Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

GettyImages-499263415.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

We’ve all been there: feeling so grateful to a friend or colleague that we hatch the idea of sending them a thank-you message. But then we worry about how to phrase it. And then we figure it probably won’t mean much to them anyway; if anything it could all be a bit awkward. So we don’t bother.

Does this sound familiar? According to a pair of US psychologists, a common failure of perspective means that a lot of us underestimate the positive impact on others (and ourselves) of expressing gratitude, meaning that we miss out on a simple way to improve our social relations and wellbeing. Based on their series of experiments in Psychological Science, Amit Kumar at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago conclude that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect”.

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Massive study finds that a sizeable minority of us are in jobs that don’t fit our primary occupational interests

GettyImages-841304270.jpgBy Alex Fradera

In theory, our personal traits and interests should affect the jobs we pursue and where we thrive the most. This assumption is baked into the Work Psychology theory of “person-environment fit” and it’s an idea that is foundational to services we depend on like vocational guidance and career planning. But one of its key implications has until now been untested: that people who share the same job role will also have similar job interests. Now a surprising new study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior suggests that for many jobs, this simply isn’t true. 

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Audiobooks pack a more powerful emotional punch than film

GettyImages-869794278.jpgBy Emma Young

Audiobook sales are booming, almost doubling in the UK over the past five years. Some are now sophisticated, being voiced by multiple actors and featuring extensive sound effects. But even single-narrator audiobooks are, it’s been argued, more cognitively and emotionally engaging than print – in part because a listener can’t slow down, as they can with a print book. 

As a writer whose latest psychology-themed novel She, Myself and I is now being produced as an audiobook, I can’t help wondering about the benefits, and the costs. Personally, I like to be able to control my pace through a print book, to re-read sentences or paragraphs that I particularly enjoy or that I don’t quite process properly on a first read. 

However, as Daniel Richardson at UCL, and fellow researchers, point out in a new study, available as a pre-print on the bioRxiv service, “Our oldest narratives date back many thousands of years and pre-date the advent of writing… For the majority of human history, stories were synonymous with oral tradition; audiences listened to a story-teller imparting a tale.” Humans did not evolve to read, so perhaps there’s something primordially special about listening to a story. But, as the researchers go on to write, “in the modern era, video has emerged as a major narrative tool as well.” 

So which is more engaging – video or audio? That’s the focus of the new paper. And I’m intrigued. I’ve also sold TV rights to the novel, and TV, of course, is the medium of mass-appeal. If my book is ultimately turned into a TV series, might viewers become more involved in the story than my audiobook listeners? 

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Research into the mental health of prisoners, digested

GettyImages-504701778.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Around the world, more people than ever are locked up in prisons – estimated to be in excess of 11 million people, up by almost 20 per cent since the turn of the millennium (pdf). According to a recent House of Commons Briefing Paper the rate of increase is even higher than this in the UK where prison populations are at a record high. Many of these incarcerated individuals have intensifying mental health needs – for instance, the same briefing paper reports that UK rates of self-harm in prisoners were 25 per cent higher in 2015 than in 2014. Ahead of this week’s meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology on the topic of Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System, here we provide a digest of research into the mental health of prisoners.

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Philosophise this – psychology research by philosophers is robust and replicates better than other areas of psychology

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Experimental philosophy or X-Phi takes the tools of contemporary psychology and applies them to unravelling how people think about major topics from Western philosophy

By guest blogger Dan Jones

Amid all the talk of a “replication crisis” in psychology, here’s a rare good news story – a new project has found that a sub-field of the discipline, known as “experimental philosophy” or X-phi, is producing results that are impressively robust.

The current crisis in psychology was largely precipitated by a mass replication attempt published by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC) project in 2015. Of 100 previously published significant findings, only 39 per cent replicated unambiguously, rising to 47 per cent on more relaxed criteria.

Now a paper in Review of Philosophy and Psychology has trained the replicability lens on the burgeoning field of experimental philosophy. Born roughly 15 years ago, X-Phi takes the tools of contemporary psychology and applies them to unravelling how people think about many of the major topics of Western philosophy, from the metaphysics of free will and the nature of the self, to morality and the problem of consciousness. 

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Performing meaningless rituals boosts our self-control through making us feel more self-disciplined

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From Tian et al, 2018

By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

We could say without exaggeration that the discovery of a means of achieving full control over oneself is something of a “holy grail” for psychology. There is nothing to indicate that we are getting any closer to finding one, but recent decades have brought us a growing number of discoveries that at least partially allow us to enhance self-control mechanisms. One of them is the light which has been shed on the importance of rituals in boosting self-control. Now in a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Allen Ding Tian and his collaborators have examined whether enacting rituals (defined as “a fixed episodic sequence of actions characterised by rigidity and repetition”) can enhance subjective feelings of self-discipline, such that rituals can be harnessed to improve behavioural self-control. 

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After analysing the field’s leading journal, a psychologist asks: Is social psychology still the science of behaviour?

JPSP.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Part of my role at the Digest involves sifting through journals looking for research worth covering, and I’ve sensed that modern social psychology generates plenty of studies based on questionnaire data, but far fewer that investigate the kind of tangible behavioural outcomes illuminated by the field’s classics, from Asch’s conformity experiments to Milgram’s research on obedience to authority. A new paper in Social Psychological Bulletin examines this apparent change systematically. Based on his findings, Dariusz Doliński at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland asks the bleak question: is psychology still a science of behaviour?

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We can tell from a person’s roar whether they are bigger and stronger than us

GettyImages-157287633.jpgBy Emma Young

Many animals, including sea lions and dogs, can accurately predict the size and strength of a potential adversary in part by listening to their vocalisations – such as the ferocity and depth of their barks or growls. People weren’t thought to be much good at doing something similar. But in previous studies, volunteers were asked to judge the absolute height and strength of another person, based on the sound of an aggressively-spoken sentence or a ‘roar’. Now in a new study, published in iScience, when participants were instead instructed to listen to recordings and judge how much stronger, or weaker, taller or shorter the vocaliser was, compared with themselves, they could do this with a high degree of accuracy.

As the researchers, led by David Reby at the University of Sussex, point out, this is potentially far more practically useful than being able to discern someone else’s absolute height or strength.

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Researchers have identified a group of patients who are especially prone to out-of-body experiences

GettyImages-519685592.jpgBy Emma Young

People who’ve had an out-of-body experience (OBE) report that their conscious awareness shifted outside their physical body – often upwards, so they felt like they were floating above their own head. It’s thought that OBEs occur when the brain fails to properly integrate data from the different senses, including vision, touch, proprioception (the sense of where the limbs and other body parts are located in space) and from the vestibular system (organs in the inner ear that monitor head orientation, balance and motion). 

Previous research has mostly focused on the role of vision and touch – for example by triggering the illusion of viewing one’s own body – but the vestibular system has largely been neglected. If it does play an important role we should expect that problems with the vestibular system – which often present as feelings of dizziness – lead to OBEs, but do they?  

Historical case studies suggested that they might. And now, published in Cortex, the first systematic study of patients referred to a neurological specialist because of dizziness has found that they can. 

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Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email

GettyImages-512979254.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

As well as their cost-saving appeal, the rationale for large open-plan offices is that they are expected to act as a crucible for human chemistry, increasing face-to-face encounters between colleagues to the benefit of creativity and collaboration. Unfortunately it’s well-established that most workers don’t like them, such is the fundamental human need for privacy and control over one’s environment. Now a pair of quasi-experimental field studies published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B suggest that the supposed collaborative advantage of open-plan offices also doesn’t pass muster.

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