changed your mood there are three ways it can cloud your judgement. First, the information we take in tends to conform to our mood – mood-congruent attention. Second, the more a memory agrees with our mood the more likely it is to be remembered – mood-congruent memory. Third, when faced with complex, vague or unimportant decisions people tend to be guided by their gut feeling, i.e. they use their mood as explicit information for their judgement.
In sum, when you are asked to evaluate the government and the sun is shining, you are more likely to attend to something good, remember something good and have your assessment clouded by your good gut feeling. No wonder you tend to evaluate the government as better even though it is not responsible for the weather.
However, this effect has no obvious application for the candidates. Obama appears to benefit from the political climate as much as from the actual weather. Romney, though, will have to pray for rain – or hope that the good feelings not just lead to a better assessment of the incumbent but also of the challenger.


Cohen, A. (2011). The photosynthetic President: Converting sunshine into popularity The Social Science Journal, 48 (2), 295-304 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2010.11.007

Mutz, M., & Kämpfer, S. (2011). …und nun zum Wetter: Beeinflusst die Wetterlage die Einschätzung von politischen und wirtschaftlichen Sachverhalten? Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 40 (4), 208-226


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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share



1) By White House photo by Eric Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Pete Souza for The Official White House Photostream (P042409PS-0122) via Wikimedia Commons


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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share

I would not be surprised if Mitt Romney was going through the weather forecast for November 6th, the date of the next US presidential election. As the Republican candidate, he will know that his chances of being elected are higher if people are faced with pouring rain upon leaving for the ballot box. Research supports this opinion but the underlying reasons could give the Obama campaign a strategy to undo this Republican rain advantage.

Mitt Romney; GOP; Republican; President; Candidate

Must have been raining outside. Good for him.

The media love covering election day weather under the assumption that it somehow matters for the political outcome. Is that true? Research by Brad Gomez and colleagues indeed supports this notion. They looked at all US presidential elections since 1948 and found that Republican candidates tended to benefit from rain and snow. In 1960 this effect may have helped Kennedy to win the election due to dry weather. Moreover, in 2000 it may have affected the infamous Florida vote in Bush’s favour due to higher than usual rain in many counties.
This effect is not spurious. It has recently been replicated in a completely different electoral system: the Netherlands. Rob Eisinga and colleagues have shown that various left parties benefit from dry election days and that various right or liberal parties benefit from pouring rain. The conservative advantage on rainy days seems to be real.

 The rationality in weather effects

The usual reason given for this bizarre effect is a rational one. The story goes a bit like this. Bad weather increases the cost – i.e. effort or reluctance – of going to the polling booth. Such cost-considerations may not affect conservative voters that much because they are more politically committed, more used to working outdoors (farming) or have got a higher chance of owning a car. The typical left voter, on the other hand, could be imagined as being urban, without car, possibly old and, thus, unwilling to wait for the bus in the rain in order to get to the polling station.
Does this story work? Is the Republican rain advantage really due to people behaving like rational actors? The data don’t really support this story. Consider that every inch of rain above normal reduces the voter turn-out by only 0.9% whereas it changes the election outcome by 2.5%. Simple Democratic voter abstention cannot account for the full effect. Many voters must be influenced by the weather in terms of their actual voting decision – rather than just whether to vote or not.

 The irrationality in weather effects

Obama in New Hampshire; president; Barack Obama; election

Obama with help from above.

Given that the rational actor model fails a more sophisticated psychological theory is needed. The relation between mood and helping behaviour may be the key link between the weather and election outcomes. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the most persistent difference between right and left wing parties is captured in a ‘each for his own’ vs ‘help where help is needed’ dichotomy. Whether it comes to civil rights, health care or the tax system, right wing parties tend to favour individual responsibility and opportunity over collective responsibility and protection. The effect of the weather on voting decisions may be related to changing a feeling of responsibility for one another.
There is some suggestive evidence for this proposal. Psychological studies carried out by Matthew Keller and colleagues have shown that mood is positively influenced by going out and experiencing good weather (at least in the spring). Next, good mood is associated with more helping behaviour – clearly established in a review by Carlson and colleagues. So, a causal chain linking the weather to voting could look like this: weather –> mood –> helping.
One should not trust such causal chains too much without a direct test of the first cause affecting the last effect. Michael Cunningham has provided just that. He looked at helping behaviour through people’s readiness to participate in a lengthy questionnaire. People approached outside were more likely to stop to hear the experimenter’s request on a sunny day. Once stopped they were ready to answer more questions if the sun was out. Clearly, randomly chosen members of the public are more ready to help during good weather – as predicted by the causal chain ‘weather –> mood –> helping’. By changing voters’ readiness to provide concrete help the weather may also influence how people think the government should treat its citizens – whether to leave them alone or whether to assist them.

 What can Obama do?

Given the role of the ‘mood –> helping’ effect in explaining the ‘weather –> vote’ effect, what strategy should the Obama administration adopt to counter-act the Republican rain advantage? Following this model, I suggest that they should emphasize health care and minority/women rights if key states are predicted to show good weather. Military successes like the bin Laden raid in Pakistan should be focussed on with bad weather. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should catch up in the polls within the next few weeks and then pray for rain.

Carlson M, Charlin V, & Miller N (1988). Positive mood and helping behavior: a test of six hypotheses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 55 (2), 211-29 PMID: 3050025

Cunningham, M. (1979). Weather, mood, and helping behavior: Quasi experiments with the sunshine samaritan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 1947-1956 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.11.1947

Keller MC, Fredrickson BL, Ybarra O, Côté S, Johnson K, Mikels J, Conway A, & Wager T (2005). A warm heart and a clear head. The contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological science, 16 (9), 724-31 PMID: 16137259

Eisinga R, Te Grotenhuis M, & Pelzer B (2012). Weather conditions and political party vote share in Dutch national parliament elections, 1971-2010. International journal of biometeorology, 56 (6), 1161-5 PMID: 22065127

Gomez, B., Hansford, T., & Krause, G. (2007). The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections The Journal of Politics, 69 (03), 649-663 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00565.x
ResearchBlogging.orgIf you liked this post, you may also like its sister post:

Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on approval ratings



1) By Brian Rawson-Ketchum via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Fogster (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons


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Why do we like sad Music?


But I’m a creep.
I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.


Why would anyone want to listen to this?

Radiohead’s song Creep is not the exception in being a heartbreaking but nonetheless successful song. According to Wikipedia , of the ten best-selling music singles ever several are clearly sad songs: Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, The Ink Spot’s If I didn’t care, or Kenny Roger’s Lady. Music does influence one’s mood. For that reason some psychological experiments even use it as a mood induction technique. But given that people generally strive for happiness, why would anyone willingly opt for sad music?

This is exactly what Van den Tol and Edwards asked people online (article in press at Psychology of Music). The most important function they identified in the responses was (re-)experiencing affect, i.e. listening to sad music in order to induce ‘sadness, loss or grief, and occasionally other negative feelings such as disappointment and anger’ (p. 10). Other functions were also mentioned but the take-home message is that, usually, sad music is chosen because it makes people – who are often already sad – feel sad. Very puzzling.

Even more puzzling is that these objectively negative feelings were only rarely reported as being experienced in a negative way. As if music-induced sadness is not quite like real sadness. Van den Tol and Edwards interpret their results as sad music being a sort of self-regulation tool. But how does the tool work?

No one really knows. Still, there are some ideas out there.

1) The safe distance theory

Thompson (2009; see Schubert, 1996) claims that musical sadness is unlike real sadness because, well, it isn’t actually real. It is without consequence. Therefore, one can explore a feeling without becoming engulfed in it. According to this hypothesis one can listen to Radiohead’s Creep and feel like a complete loser without actually having to be one.

It is difficult to test this because one would have to distinguish between participants’ safely distant sadness and their real sadness. I doubt that any ethical board would allow a researcher to deliberately sadden a participant for real.

2) The shared pain theory

Levitin (2008) claims that musical sadness serves to ‘[bring] us through stages of feeling understood, feeling less alone in the world, hopeful that if someone else recovered so will we’ (p. 135). Like in most of his book, Levitin sees music as a social tool. On this account, the difference between musical sadness and real sadness lies in the former one being shared while the latter one is more private. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind is a good example. Released following Lady Diana’s death, it perhaps helped people worldwide to share an emotion which they otherwise would have had to deal with by themselves.

3) The Prolactin theory

Prolactin is a hormone associated with feelings of tranquillity, calmness, well-being, or consolation. Huron (2011) suggests that the body uses it to counteract grief and thus avoid descending into an uncontrollably depressive episode. Such hormonal counter-measures to negative environmental inputs are also found for physical pain. Physical pain is reduced by endorphins. Such a bodily mechanism can be exploited – as when heroin addicts fool the brain’s response to pain. Huron (2011) proposes that sad music can activate the counter-measures to actual sadness – i.e. prolactin production – without any real sadness being present. One gets the hormone’s consoling effect without the sadness and might thus actually enjoy it.

On should not forget that -even though it is intuitive – Huron’s Prolactin theory is not supported by a great deal of experimental evidence. But at least it is straight forward to test.

Of course, all three theories could be true. The puzzle of people’s tendency to often listen to sad music could have to do with the safe distance between musically induced sadness and one’s true emotions. This distance may allow prolactin to have an unusually positive effect because it is not balanced by the real sadness it is designed to counteract. On top of that, a more cognitive appreciation of sharing this experience with other people may aid the process. Targeted research is needed in order to test these theories.

So, people do indeed strive for happiness and therefore enjoy energetic, upbeat music. However, when times get rough it can seem better to switch gears and deal with the sadness first before moving on. It appears like this is where sad music could come in. According to the three aforementioned theories, gloomy music not so much leads to bad moods. It is the other way around. Bad moods require sad music.

— — —

Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musica Scientiae, 15, 146-158. doi: 10.1177/1029864911401171

Levitin, D.J. (2008). The World in Six Songs. London: Aurum Press

Thompson, W.T. (2009). Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Van den Tol, A.J.M., Edwards, J. (in press). Exploring the rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735611430433