When writing his master's thesis, Postdoctoral Researcher Ville Harjunen participated in a social psychology study focused on the physiology of emotions. In the experimental setting, he observed that people who were prone to experiencing shame reacted more strongly to negative feedback than those who were more predisposed to narcissism.
Instead of pathological narcissism, the social psychologists studied the narcissistic disposition, a trait found in all individuals to a certain degree. Proneness to shame is a similar trait that can be expressed on a scale.
In the experimental situation, the resting heart rate of the individuals prone to shame was elevated, with the feedback further increasing their stress. The bodies of the participants predisposed to narcissism were much calmer. Only their frowning muscle became more active when they received negative feedback.
Harjunen does not consider narcissism an entirely negative feature.
"It can protect people from the stress generated by failure. Of course, strong narcissism is intolerable to others as well as to the person in question," Harjunen notes.
A terrible performance!
Narcissism and proneness to shame are useful counterparts for a research design. Statistically, the former is more prevalent in men and the latter in women.
In the experiment, the study subjects completed memory assignments and were given feedback on their results. The test was designed to provide the subjects with an ambiguous understanding of their performance. After the test, everyone was told they had fared poorly – and it was precisely the psychological and physiological responses elicited by this feedback situation that the researchers were actually interested in.
After the feedback session, the subjects had the opportunity to assess the performance of the researcher who provided the feedback. They were led to believe that their assessment would affect the feedback provider's career progress. Many of the shame-prone subjects retaliated for negative feedback they had received by assessing the researcher's performance as terrible, whereas the narcissistic individuals did not get back at the researcher behind their back.
“We gained beautiful and clear results. The research design was exceptionally successful. It inspired me to become a researcher and encouraged me to turn my attention increasingly toward psychophysiology,” Harjunen says.
“I froze completely”
After Harjunen completed his master's thesis in 2014, he reached out to June Price Tangney, a world-famous shame scholar, and managed to get himself invited to present his findings at George Mason University.
Harjunen, who was 26 at the time, flew to New York and further on to Washington, D.C., and continued his journey on a bus to the campus in Virginia. To his surprise, the meeting place was not Tangney's office, but an auditorium. There, an audience composed of Tangney’s entire 40-strong shame laboratory was waiting for Harjunen to give a lecture, while Tangney herself was running late.
"I froze completely. I realised I spoke English with a heavy Finnish accent, and I had not completed any presentation training. I wondered what made me come in the first place," Harjunen reminisces.
Harjunen confessed his strong feelings of shame to his audience, which made them laugh, defusing the tension. The rest of the lecture went well, after which the participants went to share a lunch and converse in a more relaxed setting.
Harjunen's research received an enthusiastic reception. By conducting experiments, he had verified Tangney's group's findings that they had obtained from large-scale and representative survey and interview datasets.
For example, the stinging comments on the awful job performance of the feedback provider given by individuals prone to shame were in line with the findings based on the interview data which Tangney's group had made: shame proneness is associated with indirect verbal aggressiveness.
Expression and contact
So far, the finest hour in Harjunen's academic career has been when one of the articles in his doctoral thesis was included in 2017 in Scientific Reports, a journal published by Nature. Harjunen and his colleagues had observed that when a person immersed in virtual reality is touched in the virtual environment, their reaction depends on whether the avatar touching them has a happy, sad, or angry face.
But is it not obvious that facial expressions make a difference in how touch is interpreted? What added value is gained by verifying this through psychophysiological measurements? According to Harjunen, what makes the finding significant are the nuances.
The effect of facial expressions on tactile sensory processing was detected in the evoked response of the brain already 25 milliseconds after the contact.
"Information conveyed by different senses as well as emotions and expectations become intertwined at a very early stage, before the person has the time to become conscious of their sensations."
This can offer an explanation to why people with autistic spectrum disorders often avoid contact. When expressions are difficult to interpret, a touch can feel different from the intention of the person making the contact – this is why it is frightening and distressing. The natural simultaneous processing of sensory information would also explain why blind children take longer to learn to identify emotions.
Is environment the key?
Ville Harjunen's childhood in Lappeenranta, a small city in Eastern Finland, was not predictive of a research career. His father was a carpenter and his mother a tailor. As a child, Harjunen had leukaemia, and his father became addicted to alcohol. Earning a living was a challenge. Family life was rocky and full of emotions.
"Individuals are different in terms of their ability to regulate their behaviour. In my case, that ability developed at a late stage. I didn't follow the rules or bother with difficult assignments."
Harjunen only just made it to general upper secondary school. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, and the help provided after the diagnosis alleviated his performance anxiety. Harjunen rediscovered his joy of learning and became interested in philosophy, the humanities, and the natural sciences. In 2009 he began studying social psychology at the University of Helsinki.
The entrance examination literature described social psychology as an outdated research field whose erroneous conclusions and unconscious ideologies researchers have subsequently triumphantly exposed. People were presented as psychosocial beings susceptible to influences whom the environment could shape freely in terms of both good and bad.
Harjunen devoured his course literature. In the first year of studies, challenging the biological nature of humans and their congenital traits seemed an insightful approach. Later on, it started to feel contradictory and a poor match for everyday life where people suffer, get excited and experience strong emotions.
Before his studies, Harjunen had completed his non-military service in a children's home. During this period, he had noticed how the children's personality and temperament affected their ability to control their lives.
If people really were just a blank sheet where the environment and the way in which people speak leave their mark, Harjunen would most likely never have made it to university with his background.
From internal debate to conducting measurements
Reading the course literature became increasingly arduous, as Harjunen began to question the notions presented in the course literature. Even in his free time, he conducted an academic debate with an imaginary sparring partner inside his mind.
Establishing a debating society called Fresh Air Club with his student association friends released some pressure. The club provided people with the opportunity to conduct debates on different approaches: for and against constructionism. Most of the members were Harjunen's like-minded fellow students who supported a more experimental research approach oriented toward the natural sciences.
That is also one of the approaches active in Helsinki in the field of social psychology. Harjunen was appointed a research assistant in Niklas Ravaja’s group, where he started learning to use psychophysiological measuring equipment and analyse the results gained through them.
"I was lucky to find a productive outlet for my interests instead of getting stuck in the internal debate that had escalated to the level of compulsion inside my head."
After Harjunen completed his master's thesis, Ravaja asked him to join, as a doctoral researcher, a project funded by the Academy of Finland investigating computer-mediated touch in virtual reality.
Change perspective, learn empathy
More recently, Harjunen has worked on EEG records and electrophysiology in a range of research institutions and groups.
"My apparent weirdness depends on where I am at. In computer science, we are the crazy psychologists who are able to read EEG traces and understand human beings. In psychology and social psychology, we are one of the few who are proficient in technically oriented research methods."
Among other areas, interesting results have been gained on what is known as peripersonal space. When a person observes a ball approaching, the components visible in the EEG trace change when it is close enough to touch.
Similarly, an ill person or someone perceived as dangerous coming ‘too close’ puts the brain on alert.
Only recently, Harjunen and his colleagues found that the physiological experience of empathy is affected by the skin colour of the virtual body inhabited by the person. If a white person spends some time in a black virtual body, an attack against a black person in the virtual world causes a stronger response compared to the reaction they have when inhabiting a white virtual body.
Self-admiration and self-preservation
Harjunen is also making a return to the Faculty of Social Sciences. Academy Professor Anssi Peräkylä invited Harjunen to participate in his interaction and conversation research to investigate the neurological and physiological manifestation of narcissism.
Harjunen is contributing to planning experimental designs and psychophysiological measurements as well as analysing the data gained from them.
"Narcissism is fascinating because of the emotional vulnerability," Harjunen explains.
As a phenomenon, narcissism is complicated. Self-admiration, or grandiosity, is emphasised, but then again so are vulnerability and the aim to protect one’s self-image.
"Pathological narcissists are really interested in what others think about them, markedly highlighting their vulnerable side. As for the narcissistic disposition, the emphasis is on grandiosity," Harjunen says.
Peräkylä’s project examines both aspects of narcissism and aims to study whether there are differences in interaction and physiology between vulnerable narcissists and narcissists prone to self-admiration.
"Protecting their excessively positive self-image is important for pathological narcissists. Consequently, they are constantly on the defense, which should be mirrored in their brain responses too," Harjunen says.
The article has been published in Finnish in the 2/2021 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.