Johannes Eichstaedt was sitting in a coffee shop by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala when he received a slack about a tweet about a preprint. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and his colleagues published a headline-grabbing article linking heart disease to the language used on Twitter. They’d found that tweets emanating from US counties with high rates of heart disease mortality tended to exhibit high levels of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, disengagement, aggression, and hate. The study, published in Psychological Science, has proven influential, already accruing over 170 citations. But three years later, the preprint authors Nick Brown and James Coyne from the University of Groningen claimed to have identified “numerous conceptual and methodological limitations”. Within the month, Eichstaedt and his colleagues issued a riposte, publishing their own preprint that claims further evidence to support their original conclusions.
As recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, corporations and political organisations attach a high value to social media data. But, Eichstaedt argues, that same data also offers rich insights into psychological health and well-being. With appropriate ethical oversight, social media analytics could promote population health and perhaps even save lives. That at least is its promise. But with big data come new challenges – as Eichstaedt’s “debate” with Brown and Coyne illustrates.
In a post-truth world of alternative facts, there is understandable interest in the psychology behind why people are generally so wedded to their opinions and why it is so difficult to change minds.
We already know a lot about the deliberate mental processes that people engage in to protect their world view, from seeking out confirmatory evidence (the “confirmation bias“) to questioning the methods used to marshal contradictory evidence (the scientific impotence excuse).
Now a team led by Michael Gilead at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev report in Social Psychological and Personality Science that they have found evidence of rapid and involuntarily mental processes that kick-in whenever we encounter opinions we agree with, similar to the processes previously described for how we respond to basic facts.
The researchers write that “their demonstration of such a knee-jerk acceptance of opinions may help explain people’s remarkable ability to remain entrenched in their convictions”.
Do chiselled features garner better pay? Researchers have previously found that income is associated with attractiveness, leading to the idea of both a beauty premium and an ugliness penalty. A common explanation is discrimination: employers seek out beautiful people and reject or ignore those harder on the eye. But in the Journal of Business Psychology, Satoshi Kanazawa and Mary Still have published research aiming to upset this. The biggest takeaway is that being perceived as very unattractive may not incur an income penalty at all.
How do you choose the best possible therapist for someone who needs help? Does it make any difference if the therapist is about the same age, for instance, or the same gender, or from the same socio-economic background?
It seems intuitive that it might be easier to relate to someone from a similar background. However, while a positive relationship between client and therapist is known to be one of the most important factors for a good treatment outcome, there’s been surprisingly little work on how their respective personal attributes might interact to create a successful alliance.
Now work led by Alex Behn, affiliated to both the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the Millennium Institute for Research in Depression and Personality, in Santiago, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, attempts to help plug that gap.
Brain science is mysterious and sexy and people are more inclined to believe claims that contain superfluous neuroscience references or neuro-imagery – an effect referred to as “the seductive allure of neuroscience” or “SANE” (that’s the short story, however the literature on the effect is messy, to say the least, with a mix of successful and failed replications).
One context where we might expect the seductive allure of neuroscience to be particularly problematic is in the emerging field of educational neuroscience, which seeks to use findings about the brain to improve educational practice. While the field holds promise, experts have warned about the dangers of neuro-jargon lending a confusing veneer of credibility to educational practices that lack an evidence base (one prominent example would be Brain Gym which has been widely criticised by neuroscientists and psychologists).
Until recently, however, no one had looked to see whether the seductive allure of neuroscience applies specifically in an educational context. A research group at the University of Minnesota has now attempted to plug this gap. They recently reported in the British Journal of Educational Psychology their “major finding” that the public find popular articles about the psychology of learning more credible when they contain extraneous neuroscience.
It is possible to pay attention effortlessly, your mind “pulled by the inherent nature of the object of experience”. In fact, with practice, doing so can “lead you to experience inner silence, tranquility, peace and transcendence”. That’s according to a research team led by Michelle Mahone at the California School of Professional Psychology, who have published in Brain and Cognition what they describe as the first neuroimaging study of people in the midst of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
The 16 women volunteers (average age 60) had practised TM for an average of 34 years, meaning they had amassed around 36,000 hours of meditation practice. The researchers scanned the meditators’ brains while they lay resting with their eyes closed and then while they meditated for 10 minutes. The volunteers’ extensive mastery at meditation allowed them to achieve “bliss”, “deep restfulness” and “clear transcending” despite the noise and discomfort of the brain scanner.
Compared with rest, the scans showed that while meditating the volunteers exhibited increased activity at the front of their brains (in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus), alongside reduced activity in the cerebellum and the pons – structures at the back of the brain and in the brain stem. These latter activity reductions have not been observed in brain scan studies of other forms of meditation that involve focused attention (for example on one’s breathing) or open monitoring (paying mindful non-judgmental attention to one’s thoughts and sensations).
The researchers said their findings were consistent with the idea that Transcendental Meditation involves a unique form of effortless attention, in which “the attention is guided by the inherent pleasure of inner transcendence, rather than through cognitive evaluation and control”. The increase in frontal brain activity reflects the engagement with a specific experience, they said, while the minimal control required was reflected in reduced activity in the cerebellum and pons.
Sceptical readers may feel that the researchers are guilty of “reverse inference” – making assumptions about the meaning of the brain activity patterns that they observed. Mahone’s team said further research is needed to directly compare brain activity during different meditation practices.
Research in clinical settings shows that some people with mental health problems experience extreme distress when hearing non-speech vocal sounds, like coughs and chewing noises, a phenomenon called “misophonia”. Now research from Amanda Seaborne at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Logan Fiorella at the University of Georgia, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, suggests that this issue exists in the broader population, and that people sensitive to these sounds perform poorly in their presence.
Seventy-two undergraduates sat in a cubicle and read a technical text about migraines for six minutes, before reporting what they remembered, answering questions on the text, and finally completing a questionnaire about their misophonia sensitivity (they rated how distressing they found sounds like “rustling papers, sneezing, chewing gum, tapping, eating crunchy foods, and heavy breathing”).For half the participants, a nearby cubicle contained a confederate working for the researchers who chewed gum loudly throughout the experiment. Participants in this condition who scored higher on the misophonia questionnaire performed worse at the comprehension measures than lower scorers.
Interestingly, the reverse pattern was found for the participants in the quiet control condition, with the more sound-sensitive students performing slightly better – perhaps because these conditions were the ones in which they naturally thrive. So misophonia seems to have an impact in non-clinical contexts (none of the rating scores reached clinical levels of sensitivity), although we can’t say whether its origin is in a subtle neurological difference or a psychological preoccupation. But it’s a good reminder that by honouring the expectations in designated quiet spaces, we may be helping others more than we know.
Do you think you are closer to your “true self” today than in the past? If so, is this a work in progress? Will the you of the future be even more authentic than you are today?
A pair of US psychologists recently put these kind of questions to over 250 volunteers across two studies, to find out if there is a general pattern in the way that we think about the development of our true selves.
Reporting their findings in Self and Identity, Elizabeth Seto and Rebecca Schlegel found there is a tendency for us to see ourselves as becoming progressively more authentic through life. “If these reflections are at all reflective of how people feel in real time,” they concluded, “it is possible that people believe they will be the closest they have ever been to who they really are when they reach the end of their lifetime.”
If you have a couple of minutes, click through to this survey site of “noisy gifs” – brief silent movies that, for some people at least, evoke illusory sounds. If you hear a thwack when fists collide with a punchbag, or a yell while watching a man silently scream, then you’re experiencing a “visual-evoked auditory response” (vEAR), also called “hearing motion synaesthesia”.
Ten years after the first, preliminary journal paper on the phenomenon, Christopher Fassnidge and Elliot Freeman at City University, London, report – in a new paper in Cortex – that it’s remarkably common, affecting perhaps 20 – 30 per cent of us. Fassnidge and Freeman also investigated what induces vEAR, providing clues to what’s going on in the brain.
To punch holes in a scientific claim, it’s legitimate to critique the supporting evidence, or query the way the evidence has been interpreted. More questionable is to throw dirt on the character or capability of the researcher making the claim. New research in PLOS One exploresthe effectiveness of ad hominem attacks against scientists and shows that some are more damaging than others.