Saturday, June 8, 2019

Boys with violent attitudes & behaviours are mostly preferred for hooking up, & boys with non-violent traits are mostly preferred for stable relationships

Girls’ perceptions of boys with violent attitudes and behaviours, and of sexual attraction. Lidia Puigvert, Loraine Gelsthorpe, Marta Soler-Gallart & Ramon Flecha. Palgrave Communications 5, Article number: 56 (2019). May 28 2019.

Abstract: Violence against women is a reality that is still present in Europe and a serious public health threat worldwide. Fortunately, investment is being made to raise awarness at the national and EU levels and among diverse publics. However, more research is needed in order to better explain its underlying factors, and thus identify effective actions that could contribute to preventing young girls and women from becoming victims. Drawing on a theoretical approach to the preventive socialization of gender violence, in this study we report data from the quasi-experimental research project ‘Free Teen Desire’ (Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant, 2015–2016, No 659299). Through a survey conducted on 100 female adolescents (aged 13–16) in different European secondary schools (in England, Spain, Cyprus and Finland), we analysed their pattern of attraction for both ‘hooking up’ and stable relationships towards boys with either violent attitudes and behaviour or boys with non-violent behaviour, what would be linked to gender violence victimization at a later stage in their lives. Our findings suggest that in the different European secondary schools studied, a similar pattern of attraction is recognized by female participants: although non-violent boys are highly preferred to those with a violent profile, we observed that boys with violent attitudes and behaviours are mostly preferred for hooking up, and boys with non-violent traits are mostly preferred for stable relationships. In addition to the novelty of providing quantitative data on these links (non-violent/stable relationships; violent/hook-ups) in the case of adolescents, the findings regarding the pattern of attraction towards boys with violent traits for sporadic relationships are in line with previous extensive qualitative research. This body of research marks the existence of a coercive dominant discourse that associates attraction with violence and influences the socialization processes of many girls during their sexual-affective relationships’ awakening, which has been shown to constitute a risk factor for gender violence victimization.


In 2013, the World Health Organization, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council published a report on ‘Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence’. The report constituted the first global systematic review and synthesis of scientific data on two forms of violence against women: violence by an intimate partner (intimate partner violence) and sexual violence by someone other than a partner. It reveals that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives; almost a third of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence committed by their intimate partner. Beyond this, at the global level, 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners, and women who have suffered physical or sexual abuse by their partners suffer from serious health problems at a later stage (WHO, 2014).

Although resources have been invested in programmes and campaigns by European institutions, and legislation has been passed in the EU in order to pressure member states to act upon the issue of gender violence, figures reveal that there has been little change in practice. In this regard, in 2014, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a report called the ‘Violence against women: an EU-wide survey’ (FRA, 2014). This report gathered data from the 28 European member states on experiences of physical, sexual and psychological violence, including intimate partner violence (domestic violence) and sexual harassment. The FRA declared that violence and abuse are affecting the lives of European women but that this situation is being systematically under-reported to the authorities. Data collected in the survey indicates that an estimated 13 million women in the EU had experienced physical violence in the course of 12 months before the survey interviews, and an estimated 3.7 million women in the EU had experienced sexual violence in the course of 12 months before the survey interview. Regarding minors, FRA figures revealed that one in three girls and young women had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by the age of 15 years old and that out of all women who had a (current or previous) partner, 22% had experienced physical and/or sexual violence committed by a partner since the age of 15. Regarding non-partner violence, one in five women had experienced physical violence committed by someone other than their partner since the age of 15.

As observed, violence against women is a reality that is still present in Europe and a serious public health threat worldwide, which fortunately is being addressed more and more with the aim of tackling its multiple manifestations, from the domestic sphere to the trafficking of human beings, considering its gendered dimension (Limoncelli, 2017). However, more research is needed in order to inform two central socio-legal debates related to the prevention and tackling of gender violence: on the one hand, how to unveil effective actions that prevent girls and young women from falling in the coercive dominant discourse that fosters attraction towards violence (Puigvert, 2014; Racionero-Plaza et al., 2018), and on the other hand, to contribute to sensitizing the penal systems in the EU to gender differences (Burman and Gelsthorpe, 2017; Gelsthorpe, 2017) while providing insights on how to advance legislation of consent and, specifically, on the affirmative ‘yes’ (Vidu and Tomás-Martínez, 2019). In this sense, an in-depth analysis of this complex problem should help us to better recognize which of the risk factors already identified in the literature are the ones which are more prominent in perpetuating the cycle of the violent victimization of youth.

A coercive dominant discourse: attraction to violence

Research on risk factors related to gender violence conducted from a preventive socialization approach has identified that there is a coercive dominant discourse in which people with violent attitudes and behaviours are socially portrayed as attractive and exciting. On the other hand, people and relationships with non-violent attitudes and behaviours are portrayed as less exciting (Gómez, 2015; Soler-Gallart, 2017). Accordingly, due to imbalanced power relationships between men and women, this coercive dominant discourse (e.g., through TV, teen magazines, social networks, popular media, among other things) influences many girls’ and women’s socialization into linking attractiveness to people with violent attitudes and behaviours.

Different qualitative investigations have analysed the impact of this coercive dominant discourse. In this regard, research on the ‘Impact of communicative acts and new masculinities’ (Soler-Gallart, 2008–2011) conducted with adolescents showed how some communicative acts (those acts that include not only speech acts but also other types of communication) reinforced hegemonic masculinities, which are the ones linked to dominant and violent attitudes and behaviours. However, other communicative acts, based on dialogic interactions, contribute to better recognizing new masculinities, which are represented by boys who reject violence while maintaining desirability. Oliver (2010–2012) directed a research project in order to deepen our understanding of what has been defined by Flecha and Puigvert as the ‘mirage of upward mobility’, the mistaken perception of some girls and young women who believe that having a sexual-affective relationship with boys/men who respond to the hegemonic model of masculinity (Connell, 2012) will lead to an increase in their status and attractiveness. Nonetheless, research has revealed that in these cases, instead of increasing the girls’ or young women’s status or attractiveness, it decreases those qualities (Tellado et al., 2014). In turn, girls who fall for the mirage of upward mobility more easily identify when other girls go through this mirage than when it affects themselves (Puigvert, 2015–2016).

The Free_Teens_Desire project (2015–2016), in which the present study is framed, also investigated to what extent dialogue situations based on a ‘language of desire’ instead of on a ‘language of ethics’ can question adolescent girls’ desires that link attractiveness to violent behaviours, gathering for the first time quantitative data on this link (Puigvert, 2015–2016). The language of ethics is often used to educate children in a non-sexist way, in both home and school contexts (Rios-González et al., 2018). Parents and teachers thus talk about what ‘is good’ or what ‘should be done’, using cognitive schemata to assess sexual-affective lives that are grounded in ethics. In the case that is under examination here, the employment of a ‘language of ethics’ when talking about men with violent behaviour and attitudes would imply that adults are saying something such as ‘that boy is not convenient for you’, ‘he is a bad boy’ or ‘he has inappropriate behaviour’. Dialogues using the language of ethics are sometimes seen by adolescents as boring, unattractive or ‘moralistic’. In contrast, a ‘language of desire’ predominates among adolescents’ dialogues; this language is also used by media, in social networks and in those contexts which adolescents consider attractive. The language of desire is not exerted within the realm of ethics, but within the realm of aesthetics, taking into account adolescents’ desires and likes; as a result, this triggers emotions and actions. The disassociation between both types of languages and the ‘language of desire’ missing from many gender violence campaigns prevents them from being effective. In not using the language which adolescents and the media tend to use, the campaigns do not challenge the dominant model of socialization and the association between violence and attraction that this imposes (Flecha and Puigvert, 2010).

Building upon the findings of research studies on the preventive socialization approach, three different masculinity models have been recognized and accordingly theorized (Flecha et al., 2013). These are considered as ideal types in a Weberian way, identified in order for us to be able to develop social theory. First, the Dominant Traditional Masculinities (DTM) is the model represented by those men who embrace the values of the patriarchal society and consider themselves to be the ones who ‘know about sex’, and they are sometimes linked with violent attitudes. Second, the Oppressed Traditional Masculinities (OTM), the model which, drawing from a perspective merely limited to the language of ethics, is represented by those men who hold egalitarian values but are considered ‘not sexy’. In this second model, the capacity to increase attraction and be desired has not yet been transformed, so they are not an alternative to gender violence, as they do not challenge the values embodied by the DTM. Radically opposed to OTM and DTM are the New Alternative Masculinities, a model situated within the realm of language of desire, represented by men who oppose violent attitudes and behaviours while also being considered sexy.

When is the risk taken? Hook-ups vs. stable relationships with men with violent attitudes and behaviours

Research in the field of psychology has also studied how, under certain conditions, aggressive men and those men considered more masculine are preferred to other men. Giebel and colleagues (2013) conducted a study in which they analysed whether appetitive aggression in men serves as an additional signal for a favoured partner choice. The authors defined appetitive aggression as ‘the intrinsic motivation to act violently even when not being threatened’ (p. 248). Testing participating women’s responses in relation to different descriptions regarding a soldier’s experience after returning from war, they observed that the preference for the ‘warrior’ was higher for women in their fertile window of the menstrual cycle and for short-term relationships. Accordingly, their findings reveal that women preferred a soldier higher in appetitive aggression as a short-term mate but not as a partner in a long-term relationship.

In another research study, Giebel et al. (2015) investigated personality traits and to what extent these traits predict the desire to choose a dominant partner. The authors observed that those individuals who declared wanting to avoid boredom and looked for exciting social activities have a stronger desire for a dominant partner. According to this study, those perceived as dominant are considered more interesting, attractive and appealing for people with higher boredom susceptibility. Additionally, people who like new and exciting social activities such as parties, social drinking and casual sex also prefer a dominant partner. In a similar vein to this investigation, Houser et al. (2015) observed that dating preferences were positively correlated with popularity, social preference and overt and relational aggression. Popular and overtly aggressive girls were seen as desirable dating partners by their male peers, and relational aggression was linked with dating popularity for both boys and girls.
On dating violence in adolescence and young adulthood

Participants in current debates on increasing rates of violence among young people agree that some specific types of experience, such as adolescents’ experience of violence during intimate partner relationships, including former or present long-term partners and dating violence (violence occurred in sporadic relationships or hook-ups), are a growing problem and an increasing concern (Erickson et al., 2010; Bramsen et al., 2012; Leen et al., 2013). Dating violence perpetration and victimization is of major relevance, especially considering the influence that it may have on future intimate partner violence and, as highlighted by Theobald and colleagues (2016), the burden of coping with violence from one generation to the next (p. 225).

Within the field of criminology, many researchers are advancing knowledge about the risk factors that may lead to dating violence. In this regard, Rebellon and Manasse (2004) investigated the association between delinquency and other risk-taking behaviours with dating behaviour among adolescents, showing that delinquency serves to increase romantic involvement. According to their results, risk-taking adolescents attract the romantic interest of others, and such attention may provide indirect reinforcement for delinquency among both male and female adolescents. In a different study about risk factors for first time sexual assault, Bramsen et al. revealed that the 6-month period following the 15th birthday is characterized by a high risk for initial sexual victimization by peers (Bramsen et al., 2012, p. 524). Authors identified two elements that predicted initial adolescent peer-on-peer sexual victimization (APSV): first, the number of sexual partners, and second, sexual risk behaviours that place girls in close association or proximity to potential offenders.

At the core of identifying these violent situations lies the idea suggested by some authors, that victimization and revictimization are either caused by an impaired ability to recognize potentially threatening situations (Bramsen et al., 2011; Messman-Moore and Brown, 2006) or are a function of how youths perceive common dating risk situations that may place them at risk not only of suffering dating violence but also a variety of other problematic behaviours (Helm et al., 2015). In this line, it has also been suggested that among those adolescents with high acceptance of dating aggression, peer aggression and delinquency significantly predicted recurrent aggression in a new relationship (Williams et al., 2008).

Research has also found that some adolescents tend to maintain violent dating relationships that become chronic, and some teens engage in multiple violent relationships in which the severity of violence increases from the first to subsequent relationships (Burke Draucker et al., 2012). There is evidence that intimate partner violence and violence in hook-ups is widespread among adolescents and young adults and leads to a life trajectory that includes violence, either as victims or perpetrators (Bramsen et al., 2011; Burke Draucker et al., 2012; Exner-Cortens et al. 2013; Lundgren and Amin, 2015). As mentioned above, peer influences and attitudes towards violence (e.g., acceptance of rape myths, tolerance of violence, and justification of using violence) appear to be the most extensively evidenced risk factors for dating violence perpetration (Bramsen et al., 2011; Tapp and Moore, 2016).

All in all, the present article draws, on the one hand, on classic works of feminist authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1972) who in the 18th century, advocated for the rights of women to receive the education needed to realize their full faculties and rights on equal footing with men. On the other hand, it draws on the large amount of current literature on associated risk factors for violence perpetration and victimization. This work adds to these bodies of literature by introducing quantitative data on the female adolescents’ pattern of attraction towards either boys with violent attitudes and behaviours or boys with non-violent traits, looking at the differences in such attraction patterns when the young women consider either hook-ups or stable relationships. Despite reporting data on both violent and non-violent boys, the analysis is mostly focused on the scenarios involving boys with violent behaviours, as these are the ones at the very centre of the coercive socialization that leads to the link between attraction and violence. Unveiling the mechanisms behind this coercive discourse and how it operates in a different way in hook-ups and in stable relationships will help to contribute to prevention strategies of gender violence as well as to untangle how violence acts as an underlying force within the current patriarchal system, perpetuating the coercive model of socialization.

Morally good content was transmitted with greater fidelity than neutral or morally bad ones; the communication of moral virtue might serve to avoid negative impression formation & promote social bonding

Social transmission favours the ‘morally good’ over the ‘merely arousing’. Joseph M. Stubbersfield, Lewis G. Dean, Sana Sheikh, Kevin N. Laland & Catharine P. Cross. Palgrave Communications 5, Article number: 3 (2019).

Abstract: Moral stories are pervasive in human culture, forming the basis of religious texts, folklore, and newspaper articles. We used a linear transmission chain procedure to test three competing hypotheses: (1) that moral content in general is preferentially transmitted between individuals compared to non-moral content; (2) that negativity bias leads specifically to morally bad content being preferentially transmitted; and (3) that a bias towards pro-social information leads specifically to morally good content being preferentially transmitted. While we found no support for a bias for moral content in general, we did find that morally good content was transmitted with greater fidelity than neutral or morally bad content, with ratings of morally good content but not morally bad content predicting transmission. Moral content, therefore, appears to be particularly culturally potent when it describes the ‘virtuous’ rather than the ‘sinful’. A second study repeated the first but also tested the influence of physiological arousal on transmission by measuring the electrodermal activity of participants. This study also found that morally good content was transmitted with greater fidelity than neutral or morally bad content and that physiological arousal had a negative effect on transmission with more arousing material being less faithfully transmitted. These results suggest that the communication of content relating to moral virtue might serve to avoid negative impression formation and promote social bonding, and that this might partially explain the ubiquity of moral content in human culture.


Information about morality—defined by Ayala (2010) as “value judgments concerning human behaviour” (p. 9016)— pervades human culture, in religious texts, folklore, fables and news stories. Moral information might be an explicit proclamation of what is moral or amoral, or a more implicit illustration of the moral norms of a social group. Morality is characterised by some authors as an adaptation, built upon emotions that are themselves adaptive, with specific moral codes emerging via gene-culture coevolution (Gintis et al., 2008; Graham et al., 2013; Norenzayan, 2014). While disagreement exists about the sequences of events and selection pressures underpinning the human capacity for morality, there is general agreement that the emergence and evolution of moral codes and norms is only possible through cultural transmission (Ayala, 2010; Haidt and Joseph, 2004, McNamara et al., 2019). The process by which moral content is embedded into culturally transmitted stories and artefacts is poorly understood, however. Here, we present two studies investigating cognitive content biases towards moral information.

A cognitive content bias is a predisposition that humans have for attending to, recalling, or re-producing, certain kinds of information. (Boyd and Richerson, 1985; Barrett and Nyhof, 2001; Henrich and McElreath, 2003). Evolutionary psychologists argue that such biases exist because they were adaptive in ancestral environments (e.g., tracking social relationships in complex groups), and that they modify the content and structure of cultural knowledge and artefacts, which makes them increasingly transmittable (Barrett and Nyhof, 2001; Laland and Brown, 2011; Mesoudi, 2016). Studies have demonstrated biases for a number of types of content: ecological information relevant to health and survival, hereafter survival content (Nairne, 2010; Stubbersfield et al., 2015); information relevant to social relationships and interaction, hereafter social content (Mesoudi et al., 2006; Stubbersfield et al., 2015), and information evoking an emotional response, hereafter emotional content (Eriksson and Coultas, 2014; Heath et al., 2001; Stubbersfield et al., 2017). A number of studies investigating biases in transmission have used the transmission chain, or serial reproduction, paradigm, in which experimental material is passed along a linear ‘chain’ of individuals. First developed by Bartlett (1932), this method allows researchers to assess which types of information are preserved with the greatest fidelity as they are passed along the chain, in turn revealing the biases in social transmission which influence the transmission and evolution of culture (Mesoudi and Whiten, 2008; Mesoudi et al., 2006). While evidence for a number of content biases in transmission has been documented (See Stubbersfield et al., 2018 for a review) a content bias for morally relevant content has yet to be experimentally examined.

Based on Haidt and Joseph’s (2004) moral foundations theory, one might expect a transmission bias for all morally relevant information, because any information relevant to the moral foundations would be salient. This hypothesis has not yet been directly tested but indirect evidence for a bias for moral content comes from the literature on impression formation. Wojciszke et al. (1998) for example, found that morality-related information played a more important role in global impression formation and was more cognitively accessible than competence-related information. Ybarra et al. (2001) found that participants were more sensitive to person-relevant information from the morality domain than the competence domain. Van Leeuwen et al. (2012) used a memory confusion paradigm and found that participants spontaneously categorised along a morality dimension but not along a competence dimension. Morality also influences the perception of specific actions: Pizarro et al. (2006) gave participants one of two vignettes—the first about a man intentionally leaving a restaurant without paying and the second about a man who forgot to pay for his meal. Participants who read the vignette with the intentional— but not the accidental—moral transgression distorted the recalled amount to be larger than it was when asked for the size of the bill. Taken together, these studies suggest that moral content is particularly salient when forming impressions of other people and their actions.

Another known bias which could influence the transmission of moral content is a general negativity bias. Research on memory, perception, decision making and impression formation has suggested that negative entities (such as events, objects or personal traits) are more salient than their positive counterparts (Baumeister et al., 2001; Rozin and Royzman, 2001). It has been suggested that this bias is adaptive, because negative entities are likely to incur greater costs on an individual than positive entities incur benefits (Rozin and Royzman, 2001). A suggestion supported by Fessler et al. (2014), who found that participants were more credulous of negatively framed than positively framed information and that negative content was over-represented in a corpus of online urban legends and supernatural beliefs. Bebbington et al. (2016) also demonstrated a transmission advantage for negatively valenced content over positively valenced content, and found that ambiguous content is more likely to become negative than positive through transmission. Similarly, Walker and Blaine (1991) used a naturalistic “field-experiment” to demonstrate that rumours forecasting unpleasant consequences have an advantage in social transmission over rumours forecasting pleasant consequences. In addition, other studies have found a negativity bias in emotional expression in the arts (see Brand et al., 2019; Morin and Acerbi, 2017). Based on these findings it is feasible that content featuring immoral behaviour will be more salient and better transmitted than content featuring virtuous behaviour, because immoral agents could be perceived as more hazardous than moral agents are beneficial.

Alternatively, a positivity bias might shape the transmission of moral content. Experimental research has found a preference for choosing to transmit positively valenced vignettes over negatively valenced equivalents (van Leeuwen et al., 2018). Studies using “real world” data have found an advantage for positive content, with positively valenced messages being more frequently and more widely shared on social media than negative content (Ferrara and Yang, 2015a; Ferrara and Yang, 2015b; Fu et al., 2016) and urban legends featuring amusing content being more common than those featuring other, negative emotions (Stubbersfield et al., 2018). In addition, research has shown that children seek out and transmit content which supports a positive, pro-social, evaluation of their in-group over other types of information, including negative information about their out-group (Over et al., 2017). Therefore, the possibility of virtuous content being advantaged in transmission should also be considered. We therefore examine the transmission of both morally good content and morally bad content. In Study 1 we test three alternative hypotheses relating to the transmission of moral information in a linear transmission chain. In Study 2 we extend on Study 1 by including a measure of physiological arousal in order to examine the role of emotion in the transmission of moral information.

Large discrepancies between self-perception & actual meat consumption: Only 18 % of the sample & 26 % of self-declared low-meat consumers met official dietary recommendations for meat intake

Meat avoidance: motives, alternative proteins and diet quality in a sample of Swiss consumers. Désirée Hagmann, Michael Siegrist and Christina Hartmann. Public Health Nutrition, June 4 2019.

Objective: Diets lower in meat are considered both highly beneficial for human health and more environmentally friendly. The present study compared consumer groups with different self-declared diet styles regarding meat (vegetarians/vegans, pescatarians, low- and regular meat consumers) in terms of their motives, protein consumption, diet quality and weight status.

Design: Cross-sectional data from the Swiss Food Panel 2.0 (survey 2017).

Setting: Switzerland, Europe.

Participants: Data of 4213 Swiss adults (47·4 % females) from a nationally representative sample living in the German- and French-speaking regions of Switzerland (mean age 55·4 years).

Results: For vegetarians, vegans and pescatarians, ethical concerns about animal welfare and environmental friendliness, as well as taste preferences are stronger reasons to avoid meat consumption. Female low-meat consumers are more likely to be motivated by weight regulation. Only 18 % of the sample and 26 % of self-declared low-meat consumers met the official dietary recommendations for meat intake. Concerns about animal welfare and taste preferences predicted lower meat intake, whereas perceived difficulty of practising a low-meat diet and weight-loss motives were associated with higher meat consumption in consumers who reported eating little or no meat.

Conclusions: Our study demonstrates that there can be large discrepancies between consumers’ self-perception and their actual meat consumption. This has to be taken into account when designing public health interventions. Addressing ethical concerns about animal welfare (e.g. through awareness campaigns), further improving the range of vegetarian options and increasing consumers’ knowledge about the dietary recommendations may be ways to promote diets lower in meat.

The value of the present deception literature is quite low, such that it is not possible to determine whether any given effect is real or a false positive

Lessons From Pinocchio: Cues to Deception May Be Highly Exaggerated. Timothy J. Luke. Association for Psychological Science, June 7, 2019.

Abstract: Deception researchers widely acknowledge that cues to deception—observable behaviors that may differ between truthful and deceptive messages—tend to be weak. Nevertheless, several deception cues have been reported with unusually large effect sizes, and some researchers have advocated the use of such cues as tools for detecting deceit and assessing credibility in practical contexts. By examining data from empirical deception-cue research and using a series of Monte Carlo simulations, I demonstrate that many estimated effect sizes of deception cues may be greatly inflated by publication bias, small numbers of estimates, and low power. Indeed, simulations indicate the informational value of the present deception literature is quite low, such that it is not possible to determine whether any given effect is real or a false positive. I warn against the hazards of relying on potentially illusory cues to deception and offer some recommendations for improving the state of the science of deception.

Keywords: deception, replication, meta-analysis, false positives

Strength of transmission of religiosity from parent to child is dependent on parent and child gender; overall, effect sizes were strongest for sons, mothers, and the mother-daughter dyad

Stearns, M., & McKinney, C. (2019). Connection between parent and child religiosity: A meta-analysis examining parent and child gender. Journal of Family Psychology.

Abstract: Many studies have indicated a relationship between parental and child religiosity, but the strength of the relationship has varied. Moreover, few studies have examined moderators of this relationship, and none have conducted a meta-analysis to determine a concise picture of the association between parent and child religiosity. The current study conducted a meta-analysis to clarify the relationship between parent and child religiosity as well as gender as a possible moderator. Analysis of 30 studies conducted over the past 27 years revealed that the strength of transmission of religiosity from parent to child is dependent on parent and child gender. Overall, effect sizes were strongest for sons, mothers, and the mother-daughter dyad. Thus, these results suggest that gender plays a major role in the connection between parent and child religiosity.

How people with extreme imagination are helping explain consciousness

How people with extreme imagination are helping explain consciousness. Daniel Cossins. New Scientist, Jun 5 2019.

The first studies of people with hyperphantasia – hyper-vivid mental imagery – are revealing how our imaginations shape the world we perceive and make us who we are


When you are absorbed in a novel, what does your mind’s eye see? For many of us, it is a foggy, low-contrast approximation of the scenes described, no matter how evocatively they are written. Not so for Clare Dudeney. “When people describe things, especially gory things, I visualise them so vividly it’s like I’m experiencing them first-hand,” she says. “A few years ago, I was on the train reading a passage about someone who got a nail stuck in their foot and I passed out.”

Dudeney is one of an unknown number of people with this ability, known as hyperphantasia. She only realised it a few years ago. Mental imagery is inherently private, after all. It is hard to articulate what you see in your own mind’s eye, never mind get a sense of how it compares with everyone else’s. But we now know it differs wildly between individuals. Some people find it impossible to picture their own bedroom, while others, like Dudeney, can call to mind images as sharp as they appear at the cinema.

These extremes of imagination are intriguing. A better grasp of what is going on in the brains of people who experience them could help tease out the role of mental imagery in emotion and mental health – and may be promising territory in the search for treatments for various psychological disorders. People with extraordinary imaginations might even reveal something about how we all experience the world.