Imagine all the people

The BPS Research Digest covers an intriguing study that found that imagining friends, parents, and romantic partners differently affected how we rate ourselves on personality measures.

The study suggests that being primed with certain sorts of relationship seems to alter either our personality, or how we perceive our personal characteristics.

Dozens of female university students were led to believe they were participating in an investigation into the effect of visualisation on heart rate, with the appropriate medical paraphernalia in place to make the story more convincing.

The students were asked to visualise a range of fairly mundane items or experiences and then at the end they were asked to visualise in detail either one of their parents, a recent romantic partner, or a friend. Afterwards they completed a range of personality and self-esteem tests. Post-experimental debriefing confirmed they hadn’t guessed the true purpose of the study.

Students who visualised a parent subsequently rated themselves as less sensual, adventurous, dominant, extraverted and industrious, than did students asked to visualise a friend or romantic partner, consistent with the idea that people revert to a more submissive “child role” with their parents.

The paper itself doesn’t mention it, but the study has some striking relevance to rather confusingly named ‘object relations theory‘, which could be much more clearly named ‘human relations theory’.

It’s a development of a Freudian idea, but instead of suggesting that sex and aggression are the core drives which shape our psychological landscape, it suggests, rather more sensibly, that relationships are the main factor that influence who we are.

In fact, it suggests that the ‘self’ is malleable and tends to be defined in terms of the people we interact with.

One of the genuinely useful legacies of psychoanalytically-inspired psychology has been the focus on the emotional interaction between people as an important shaping force in how we think and behave.

Most of Freud’s original (lets be polite and say) ‘kookiness’ has been stripped away, which leaves us with an approach that is often both empirically testable and supported by scientific studies.

For example, psychologist Susan Anderson has done a huge amount of experimental research on ‘transference’, where feelings from one relationship affect another because the two people are perceived as similar in some way.

Link to BPSRD article ‘Mind who you think of’.

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