Even When You’re A Member Of An Elite Group, It Can Be Demoralising To Rank Lower Than Your Peers

By Matthew Warren

Imagine that you are a high-achieving student at a school which, overall, doesn’t perform that well. You know that your grades are better than most of your peers’, so you probably rate your academic ability quite high. You are, in other words, a big fish in a small pond. 

Now you transfer to a school in which the other students consistently get top marks, perhaps even better than yours. You’re now the small fish in a big pond, and although your own ability has remained the same, you begin to doubt yourself and actually rate yourself lower than you had before.

This “big-fish-little-pond” effect shows that our academic self-concept can be profoundly shaped by how we compare ourselves to our peers. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has found that the size of this comparison matters: the effect is even more pronounced when people are extremely high achieving in very low ranked groups, or vice-versa.

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Pro-Environmental Beliefs Are Less Likely To Lead To Action Among Those Who Believe In A Controlling God

By Emma Young

We all know that it’s vital that we take action to reduce the harm we do to the environment. So understanding the barriers to such action is critical, too. A new paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, identifies a potentially important one: when people believe that it’s important to protect the environment, they’re less likely to act on those beliefs if they’re more religious.

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Adults Put Off Crucial Conversations About Race Because They Mistakenly Think Young Children Won’t Understand

By Emily Reynolds

Conversations about race are not always easy, as the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has recently explored in her brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. But they’re no less necessary for it: not talking about racism is simply not an option, particularly for those of us who benefit from structural inequality.

We all have a part to play in this ongoing dialogue — including parents of children growing up in a world full of racial injustice. Previous research has suggested that constructive conversations about race and ethnicity can have positive outcomes for children of all races — increased empathy, an ability to learn about and accept different perspectives, a better understanding of their own identity, and less racial bias.

But a new paper from Jessica Sullivan at Skidmore College and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that those crucial conversations are being delayed — because parents are misjudging their children’s ability to process and understand race.

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Cognitive Control Helps Cheaters To Stay Honest — And Honest People To Cheat

By Emma Young

Many of us are faced with daily temptations to cheat. You might be offered the chance to download pirated music, perhaps. Or you might wonder about passing your child off as younger than they are, to avoid buying them a ticket on public transport.

As the authors of a new paper, published in PNAS, point out, several lines of research propose that cognitive control is needed for us to resolve the conflict between wanting to cheat and wanting to be honest. We need, in other words, to make an effort to rein in our impulses. However, the new work, led by Sebastian Speer at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, shows that this means different things for different people. If you’re typically honest, cognitive control can turn you into a cheat.

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Bee Brains And Eyebrows: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

Our weekly round-up of the best psychology coverage from elsewhere on the web

You’ve probably heard of ASMR — or maybe experienced it yourself from watching videos of people doing things like whispering or rustling paper. But although such videos are incredibly popular, there have been surprisingly few studies on the phenomenon. Giulia Poerio explores what the research has revealed so far at The Conversation.


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Our Ability To Perceive Musical Beat Becomes More Refined Through Childhood

By Emma Young

If you were to play your favourite song right now, I imagine you’d have little difficulty clapping along with the beat. Our appreciation of beat allows us to clap, dance, march and sway in time with a piece of music — or just with each other. As the authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General point out, these behaviours occur spontaneously across human cultures. But while moving to a beat seems effortless, it involves all kinds of perceptual processes.

The team, led by Jessica E. Nave-Blodgett at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, now report that our ability to perceive beat becomes ever more refined and also nuanced through childhood and adolescence. It may seem like an instinctive ability, but it is learned — and training does make it better.

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When Causing Harm Is Unavoidable, We Prefer To Cause More Harm For More Benefits Rather Than Less Harm For Fewer

By Matthew Warren

Imagine that you’re an official faced with an unenviable decision: you must choose whether to establish a farm on existing land which can produce enough to feed 100 hungry families, or cut down an acre of rainforest to create a larger farm able to feed 500 hungry families. What choice would you make?

If you chose not to cut down the rainforest, you’re in the majority. In a new paper in Psychological Science, participants tended to avoid choosing to harm the rainforest, despite the benefits it would bring. This isn’t surprising: time and again, researchers have found that we will avoid causing harm if possible.

Now imagine that your choice is made harder. There’s no free land left; you have to cut down some of the rainforest. Would you cut down one acre to feed 100 families, or two acres to feed 500?

It’s an interesting question, because although researchers believe we’re generally averse to causing harm, they hadn’t really studied how we make decisions when some amount of harm is unavoidable.  And, perhaps surprisingly, in this second scenario almost 80% of people chose to do more damage, cutting down two acres of forest rather than one. In fact, across five other studies as well, Jonathan Berma from London Business School and Daniella Kupor from Boston University find that in situations where harm is unavoidable, people consistently try to maximise the social benefit, rather than minimise the amount of harm caused.

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Which Human Experiences Are Universal?

By Emma Young

As everyone knows, American undergrads are not representative of all humanity — and the perils of drawing conclusions about people in general from WEIRD studies have been well-publicised. To really understand which human experiences are universal, and which are a product of our individual cultures, we need big, well-conducted studies of people from many different cultures. Fortunately, there are studies like this. Here are some of their most fascinating insights…

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People Love Winning Streaks By Individuals More Than Those By Teams

By Emily Reynolds

When Usain Bolt or Serena Williams step out for their latest race or match, the world waits with bated breath. As some of the best athletes in the world, their unbelievable winning streaks have been met by almost universal acclaim — and plenty of people hoping that streak isn’t broken.

But according to Jesse Walker from Ohio State University and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University, that investment and goodwill just isn’t the same when it comes to teams: we’re far less impressed by consecutive wins by groups of people than those by individuals. They call this phenomenon the “Streaking Star Effect” in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  

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Passive-Aggressive Texts And Polygraph Machines: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

Our weekly round-up of the best psychology coverage from elsewhere on the web

When it comes to text messages, a single full stop can be loaded with meaning. A simple “OK”, for example, might be fine by itself — but suddenly takes on a passive-aggressive tone when it becomes “OK.” Danny Hensel explores why this is the case at NPR.

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