Here’s How Good Liars Get Away With It

Businesswoman with crossed fingers behind her backBy Emily Reynolds

Being able to get away with a few white lies can be a useful skill. Giving your boss a plausible explanation as to why you’re late to work, for example, can be fairly handy — why do they have to know you just pressed snooze a few too many times?

Some of us get better results than others, of course, when we tell fibs. But those who think they’re better at lying than average seem to have a few things in common, according to new research published in PLOS One.

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How To Be An Effective Climate Activist, According To Psychology

Activists In Edinburgh Join The Global Climate Strike
Young activists take part in a climate strike in Edinburgh. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

By Emma Young

Watching climate activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech to world leaders at the UN in New York last September, it was impossible not to be struck by her depth of feeling. For me, it was deeply moving. For a guest speaking on Fox News, this was “climate hysteria” from a “mentally ill Swedish child”.

It’s hardly news to point out that Thunberg is polarising. For everyone who feels shocked and shamed into doing whatever they can — no matter how small — to mitigate climate change, there seems to be someone else who finds her outrage unbearable. But would Thunberg really be more broadly appealing if she did things any differently? Are there, in other words, any lessons from psychological research that she and other activists might bear in mind?

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Brain Parasites And Super-Recognisers: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

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

Researchers from tech company DeepMind have drawn inspiration from their own AI research to develop a new theory of how reinforcement learning works in the brain. Dopamine neurons respond to the difference between a predicted reward and the reward that an animal actually receives: so if the reward is greater than predicted, for instance, more dopamine will be released. But the team found that dopamine neurons in mice don’t all produce the same level of response, reports Donna Lu at New Scientistinstead, they show a distribution of responses, similar to techniques used in machine learning.

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Most People Who Share “Fake News” Do Care About The Accuracy Of News Items — They’re Just Distracted

Working that social networkingBy Emma Young

Is it really believable that Hillary Clinton operated a child sex ring out of a pizza shop — or that Donald Trump was prepared to deport his wife, Melania, after a fight at the White House? Though both these headlines seem obviously false, they were shared millions of times on social media.

The sharing of misinformation — including such blatantly false “fake news” — is of course a serious problem. According to a popular interpretation of why it happens, when deciding what to share, social media users don’t care if a “news” item is true or not, so long as it furthers their own agenda: that is, we are in a “post-truth” era. One recent study suggested, for example, that knowing something is false has little impact on the likelihood of sharing. However, a new paper by a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Regina in Canada further challenges that bleak view.

The studies reported in the paper, available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, suggest that in fact, social media users do care whether an item is accurate or not — they just get distracted by other motives (such as wanting to secure new followers or likes) when deciding what to share. As part of their study, the researchers also showed that a simple intervention that targeted a group of oblivious Twitter users increased the quality of the news that they shared. “Our results translate directly into a scalable anti-misinformation intervention that is easily implementable by social media platforms,” they write.

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When A Word Is On The Tip Of Our Tongue, We Are More Likely To Take Risks

GettyImages-960038018.jpgBy Matthew Warren

“What’s the name of that actor again? The one who was on that show? Oh, it’s right on the tip of my tongue..!”

That “tip-of-the-tongue” state — where we feel that we’re just on the verge of recalling a word or name — is probably familiar to us all. And it’s been the subject of much research by psycholinguists, who think it happens when we’re able to retrieve a concept or meaning, but not translate that into the letters and sounds of a word.

Now a new study in Memory & Cognition has found that when people experience tip-of-the-tongue states, they also become more likely to take risks — suggesting that the phenomenon can exert a surprising influence on completely unrelated behaviour.

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We Consistently Overestimate How Much Other People Will Enjoy Or Pay For Stuff

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By Emma Young

Imagine taking a two-week holiday to the Bahamas. Sand, sea, and reef — who wouldn’t love it? I mean, personally, though I would love aspects of it, I’m quickly bored on a beach, I’m too nervous of deep water to dive and excessive sun brings me out in a rash. But that’s just me. Anyone else would just adore it….right?

This, it turns out, is a classic example of a bias, dubbed the overestimation bias, revealed in a new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In a series of studies involving thousands of participants, Minah Jung at New York University and colleagues found that we over-estimate how much other people will enjoy, pay for or wait for a desirable experience or object. The team thinks this is because while we can appreciate that a predominantly positive experience may have some downsides for us personally, we tend to assume that for somebody else, it will be more purely perfect.

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How To Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions, According To Psychology

GettyImages-614034904.jpgBy Emily Reynolds

The excesses of Christmas have been and gone, and we’ve been met once again by January’s familiar call for resolution and goal-setting.

For most of us, New Year’s resolutions are a mixed bag: whether we’re looking to get fit, become more environmentally-friendly, or just keep up a new hobby, there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some habits stick and others fall by the wayside almost immediately.

But there are a few things you can do to make your new routines work, based on research into motivation, temptation and achievement. Here’s our digest of the ten findings that could help make that New Year’s resolution stay around until next December. Continue reading “How To Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions, According To Psychology”

The Emotions Of Music And The Meaning Of Life: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

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

It’s hard for researchers to study the brain activity involved in social interactions when they can only conduct MRI scans on a single person at a time. But what if you could squeeze two people into the scanner at once? At Science, Kelly Servick reports on the development of new, rather intimate imaging arrangements, in which two participants lie face-to-face while having their brains scanned simultaneously.  

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First-Generation University Students Are At Greater Risk Of Experiencing Imposter Syndrome

GettyImages-157331738.jpgBy Emily Reynolds

Increasing efforts have been made in recent years to encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. There’s been a particularly positive emphasis on getting a more diverse group of people onto such courses: women, black and ethnic minority groups and working class people have all been the focus of drives and campaigns designed to help them enter STEM careers.

But, a new study suggests, the competitive nature of STEM courses may be having a knock-on effect on the confidence of certain students, in this case first-generation college attendees (those who are the first in their family to go to university). Such students, the paper argues, are more likely to experience “imposter syndrome” — the feeling that they don’t belong or don’t have the skills or intelligence to continue on their studies — precisely because of this atmosphere of competition.

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Public Belief In “Memory Myths” Not Actually That Widespread, Study Argues

GettyImages-668658382.jpgBy Emma Young

The general public has a pretty poor understanding of how memory works — and lawyers and clinical psychologists can be just as bad. At least, this is what many researchers have asserted, notes a team at University College London in a new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. However, their research reveals that the idea that most people ignorantly subscribe to “memory myths” is itself a myth.

The wording of earlier studies, and also discrepancies in how memory experts and the general public tend to interpret the meaning of statements about memory, have painted a bleaker picture of public understanding than is actually the case, according to a series of studies led by Chris Brewin. This has important implications for cases in which ideas about memory are highly relevant — among jurors in a court room, for example.

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