Many undergrad psych textbooks do a poor job of describing science and exploring psychology’s place in it

GettyImages-3429097.jpgBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

Psychology as a scientific field enjoys a tremendous level of popularity throughout society, a fascination that could even be described as religious. This is likely the reason why it is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in American and European universities. At the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter the firm opinion that psychology in no way qualifies for consideration as a science. Such extremely critical opinions about psychology are often borrowed from authorities – after all, it was none other than the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who, in a famous interview in 1974, compared the social sciences and psychology in particular to a cargo cult. Scepticism toward psychological science can also arise following encounters with the commonplace simplifications and myths spread by pop-psychology, or as a product of a failure to understand what science is and how it solves its dilemmas.

According to William O’Donohue and Brendan Willis of the University of Nevada, these issues are further compounded by undergraduate psychology textbooks. Writing recently in Archives of Scientific Psychology, they argue that “[a] lack of clarity and accuracy in [psych textbooks] in describing what science is and psychology’s relationship to science are at the heart of these issues.” The authors based their conclusions on a review of 30 US and UK undergraduate psychology textbooks, most updated in the last few years (general texts and others covering abnormal, social and cognitive psych), in which they looked for 18 key contemporary issues in philosophy of science. 

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Growth mindset doesn’t only apply to learning – it’s better to encourage your child to help, than to be “a helper”

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Children primed to think of themselves as “helpers” were more discouraged when things didn’t go to plan

By Emma Young

According to the Mindset Theory, if you tell a child repeatedly that they’re smart, it makes them less willing to push themselves when they get stuck on an intellectual challenge, presumably because failure would threaten their self-image of being a “smart kid”. For this reason, effort-based praise – rewarding kids for “working hard” rather than “being smart” – is widely recommended (though it’s not the same for adults). But does a similar effect occur in the social sphere? What if you ask a child – as so many parents and surely teachers do – to “be a helper” as if it’s a category that you either belong to or you don’t? 

Earlier research has found that young kids are more likely to try to help others when they are asked to “be helpers” instead of “to help”. But as Emily Foster-Hanson and her fellow researchers at New York University note, “Setbacks and difficulties are common features of children’s experience throughout development and into adulthood,” so it’s important to examine the effects of category labelling – like “being smart” or “being a helper” – when things go wrong for the child. And in their new paper, published in Child Development, they find that setbacks are more detrimental to a child labelled “a helper” than a child asked “to help”.

Continue reading “Growth mindset doesn’t only apply to learning – it’s better to encourage your child to help, than to be “a helper””

What Are We Like? 10 Psychology Findings That Reveal The Worst Of Human Nature

giphy1By Christian Jarrett

It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are we humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or deep down are we wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but this feature post aims to shine some evidence-based light on the matter. Here in the first part of a two-part feature – and deliberately side-stepping the obviously relevant but controversial and already much-discussed Milgram, Zimbardo and Asch studies – we digest 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

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There’s a fascinating psychological story behind why your favourite film baddies all have a truly evil laugh

giphy2By guest blogger David Robson

Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin, our hero’s love rival, the evil Jafar, discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp. Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth. 

What follows next is a lingering, close-up of Jafar’s body. He leans forward, fists clenched, with an almost constipated look on his face. He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape. For many millennials growing up in the 1990s, it is an archetypical evil laugh.

Such overt displays of delight at others’ misfortune are found universally in kids’ films, and many adult thriller and horror films too. Just think of the rapturous guffaws of the alien in the first Predator film as it is about to self-detonate, taking Arnold Schwarzenegger with it. Or Jack Nicholson’s chilling snicker in The Shining. Or Wario’s manic crowing whenever Mario was defeated. 

A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in the Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this might be. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is well placed to provide an answer having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.

Continue reading “There’s a fascinating psychological story behind why your favourite film baddies all have a truly evil laugh”

Shame may feel awful but new cross-cultural evidence shows it is fundamental to our survival

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The 15 sites the researchers visited to study shame, from Sznycer et al 2018

By Emma Young

Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful? 

The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good. 

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“My-side bias” makes it difficult for us to see the logic in arguments we disagree with

Screenshot 2018-10-09 09.28.52By Christian Jarrett

In what feels like an increasingly polarised world, trying to convince the “other side” to see things differently often feels futile. Psychology has done a great job outlining some of the reasons why, including showing that, regardless of political leanings, most people are highly motivated to protect their existing views.

However a problem with some of this research is that it is very difficult to concoct opposing real-life arguments of equal validity, so as to make a fair comparison of people’s treatment of arguments they agree and disagree with.

To get around this problem, an elegant new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has tested people’s ability to assess the logic of formal arguments (syllogisms) structured in the exact same way, but that featured wording that either confirmed or contradicted their existing views on abortion. The results provide a striking demonstration of how our powers of reasoning are corrupted by our prior attitudes.

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A cartography of consciousness – researchers map where subjective feelings are located in the body

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Bodily feeling maps, from Nummenmaa et al, 2018

By guest blogger Mo Costandi

“How do you feel?” is a simple and commonly asked question that belies the complex nature of our conscious experiences. The feelings and emotions we experience daily consist of bodily sensations, often accompanied by some kind of thought process, yet we still know very little about exactly how these different aspects relate to one another, or about how such experiences are organised in the brain.  

Now, reporting their results in PNAS, a team of researchers in Finland, led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa of the University of Turku, has produced detailed maps of what they call the “human feeling space”, showing how each of dozens of these subjective feelings is associated with a unique set of bodily sensations.

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Students’ mistaken beliefs about how much their peers study could be harming their exam performance

GettyImages-882969886.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

A lot of us use what we consider normal behaviour – based on how we think most other people like us behave – to guide our own judgments and decisions. When these perceptions are wide of the mark (known as “pluralistic ignorance”), this can affect our behaviour in detrimental ways. The most famous example concerns students’ widespread overestimation of how much their peers drink alcohol, which influences them to drink more themselves.

Now a team led by Steven Buzinksi at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has investigated whether students’ pluralistic ignorance about how much time their peers spend studying for exams could be having a harmful influence on how much time they devote to study themselves. Reporting their findings in Teaching in Psychology, the team did indeed find evidence of pluralistic ignorance about study behaviour, but it seemed to have some effects directly opposite to what they expected.

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A brief jog sharpens the mind, boosting attentional control and perceptual speed. Now researchers are figuring out why

giphyBy Christian Jarrett

If you wanted to ensure your mind was in top gear, which do you think would provide the better preparation – 15 minutes of calm relaxation, or a 15 minute jog?

A study involving 101 undergrad students suggests you’d be better off plumping for the latter.

Evidence had already accumulated showing that relatively brief, moderate aerobic exercise – like going for a brisk walk or a jog – has immediate benefits for mental functioning, especially speed and attentional control. A parallel literature has also documented how brief, aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on your mood, including making you feel more energetic, even when you don’t expect it to. In their new paper in Acta Psychologica, Fabian Legrand and his colleagues bridged these findings by looking to see if the emotional effects of exercise might be at least partly responsible for the cognitive benefits.

They asked their participants to rate how energetic and vigorous they were feeling and then to complete two cognitive tests (versions of the Trail Making Test, which involves drawing lines between numbers and letters as fast and as accurately as possible).

Next, they allocated half their student participants to go for a 15 minute group jog around the campus and the others to spend the same time following group relaxation exercises. Finally, two minutes after the jog/relaxation session, the students answered the same questions as before about their feelings of energy, and then they repeated the cognitive tests.

The students who went for a jog, but not the relaxation students, subsequently showed significant improvement on the version of the Trail Making Test that measures mental speed and attentional control (but not the other that taps memory and cognitive switching). Moreover, this improvement in cognition was fully mediated by their increased feelings of energy and vigour, implying – although not proving conclusively – that the jog boosted cognition through its effects on their subjective sense of having more energy (in contrast, the relaxation group actually felt dramatically less energetic).

Among the study limitations was the fact the relaxation session took place inside, while the jog was outside. Notwithstanding this issue and some others, and while recognising the need for more research, Legrand and his team said that their findings “add weight to recent suggestions that increased feelings of energy may mediate the relationship between aerobic exercise and some aspects of cognitive functioning.”

Brief aerobic exercise immediately enhances visual attentional control and perceptual speed. Testing the mediating role of feelings of energy

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Most of us have some insight into our personality traits, but how self-aware are we in the moment?

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Correlations between momentary self-views and observed behaviour, from Sun and Vazire, 2018.

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.

It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).

In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.

Continue reading “Most of us have some insight into our personality traits, but how self-aware are we in the moment?”