After nearly eight years educating and entertaining readers with his reports on the latest psychology research, our staff writer Dr Alex Fradera is leaving us to begin the next chapter of his career.
And what a varied career it has already been: an alumnus of the Mind Hacks group of young bloggers that formed in 2004, Alex completed a PhD at UCL in 2005 in the area of autobiographical memory before entering the world of occupational psychology as a consultant and, in 2011, establishing the popular BPS Occupational Digest (later incorporated into the main Research Digest). Alongside all this, he is an admired teacher and performer in improvised theatre. His creativity, and his diverse experiences and expertise have always shone through in his reports for the Research Digest (thank you Alex!). We wish him the very best in his new role working in the NHS in a therapeutic capacity as he begins the path towards becoming a clinical psychologist.
To celebrate his writings for the Research Digest, here are Alex’s greatest hits (in terms of audience page views), covering research on sexual posing to the importance of critical thinking:
How important is your country, really? It’s a pointed question, especially with Brexit looming and the reinvigoration of nationalistic movements in the U.S. and EU. So it feels like a fitting time to look at a creative study that evaluated differences in, well, national self-importance.
In western nations, the vast majority of sexually active women take the birth control pill at some point in their lives, usually to avoid becoming pregnant. Of increasing interest to some psychologists, the hormone-stabilising effects of the pill may have other important effects, including on the psyche and personal relationships, and these are the focus of a new study in Neurology, Psychiatry and Brain Research.
Some earlier studies found that women who take the pill report more emotional stability, in terms of experiencing fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer mental health problems more generally (of course this is not true of all women, in fact some women describe unwanted emotional effects from the pill). There also appear to be what Tenille Taggart at San Diego State University and her colleagues refer to as “downstream benefits” of taking the pill, including greater relationship stability and satisfaction.
However, before now, no study has measured these two outcomes (emotional stability and relationship satisfaction) simultaneously. Taggart’s team have done this and their results suggest that a key reason that women who take the pill (oral contraceptives; OCs) tend to enjoy more satisfying relationships is because they have more stable emotions.
“Our results support previous findings that OCs may confer positive psychological benefits, and that one of these, mood stability, may have diffuse effects on women’s broader wellbeing and functioning,” they write.
Almost half of people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have extreme fears about touching something they feel is “contaminated”. This can mean that after touching a doorknob, say, they then feel compelled to scrub their hands, in some cases even until they bleed.
Conventional treatments, which often involve a combination of a prescription drug (typically an “SSRI”, such as Prozac) plus cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), help only about 60 per cent of people with OCD, so there’s an urgent need for additional treatments. Now in Scientific Reports, Baland Jalal at the University of Cambridge and colleagues present initial data suggesting that a simple video intervention, delivered via a phone app, might help.
Perhaps no concept has been more important to social psychology in recent years — for good and ill — than “social priming”, or the idea, as the science writer Neuroskeptic once put it, that “subtle cues can exert large, unconscious influences on human behaviour.” This subgenre of research has produced a steady drumbeat of interesting findings, but unfortunately, an increasing number of them are failing to replicate – including modern classics, like the idea that exposure to ageing-related words makes you walk more slowly, or that thinking about money increases your selfishness.
The so-called “Macbeth effect” is another classic example of social priming that gained mainstream recognition and acceptance from psychologists and laypeople alike. The term was first introduced by the psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, who reported in a 2006 paper in Sciencethat “a threat to one’s moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself”.
This claim is such an interesting, provocative example of the connection between body and mind that it’s little wonder it has spread far and wide — there aren’t a lot of social-priming findings with their own Wikipedia page (it was also covered here at the Research Digest). But is it as strong as everyone thinks? For a recent paper in Social Psychology the psychologists Jedediah Siev, Shelby Zuckerman, and Joseph Siev decided to find out by conducting a meta-analysis of the available papers on the Macbeth effect to date.
“Look. You can’t plan out your life. What you have to do is first discover your passion—what you really care about.” Barack Obama, as quoted by David Gergen (cited in Jachimowicz et al, 2018).
Last Saturday, the first of two BPS career events took place – “perfect for anyone looking to discover where psychology can take them in their chosen career.” A second follows in London on Dec 4. If, like many, you are searching for your calling in life – perhaps you are still unsure whether psychology is for you, or which area of the profession aligns with what you most care about – here are five digested research findings worth taking into consideration:
Every child is born into a world far more complex than the womb it departed. Physically it’s made up of objects, distances, heights, which we know new-born infants are already oriented to read and make sense of. But their new world is also a social one, chock-full of agents with needs and intentions, and past findings show that infants are surprisingly quick to recognise much of this too.New research in PNAS adds to this literature, investigating the ability to make an important social distinction – between those who hold power due to respect and those who impose it through force – and finds that already by the time they are toddlers, infants can do this too.
There are various issues on which there is a scientific consensus but great public controversy, such as anthropogenic climate change and the safety of vaccines. One previously popular explanation for this mismatch was that an information deficit among the public is to blame. Give people all the facts and then, according to this perspective, the public will catch up with the scientists. Yet time and again, that simply hasn’t happened.
A new paper in Thinking and Reasoning explores the roots of this problem further. Emilio Lobato and Corinne Zimmerman asked 244 American university students and staff whether they agreed with the scientific consensus on climate change, vaccines, genetically modified (GMO) foods and evolution; to give their reasons; and to say what would convince them to change their position.
Past research has already done a good job of identifying the individual characteristics – such as having an analytical thinking style and being non-religious – that tend to correlate with accepting the scientific consensus, but this is the first time that researchers have systematically studied people’s open-ended reasoning about controversial scientific topics. The results show that for many people, there are certain issues for which the truth is less about facts and more about faith and identity.
Schadenfreude – which literally means “harm-joy” in German –is the sense of pleasure derived from others’ misfortune. It’s a “poorly understood” emotion, according to a group of psychologists at Emory University in the US, and in their review paper in New Ideas in Psychology they propose a new “tripartite” model of schadenfreude based on the idea that deep-seated survival concerns can motivate us to see others as less than human.
Outrage: It’s absolutely everywhere. Today’s world, particularly the version of it blasted into our brains by social media, offers endless fodder, from big, simmering outrages (climate change and many powerful institutions’ refusal to do anything about it) to smaller quotidian ones (every day, someone, somewhere does something offensive that comes to Twitter’s attention, leading to a gleeful pile-on).
In part because of rising awareness of the adverse consequences of unfettered digital-age outrage, and of journalistic treatments like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (which I interviewed him about here), outrage has become a particularly potent dirty word in recent years. Outrage, the thinking goes, is an overly emotional response to a confusing world, and drives people to nasty excesses, from simple online shaming to death threats or actual violence.
But a new paper argues that the concept of outrage has gotten too bad a rap and that its upsides, especially as a motivator of collective action and costly helping, have been overlooked. Writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the psychologists Victoria Spring, Daryl Cameron and Mina Cikara detail important questions about outrage that have yet to be answered, and they highlight how certain findings – especially from the “intergroup relations” literature, in contrast to the mostly negative findings from moral psychology – suggest it can serve a useful purpose.