Workplace venting makes it harder to bounce back from bad experiences

I don't have the patience for thisBy Alex Fradera

When you experience frustrations at work – spats with colleagues, or last-minute demands – it’s natural to want to voice your feelings. And surely it’s healthier. After all, better out than in! Not according to new evidence in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that shows complaining about negative events actually cements their impact. The researchers Evangelia Demeroutia and Russell Cropanzano recommend trying instead to meet the slings and arrows of everyday indignity with all the “sportsmanship” you can muster.

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People with higher working memory ability suffer more from brain freeze

Puzzled businessman scratching his headBy Christian Jarrett

Some fortunate people have more “working memory” than others. It’s as if they have an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling; extremely useful for doing arithmetic and similar tasks in your head. These folk with abundant working memory capacity also tend to fare well academically and in their careers. Little surprise that “brain training” games like Lumosity and Cogmed target working memory in pursuit of these knock-on benefits (though the evidence that the training brings such benefits is weak).

What is surprising is the discovery a number of years ago that mentally dextrous people with greater working memory capacity seem to be particularly susceptible to “brain freeze” or choking under pressure.

For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.

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More human than thou … or just better? Our motivation to think we’re good trumps our desire to feel human

The dark side of human. The mirror concept. vector illustration
A new critique challenges the claim that we’re so motivated to believe in our essential humanness that we happily endorse ugly parts of our human natures

By Alex Fradera

Most of us have a sense of what it means to be human. Research shows that we agree with each other that traits like friendly, jealous or impatient are more “human” than others like unemotional or selfless. What’s more, we like to see ourselves as human: we care more about human traits and claim to possess them more than other people. In other words, we “self-humanise”, laying claim to the good and the bad as long as they emphasise our own humanity.

But this research on self-humanising presents a conundrum. A different, abundant line of evidence shows that humans bitterly protect a highly positive self-image, supported by cognitive biases that attribute our own failings to circumstances and other people’s to their deficiencies. So, do we really overestimate the bad in ourselves, claiming to be more human, warts and all? According to a critique of the self-humanising field in The Journal of Social Psychology, this is an oversimplification: when it comes to undesirable human traits, we see ourselves as pretty similar to other people.

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Have we overestimated the effectiveness of psychotherapy?

Depression ReliefBy Christian Jarrett

Most people who undertake psychotherapy seem to benefit from it. How do we know? Arguably, the most important evidence comes from meta-analyses that combine the results from many – sometimes hundreds – of randomly controlled trials. Based on this, it’s been estimated that psychotherapy is effective for about 80 per cent of people (meanwhile, between five to 10 per cent of clients may suffer adverse effects).

But now the more concerning news: a team of researchers led by Evangelos Evangelou at the University of Ioannina, Greece has assessed the quality of 247 of these psychotherapy meta-analyses and they report in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica that many of them have serious methodological short-comings.

Coincidentally, a separate research group led by Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has just published in Journal of Personality some of the first observational data on how people’s personalities change after undertaking psychotherapy. In contrast to what’s been found in the clinical literature, they report that people who’ve been in therapy seem to show negative changes in personality and other psychological outcomes.

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The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author

Synagogue Walls Desecrated With Anti-Semitic Graffiti
Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti, but Scott Lilienfeld argues there is nothing “micro” about these

By Alex Fradera

Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the “microaggression”, a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness – prompting last month’s decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it’s hard to tell between friend and foe.

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Psychologists are figuring out why some of us find echolocation easier than others

Blindman's BluffBy Christian Jarrett

Daniel Kish’s life reads like the origins story out of a super hero comic book. To treat his cancer, doctors removed both Kish’s eyes when he was aged one. Later, as a child, he taught himself to echolocate like a bat. Using the echoes from his own clicking sounds he detects the world around him. He can even cycle busy streets and it’s his life’s mission to empower other blind children by teaching them echolocation or what he calls flashsonar.

Psychologists studying the skill have found that it is eminently teachable, for blind people and the sighted. But what’s also become clear is that there is a huge amount of variation between individuals: some people, blind or sighted, seem to pick it up easily while others struggle. A new study in Experimental Brain Research is among the first to try to find out which mental abilities, if any, correlate with echolocation aptitude. The findings could help screening to see who is likely to benefit from echolocation and offer clues to how to help those who struggle.

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New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop

The London 2012 Olympic VolunteersBy Alex Fradera

Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.

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Attractive people have shorter relationships and are more interested in alternative partners

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Scarlett Johansson announced her split from Romain Dauriac this January

By Christian Jarrett

You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.

The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.

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Five studies that help explain why social drinking is so rewarding

David Cameron And Chinese President Xi Jinping Visit Princes Risborough PubBy Christian Jarrett

For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.

A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.

The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.

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First ever study into how spaceflight changes brain structure

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Top row shows brain changes after bed rest; bottom row brain changes with spaceflight. Orange = increased grey matter, blue = decrease. Via University of Michigan

By Christian Jarrett

Travelling in space can play havoc with the human mind. Because of micro-gravity, astronauts frequently experience weird sensory effects, such as the world suddenly appearing upside down. Even their ability to rotate objects in their mind’s eye is sometimes affected. A new open-access study in the journal Microgravity is the first to explore the structural brain changes caused by spaceflight and which may contribute to, or reflect, these and other sensory and cognitive effects.

Vincent Koppelmans and his colleagues, including Jacob Bloomberg at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, compared brain scans taken of 27 astronauts before a space mission with a second scan taken once they were back on earth. The results revealed a mix of shrinkage and enlargement across the brain. There were widespread reductions in grey matter as well as some more localised increases in grey matter in regions that are involved in sensory processing and motor control.

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