What Counts As Altruism? People Judge Good Acts Harshly When They Are Performed For Selfish Ends

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People judge an ostensibly prosocial act, like raising money in a charity run, as less altruistic than neutral acts, if it’s done to feel good or impress others (or for other selfish motives)

By guest blogger Rhiannon Willmot

Philosophers have long debated what constitutes genuine altruism. Some have argued that any acts, no matter however charitable, that benefit both the actor as well as the recipient, are altruistically “impure”, and thus can’t qualify as genuinely selfless. For example, volunteering at a soup kitchen would no longer be considered altruistic if we received a hot meal in return for our efforts. 

However, other scholars have argued that the act remains altruistic if the benefits of prosocial behaviour are an unintended consequence. From this perspective, if the meal is unexpected, our actions are still deemed selfless. 

For their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Ryan Carlson and Jamil Zaki have shed light on these questions by investigating what the general population thinks of different prosocial acts, depending on their motives and consequences. 

Understanding popular perceptions of prosocial behavior can not only help resolve the altruism debate, but also provide information about how our behaviour might be viewed by others, and whether our personal opinions on selflessness match up with the general belief. For example, why might we perceive the supposedly altruistic behaviour of a public figure differently to our friends, and is social media really the right place to publicise prosocial acts?

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Widely Used Neuroimaging Analyses Allow Almost Any Result To Be Presented As A Successful Replication, Paper Claims

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Of 135 surveyed fMRI papers that contained claims of replicating previous findings, over 40 per cent did not consider peak activity levels within brain regions – a flawed approach that allows almost any result to be claimed as a successful replication (from YongWooK Hong et al, 2019)

By Matthew Warren

As the list of failed replications continues to build, psychology’s reproducibility crisis is becoming harder to ignore. Now, in a new paper that seems likely to ruffle a few feathers, researchers suggest that even many apparent successful replications in neuroimaging research could be standing on shaky ground.  As the paper’s title bluntly puts it, the way imaging results are currently analysed “allows presenting anything as a replicated finding.” 

The provocative argument is put forward by YongWook Hong from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and colleagues, in a preprint posted recently to bioRxiv. The fundamental problem, say the researchers, is that scientists conducting neuroimaging research tend to make and test hypotheses with reference to large brain structures. Yet neuroimaging techniques, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), gather data at a much more fine-grained resolution. 

This means that strikingly different patterns of brain activity could produce what appears to be the same result. For example, one lab might find that a face recognition task activates the amygdala (a structure found on each side of the brain that’s involved in emotional processing). Later, another lab apparently replicates this finding, showing activation in the same structure during the same task. But the amygdala contains hundreds of individual “voxels”, the three-dimensional pixels that form the basic unit of fMRI data. So the second lab could have found activity in a completely different part of the amygdala, yet it would appear that they had replicated the original result. 

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Should You Listen To Music While Doing Intellectual Work? It Depends On The Music, The Task, And Your Personality

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People more prone to boredom performed better without background music

By Christian Jarrett

Given how many of us listen to music while studying or doing other cerebral work, you’d think psychology would have a set of clear answers as to whether the practice is likely to help or hinder performance. In fact, the research literature is rather a mess (not that that has deterred some enterprising individuals from making bold claims).

There’s the largely discredited “Mozart Effect” – the idea that listening to classical music can boost subsequent IQ, except that when first documented in the 90s the effect was on spatial reasoning specifically, not general IQ. Also, since then the finding has not replicated, or it has proven weak and is probably explained as a simple effect of music on mood or arousal on performance. And anyway, that’s about listening to music and then doing mental tasks, rather than both simultaneously. Other research on listening to music while we do mental work has suggested it can be distracting (known as the “irrelevant sound effect”), especially if we’re doing mental arithmetic or anything that involves holding information in the correct order in short-term memory.

Now, in the hope of injecting more clarity and realism into the literature, Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello have tested the common-sense idea that the effects of background music on mental task performance will depend on three things: the nature of the music, the nature of the task, and the personality of the person. “We hope that our findings encourage researchers to adopt a more holistic, interactionist approach to investigate the effects of music (and more broadly, distractions) on task performance,” they write in their new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

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Try Something New Together – Research Shows Engaging In “Self-Expanding Activities” Rekindles The Sexual Desire Of Long-Term Couples

GettyImages-485523412.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

People have a basic drive to learn and develop and to see themselves and the world in new ways. That’s according to the psychologists Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron, who refer to this as our need for “self-expansion”. It follows from their theory that any chance to self-expand should be rewarding, and that if you can self-expand while doing things with your romantic partner then your relationship will benefit. Previous research has hinted that this is the case, finding that when couples engaged in self-expanding activities together – anything that felt new, exciting, interesting and/or challenging – their satisfaction with their relationship increased.

Now in a paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Amy Muise at York University and her colleagues have taken things further, laying out evidence that a major part of the reason that participating in self-expanding activities is good for relationships is that it boosts your sexual desire for your partner and increases the likelihood you will have rewarding sex – and, moreover, that this is particularly the case for people in long-term relationships.

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New Study Finds Strength Of Imagination Not Associated With Creative Ability Or Achievement

GettyImages-169937637.jpgBy Emma Young

Imagination is sometimes claimed to be a uniquely human ability, and it has long intrigued psychologists. “Nevertheless, our understanding of the benefits and risks that individual differences in imagination hold for psychological outcomes is currently limited,” note two researchers who have created a new psychometric test – the Imaginative Behaviour Engagement Scale (IBES) – for measuring how much imagination a person has, and then used it to investigate whether, as some earlier work hinted, having a stronger imagination might aid learning and creativity. 

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Young Children With Thinner Brain Regions Have Better Working Memory

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Associations between the thickness of different cortical areas and children’s age and working memory (digit span); via Botdorf & Riggins, 2018

By Matthew Warren

Anyone who has stood in the supermarket aisle trying to remember their shopping list might have wished for a larger brain. But when it comes to memory, bigger isn’t always better. A study published in Neuropsychologia has found that young children whose cerebral cortex is thinner in certain areas also tend to have better working memory.

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People Who Are Most Fearful Of Genetically Modified Foods Think They Know The Most About Them, But Actually Know The Least

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via Fernbach et al, 2019

By Jesse Singal

There are few subjects where a larger gap exists between public opinion and expert opinion than people’s views on foods, like corn or wheat, that have been genetically manipulated to, for example, increase crop yields or bolster pest-resistance. Experts generally view so-called GM foods as totally safe to consume, while the public is suspicious of them — and this divide is massive. One Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 per cent of the American public believed GM foods are safe to eat, compared with 88 per cent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (public attitudes are similarly negative in the UK, with a 2014 poll finding that 40 per cent of adults felt the government should not promote GM foods, compared with 22 per cent in favour, and the rest unsure).

Unlike some subjects where this divide between layperson and expert opinion is heavily mediated by politics, such as climate change caused by human activity — in the U.S. and elsewhere, conservatives are far less likely to believe in it than are liberals and climate scientists — the GM-food divide doesn’t really have a political dimension: Liberals, centrists, and conservatives are all about equally likely to have what are, from the point of view of experts, unfounded fears about the safety of GM foods.

To better understand the source of these fears, a team led by Philip M. Fernbach, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed nationally representative samples in America, Germany and France, and other online participants, about their views on both GM foods and climate change, tested their knowledge on these subjects by asking them to answer factual questions, and also asked them to gauge their perceived level of knowledge on those subjects.

The headline finding from the study, published as a letter in Nature Human Behavior, is neatly summed up by its title: “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.” That is, on average, the more vehemently a given respondent said they were opposed to GM foods, the fewer questions about the subject they answered accurately, and the higher they rated their own knowledge.

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There Are Some Intriguing Differences Between The USA And Japan In How Emotions Influence Health

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HAP feelings are high arousal, like excitement, and LAP feelings are low arousal, like calm – each differentially related with health and wellbeing outcomes in USA and Japan, from Clobert et al, 2019

By Emma Young

Feeling good in an emotional sense helps to foster better physical health – at least that’s what’s been found in studies in the West. But “feeling good” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in all cultures. In the US, people tend to report that being excited and experiencing other so-called “high arousal positive (HAP) states” is what makes them feel good. Many people in Japan, however, place greater value on the opposite extreme, viewing calm, quiet “low arousal positive (LAP) states” as more pleasant and desirable. So, does this mean that engaging more often in stimulating activities – like a fitness work-out or a party – will make for better health in US citizens, while for people in Japan, engaging in more calming activities – like taking frequent baths – will have more of a beneficial effect? A new paper, published in Emotion, which explores this question, reveals some clear cultural variations – though not all of them are as the researchers predicted.  

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First Study Of Its Kind Finds Healthy People Have A Distorted Sense Of Their Body Volume And Length

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via Sadibolova et al, 2019

By Christian Jarrett

How accurately or not we are able to judge the size of our own bodies and specific body parts is an important topic in clinical psychology because a distorted body image is thought to play part in eating disorders, body dysmorphia and other related conditions. However, research has until now been limited in always involving one- or two-dimensional judgments, with volunteers asked to estimated the length of various body parts, for instance, or asked to judge which of various 2-dimensional visual depictions of their body is most accurate. In reality, of course, we don’t just have a sense of how our body looks in two dimensions from the outside but also how it feels from the inside, including how much space it occupies.

A new study published in Cortex is the first to examine how accurately people of healthy weight can estimate the volume of their entire body and specific body parts. Renata Sadibolova at Goldsmiths, University of London, and her colleagues write that “these findings … highlight the importance of studying the perceptual distortions ‘at the baseline’, i.e., in healthy population, given their potential to further elucidate the nature of perceptual distortions in clinical conditions.”

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There’s Another Area Of Psychology Where Most Of The Results Do Replicate – Personality Research

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Of 78 previously published trait-outcome associations, around 87 per cent successfully replicated, from Soto, 2019

By Christian Jarrett

While psychology has been mired in a “replication crisis” recently – based on the failure of contemporary researchers to recreate some of its most cherished findings – there have been pockets of good news for certain sub-disciplines in the field. For instance, some replication efforts in cognitive psychology and experimental philosophy or X-phi have been more successful, suggesting that results in these areas are more robust.

To this more optimistic list we may now add personality psychology, or at least the specific area of research linking the Big Five personality trait scores with various personal and life outcomes, such as higher Neuroticism being associated with poorer mental health and reduced relationship satisfaction; higher trait Conscientiousness being associated with less risk of substance abuse; and stronger Extraversion correlating with leadership roles.

In his new paper that is in press at Psychological Science (and available as a preprint at the Open Science Framework), Christopher Soto at Colby College speculates that perhaps it is the tendency for researchers in personality to use large samples of participants, numbering in the hundreds or thousands, and to use reliable, standardised tests, that is to some extent responsible for the relatively robust results in this area. The new findings “leave us cautiously optimistic about the current state and future prospects of the personality-outcome literature,” Soto writes.

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