Even two-year-olds can tell the difference between a leader and a bully

GettyImages-969808988.jpgBy Alex Fradera

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.

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People are “consistently inconsistent” in how they reason about controversial scientific topics

GettyImages-475407733.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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Schadenfreude turns us into temporary psychopaths, according to a new model of the emotion

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A person experiencing schadenfreude tends to dehumanise the target of their gleeful feelings

By Emma Young

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. 

Continue reading “Schadenfreude turns us into temporary psychopaths, according to a new model of the emotion”

Psychologists claim outrage is getting a bad rap

GettyImages-1019510930.jpgBy guest blogger Jesse Singal

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.

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Researchers are finding out why a partial loss of vision can lead to hallucinations

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The findings could lead to new treatment approaches for Charles Bonnet syndrome

By Emma Young

The head of a brown lion. Multiple tiny, green, spinning Catherine wheels with red edges. Colourful fragments of artillery soldiers and figures in uniform and action. Unfamiliar faces of well-groomed men… These are just a few of the hallucinations reported by a group of people with macular degeneration (MD), a common cause of vision loss in people aged over 40. 

About 40 per cent of people with MD – who lose vision in the centre of their visual field but whose peripheral vision is generally unaffected – develop Charles Bonnet syndrome (CBS), reporting hallucinations that vary from simple flashes of light and shapes to faces, animals and even complex scenes. 

It has been suggested that CBS might arise as a result of over-responsiveness – “hyper-excitability” – of certain visual regions of the cortex, after they are deprived of normal retinal input. But whether this really is the case – and why some people with reduced vision or blindness develop them, while others don’t – has not been clear. Now new work by a team of psychologists at the University of Queensland, Australia, led by David Painter, and published in Current Biology, offers some answers. 

Continue reading “Researchers are finding out why a partial loss of vision can lead to hallucinations”

Episode 14: Psychological Tricks To Make Your Cooking Taste Better

GettyImages-694982996.jpgThis is Episode 14 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.


Can psychology help your cooking taste better? Our presenter Ginny Smith hears about the importance of food presentation, pairing and sequencing, and how our perception of food is a multi-sensory experience. She and her friends conduct a taste test using “sonic seasonings” that you can also try at home.

Our guests, in order of appearance, are: Professor Debra Zellner at MontClaire State University and Professor Charles Spence at Oxford University.

Background resources for this episode:

Episode credits: Presented and produced by Ginny Smith. Mixing Jeff Knowler. PsychCrunch theme music Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Check out this episode!

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
Subscribe and download via Stitcher.
Subscribe and listen on Spotify.

Past episodes:

Episode one: Dating and Attraction
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits
Episode three: How to Win an Argument
Episode four: The Psychology of Gift Giving
Episode five: How To Learn a New Language
Episode six: How To Be Sarcastic 😉
Episode seven: Use Psychology To Compete Like an Olympian.
Episode eight: Can We Trust Psychological Studies?
Episode nine: How To Get The Best From Your Team
Episode ten: How To Stop Procrastinating
Episode eleven: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Episode twelve: How to Be Funnier
Episode thirteen: How to Study and Learn More Effectively

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

PsychCrunch Banner April 16

Routledge interviewed PsychCrunch presenter Christian Jarrett about the aims of the podcast and engaging with the public about psychology research.

This is how psychotherapy for depression changes the brain

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Participants with major depression showed increased activity in left rostral anterior cingulate cortex following psychological therapy – see main text for details. Image via Sankar et al, 2018

By Alex Fradera

In recent years, researchers have sought to look under the hood to understand the neural correlates of the changes brought about by psychotherapy. Not only can such understanding help us hone in on the precise processes that are being acted upon in therapy, thus helping us focus on these gains, they could also show where pharmacological interventions might be complementary, and where they could directly obstruct the therapeutic work. Now a systematic review and meta-analysis in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging has outlined all we know so far about how therapy changes the depressed brain, and it suggests key changes occur in emotional processing areas.

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Why the polls keep getting it so wrong; and a solution – ask people who their friends and family are voting for

GettyImages-1057350054.jpgBy guest blogger Juliet Hodges

In 2016, the unexpected outcome of two votes shook the world: the UK voting to leave the European Union, and the US electing President Donald Trump. Even the pollsters got it wrong – for example, based on the latest polling data, the New York Times gave Clinton an 85 per cent chance of winning just the day before the election.

Accurate polling is important for a number of reasons. Poll results influence politicians’ campaign strategies and fundraising efforts; affect market prices and business forecasts; and they can impact voters’ perceptions and even turnout. So, when the polls are wide of the mark – as they were so badly in 2016 – many outcomes are being sent astray by misleading information. 

But polling is not as simple as just asking a lot of people who they intend to vote for. Polls are often biased by who is motivated enough to respond, and people can be overly-optimistic about the likelihood they will actually vote.

Another factor, outlined by Andy Brownback and Aaron Novotny of the University of Arkansas in their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental and Behavioural Economics, is people feeling the need to conceal their true voting intentions. 

Continue reading “Why the polls keep getting it so wrong; and a solution – ask people who their friends and family are voting for”

Your native language affects what you can and can’t see

GettyImages-844139934.jpgBy Emma Young

The idea that the language that you speak influences how you think about and experience the world (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has a long and storied history. A lot of research into the issue has focused on colour perception, and evidence has accumulated that people whose native languages have different colour categories don’t see the world in quite the same way.

Now in a new paper, published in Psychological Science, Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman at the Humboldt University of Berlin report that by affecting visual processing at an early stage, such linguistic differences can even determine whether someone will see a coloured shape – or they won’t. “Our native language is thus one of the forces that determine what we consciously perceive,” they write. 

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Merely desiring to alter your personality is not enough, and may backfire unless you take concrete action to change

GettyImages-827454698.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Debate about how much a person’s character can and can’t change have occupied psychologists for decades, but a growing consensus is beginning to emerge. While our traits are relatively stable, they are not fixed.

Change is often passive – that is, experience leaves its mark on personality. But excitingly, initial findings suggest that we can also change ourselves.

What prior research has so far not addressed, however, is whether simply desiring to change is enough (perhaps by triggering automatic, subtle shifts in our identity and behaviour), or whether we must take deliberate, active steps to change. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this question. The results show once again that wilful personality change is possible, but they also indicate that the mere desire to change is not sufficient. In fact, failing to support one’s goals with concrete action appears to backfire, leading to personality drift in the opposite direction to what was desired.

Continue reading “Merely desiring to alter your personality is not enough, and may backfire unless you take concrete action to change”