Positive parenting gets “under the skin”, showing up years later in the cortisol response

GettyImages-564565088.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Adolescence is when values and relationships are formed and things happen that leave their sticky fingerprints on the life that follows. Even, it seems, in the everyday functioning of brain systems. New research published in Developmental Science shows that when teenagers have a positive relationship with their parents, then as adults their brains and bodies respond to stress in a way that helps them better engage with the world. However, the study suggests this benefit may be denied to those raised in a rough environment, which seems to override the influence of positive parenting.

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“Strongest evidence yet” for ego depletion – the idea that self control is a limited resource

GettyImages-543744061.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For years, “ego depletion” has been a dominant theory in the study of self control. This is the intuitive idea that self control or willpower is a limited resource, such that the more you use up in one situation, the less you have left over to deploy in another. It makes sense of the everyday experience of when you come home after a hard day at the office, abandon all constructive plans, and instead binge on snacks in front of the TV.

The trouble is, the theory has taken some hard knocks lately, including a failed joint replication attempt by 23 separate labs. Critics have pointed out that most supportive studies – and there are over 200 of them – are small and underpowered. A meta-analysis that corrected for a positive bias in the existing literature concluded that ego depletion is not real. A study in India – where there’s a cultural belief that exercising self-control is energising – even found evidence for “reverse ego depletion“.

It’s not easy to weigh the evidence for and against, but perhaps the science is tipping back in favour of ego depletion. Two new studies, made publicly available on the PsyArXiv preprint website, provide what the researchers at Texas A&M University, led by Katie Garrison, describe as “the strongest evidence yet of the ego depletion effect”.

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Imagining bodily states, like feeling full, can affect our future preferences and behaviour

GettyImages-sb10069449r-003.jpgBy Emma Young

Our current bodily states influence our preferences and our behaviour much more than we usually anticipate – as anyone who has gone shopping hungry and come back with bags full of fattening food can attest. “Even when people have previous experience with a powerful visceral state, like pain, they show surprisingly little ability to vividly recall the state or to predict how it affects someone (including themselves) when they are not experiencing it,” write Janina Steinmertz at Utrecht University and her colleagues in their paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The good news is their research suggests we can exploit this phenomenon – we can trick ourselves into thinking we’re feeling differently, thereby influencing our preferences in ways that help us. For instance, one potentially important finding from their paper was that people who thought themselves full went on to choose smaller food portion sizes.

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New analysis suggests most Milgram participants realised the “obedience experiments” were not really dangerous

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The findings provide little support for the contemporary theory of “engaged followership”

By Christian Jarrett

Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s – in which ordinary volunteers followed a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant – have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. Milgram’s own interpretation, his “agentic state theory”, was that we readily give up our own sense of responsibility when following instructions from an authority figure. However, his “obedience studies” have come in for recent criticism and re-interpretation (not that you’d know this from the textbooks). The most prominent contemporary theory is that the studies don’t demonstrate blind obedience at all, but rather “engaged followership” – people’s willingness to do bad things when they see them as morally good because they serve a grander cause, in this case science.

Now Matthew Hollander at the University of Wisconsin, and Jason Turowetz at the University of Siegen, have conducted the first in-depth analysis of the interviews that many of the participants gave immediately after taking part in the now infamous research. The new findings, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, provide little evidence for engaged followership. Instead most of Milgram’s participants showed scepticism that anyone had been seriously harmed at all.

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Fake news leaves a lasting impression on the less smart

GettyImages-858229652.jpgBy Alex Fradera

One reason why fake news is dangerous is that we don’t like giving up reassuring certainties, and once we have a take on things, it colours further information – hence the seeming bulletproof nature of conspiracy theories and partisan political hatreds. But new research in Intelligence suggests this is truer for some people than others. For mentally sharp people, the results suggest it’s relatively easy to jettison an outdated perspective, while for those of lower cognitive ability, the dregs remain.

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Replication failure: No evidence that big smilers live longer

GettyImages-659908692.jpgBy Emma Young

What’s in a smile? According to a widely reported 2010 study of US major league baseball players, which we covered here at BPS Research Digest, one important answer is: an indication of how long the smiler will live.

By analysing official individual photos of players from the 1952 baseball season, and then looking at subsequent death records, Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger at Wayne State University, Detroit, concluded that players who’d smiled like they meant it – with full “Duchenne smiles“, which involve muscles around the eyes as well as the mouth – lived on average seven years longer than players who’d posed with less convincing grins.

The result was taken to support existing evidence that happier people tend to live longer. It also seemed to show that smiles in posed photos – even on just one occasion – are a fairly reliable signal of people’s underlying emotional disposition and therefore their likely longevity.

But a new replication and extension of the Baseball photo study has produced very different results. This is important, because the idea that happier people live longer is widely promoted, and has implications both for individuals and policy-makers.

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What is the secret to being more assertive? Having self respect

GettyImages-172982903.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Why are some of us more inclined than others to stick up for ourselves, not aggressively, but assertively. Assertive people let others know when they feel mistreated and they’re confident saying “no” to unwanted demands.

Presumably it has to do with how see ourselves, yet past research has established that two key aspects of the self-concept – good feelings about the self (“self-liking” or “self-confidence”) and seeing oneself as competent – are not strongly related to assertive behaviour.

Daniela Renger, a researcher at the Institute of Psychology at Kiel University in Germany, believes this is because most relevant to assertiveness is self-respect – “a person’s conviction that they possess the universal dignity of persons and basic moral human rights and equality”. Across three studies published in Self and Identity, Renger shows that self-respect is a distinct psychological concept and that it is uniquely correlated with assertive behaviour.

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For teen boys at risk of psychopathy, laughter isn’t catching

gettyimages-857386041.jpgBy guest blogger Lucy Foulkes

When you see someone laughing hysterically, do you often find yourself laughing too? Laughter is usually extremely contagious. In fact, we are up to 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than when alone. It’s a powerful bonding tool: we enjoy seeing other people happy, we enjoy laughing with them, and this brings us closer together.

But is this equally true for everyone, or is laughter more contagious for some people than others? For a paper in Current Biology, a team of researchers at UCL, led by Elizabeth O’Nions and César F. Lima, has investigated whether adolescent boys at risk of psychopathy are less likely to find laughter catching.

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Brain scan study provides new clues as to how electroconvulsive “shock” therapy helps alleviate depression

 

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Pre-treatment, functional connectivity (FC) between fusiform face area and amygdala was reduced in depressed patients compared with healthy controls (HC), but increased after electroconvulsive therapy (from Wang et al 2017)

By Christian Jarrett

In the UK, thousands of people with depression continue to undergo electroconvulsive “shock” therapy (ECT) each year, usually if their symptoms have not improved following talking therapy or anti-depressants, and especially if they are considered to be at high risk of suicide, and the numbers may be rising. The technique, which involves using an electric shock to induce a seizure, carries risks, such as memory problems, but the majority of patients experience symptom improvements, and patient surveys show they generally view it positively. However, some experts remain opposed to its use and question its evidence base.

Despite the continued use of ECT, and its apparent benefits, exactly how it works remains largely unexplained. However, new clues come from a Chinese study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, in which patients showed increased grey matter volume in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional processing.

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The four ways to promote creativity in children come more naturally to some mothers than others

GettyImages-542092344.jpgBy Alex Fradera

What kind of parents produce creative children? Aside from the clear and substantial influence of the genes they pass on, evidence suggests that parents can also influence their children’s creativity through providing encouragement and the right environment. To understand what kind of parents are more inclined to take these steps, a new study in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity investigates the links between mothers’ personality and how much they cultivate for their child a ”climate of creativity”.

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