Phone Fears And Dolphin Directions: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

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

In 2001, Air Transat Flight 236 lost engine power and made an emergency landing in the Azores. All passengers survived, but for 30 terrifying minutes, many thought they were going to die. Writing for Wired, Erika Hayasaki has the fascinating story of one of those passengers, Margaret McKinnon, a psychologist who then went on to study why some survivors developed PTSD and others did not — and who is now looking at the mental health of frontline workers during the pandemic.  

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Our Brains “See” Beams Of Motion Emanating From People’s Faces Towards The Object Of Their Attention

By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Back in the 1970s, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that, if you ask young children to explain the mechanics of vision as they understand them, their answers tend to reveal the exact same misconception: that the eyes emit some sort of immaterial substance into the environment and capture the sights of objects much like a projector.

Although this belief declines with age, it is still surprisingly prevalent in adults. What’s more, so-called extramission theories of vision have a long-running history dating all the way back to antiquity. The Greek philosopher Empedocles was amongst the first to suggest in the 5th century BC that our ability to see must stem from an invisible fire beaming out of our eyes to interact with our surroundings. This view was subsequently endorsed by intellectual authorities like Ptolemy and Galen.

Now, a duo of researchers behind a recent publication in PNAS think they might have found an explanation for the intuitive appeal of extramission theories. According to their paper, this worldview might just be a reflection of the mechanisms that play out within our brains when we follow other people’s gazes and track where they pay attention. This is because, to carry out this process, our brains actually conjure illusory beams of motion emanating from other’s faces — a quirk of evolution with interesting consequences.

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Dolphins’ Personality Traits Are Surprisingly Similar To Our Own

By Emma Young

We’re all familiar with the “Big Five” model of personality, which measures the traits of conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness. But what drove the evolution of these personality domains? And how do animal personalities compare with ours? Answers to the second question can help to answer the first. And now a major new study of personality in bottlenose dolphins, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, has found that in some key ways, dolphin personality is like ours; in others, though, it is not.

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Belief In Conspiracy Theories Is Associated With Lower Levels Of Critical Thinking

By Emily Reynolds

Over the last few years, conspiracy thinking seems to have mushroomed — most visibly perhaps in the US, where QAnon supporters stormed the Capitol. Elsewhere, across the world, coronavirus-related conspiracies have abounded; one large-scale survey conducted last year found that as many as one in five Britons believed the COVID-19 fatality rate may have been exaggerated.

We already know that certain factors make individuals particularly prone to conspiratorial thinking — their level of education, for example, or a desire to feel special. And a new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, has identified another facet of cognition linked to conspiratorial beliefs: critical thinking. Anthony Lantian from Université Paris Nanterre and colleagues find that the higher the level of critical thinking, the lower the belief in conspiracy theories, potentially offering a path out of conspiratorial thinking for those particularly susceptible.

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School Kids’ Memory Is Better For Material Delivered With Enthusiasm, Because It Grabs Their Attention

By Emma Young

Like countless other parents across the UK, I’m finding it pretty hard to maintain enthusiasm for my kids’ home-schooling lessons. Or muster it, for that matter. Yet we all know that when an instructor is enthusiastic, those sessions are more enjoyable — and we remember more. While this might be common knowledge, however, “the underlying mechanisms for the favourable effects of teacher enthusiasm are still largely unknown,” write Angelica Moè at the University of Padova, Italy, and her colleagues, in their new paper in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. The team therefore set out to better understand its power. And in a series of studies, they explored the idea that attention is key — that a more enthusiastic delivery grabs pupils’ attention more, which improves their memory for the material.

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Mind-Reading And Lucid Dreaming: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

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

In a fascinating sleep study, researchers have managed to “talk” to people in lucid dreams. Dreamers were given simple yes/no questions or asked to do basic arithmetic, and had to respond by moving their eyes and facial muscles. Several participants were able to correctly answer the questions in their sleep. The researchers hope that this new method will ultimately improve our understanding of sleep and consciousness, writes Claire Cameron at Inverse.

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How To Deal With Boredom, Digested

By Emily Reynolds

One year into lockdown, and it’s safe to say a lot of us are very, very bored. We’ve watched all the boxsets we can stomach, developed (and subsequently ditched) a long list of increasingly esoteric hobbies, and have quite probably exhausted every possible walking route within several miles of our home. Yet the boredom persists.

Lockdown is, for most of us, an unusually boredom-inducing situation to be in, unable as we are to engage in many of the outside activities we would usually pass the time with. But boredom itself is common: as Camus rather pessimistically put it, “the truth is that everyone is bored”.

So how do you deal with boredom? And does being bored even come with some benefits? Here’s the research on boredom, digested.

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What Makes For A “Meaningful” Death In Fiction?

By Emily Reynolds

Death can be a powerful narrative tool. We sob over the demise of a beloved character, cheer at the comeuppance of our favourite villain, or sit at the edge of our seats, shocked at deaths we didn’t see coming. Red Wedding, anyone?

All deaths are not created equal, however, and in a new study Kaitlin Fitzgerald from the State University of New York and team look at what makes certain fictional deaths so memorable. The team reports that although we find some deaths pleasurable — the long-awaited downfall of an antagonist, for example — it’s those we find meaningful that truly stick with us in the long-term.

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We Prefer To Experience Good — And Bad — Events On The Same Day As A Friend

By Emma Young

You rub off the panels on a scratch card and find that you’re the lucky winner of £100. If you could choose when the same thing should happen to a good friend, would you rather it was the same day as your win — or a different day? And what if we’re talking negative, rather than positive, experiences — when you’ve both been issued with parking tickets, say, or both suffered a bereavement?

Earlier work shows that we tend to prefer to get through a series of negative experiences as quickly as possible, while we like to space out multiple personal positive experiences, so as to receive the most pleasure from each joy. A new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that when we’re thinking about shared experiences, though, this doesn’t hold. The participants in this study preferred to experience both negative and positive events on the same day as a friend, rather than on different days — as long as those events weren’t powerfully emotional. Franklin Shaddy at the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues think we have this “preference for integration” because it increases our feelings of connection with others. This could have implications for how we arrange our lives during lockdown.

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Saying That Girls Are “Just As Good” As Boys At Maths Can Inadvertently Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes

By Emma Young

Though girls and boys do equally well on maths tests, the stereotype that girls aren’t as naturally able at maths — or as likely to be extremely smart — is adopted early; even 6-year-olds in the US endorse it. Of course, these stereotypes harm women in an educational setting and in their professional lives, point out the authors of a new study in Developmental Psychology. So it’s important to understand what gives rise to them. Eleanor Chestnut at Stanford University and her colleagues now report that one common and well-intentioned way of attempting to convey girls’ equality with boys actually backfires: saying that girls are “just as good” as boys at something leads the listener to conclude that boys are naturally better, and girls must work harder to equal them.

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