Culture Plays An Important Role In Our Perception Of Musical Pitch, According To Study Of Bolivia’s Tsimane’ People

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The researchers conduct the pitch perception experiment with a member of the Tsimane’ tribe. Credit: Josh McDermott

By Emma Young

All human cultures feature music. But the majority of studies of perceptions of music have been conducted on Western university students. This can make it hard to know whether the findings are biologically-driven, and common to all people, or the result of cultural influences.

To disentangle these two possibilities, you need a society that hasn’t really been exposed to Western music, for comparison. They’re not easy to find. But in 2016, a team led by Josh McDermott at MIT  reported that the Tsimane’, a group of people living in the remote Bolivian rainforest, showed some unexpected differences in their musical perceptions compared to Western listeners. For example, while a chord comprised of an A and an F sharp sounded horribly grating to Western ears, for the Tsimane’ it was just as pleasant as a C with a G, which Westerners also enjoyed. Culture had to explain these differences.

Now a new study, led by Nori Jacoby at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Germany, has found that the Tsimane’ don’t perceive pitch in the same way as Americans, either. This work adds to other research finding cultural variations in perceptions that had once been assumed to be universal, such as colour perception.

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Want To Know Whether A Psychology Study Will Replicate? Just Ask A Bunch Of People

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A version of The Thinker displayed in Buenos Aires

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

As most observers of psychological science recognise, the field is in the midst of a replication crisis. Multiple high-profile efforts to replicate past findings have turned up some dismal results — in the 2015 Open Science Collaboration published in Science, for example, just 36% of the evaluated studies showed statistically significant effects the second time around. The results of Many Labs 2, published last year, weren’t quite as bad, but still pretty dismal: just 50% of studies replicated during that effort.

Some of these failed replications don’t come across as all that surprising, at least in retrospect, given the audacity of original claims. For example, a study published in Science in 2012 claimed that subjects who looked at an image of The Thinker had, on average, a 20-point lower belief in God on a 100-point scale than those who looked at a supposedly less analytical statue of a discus thrower, leading to the study’s headline finding that “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief.” It’s an astonishing and unlikely result given how tenaciously most people cling to (non)belief — it defies common sense to think simply looking at a statue could have such an effect. “In hindsight, our study was outright silly,” the lead author admitted to Vox after the study failed to replicate. Plenty of other psychological studies have made similarly bold claims.

In light of this, an interesting, obvious question is how much stock we should put into this sort of intuition: does it actually tell us something useful when a given psychological result seems unlikely on an intuitive level? After all, science is replete with real discoveries that seemed ridiculous at first glance.

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The Stereotype Of The Narcissistic Only Child Is Widespread — But It’s Wrong

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By Emily Reynolds

Wherever you fall in a group of siblings, there are plenty of stereotypes about the sort of person you are or will turn out to be. Oldest of the bunch? You’ll be bossy, then. Youngest? Spoilt. Only child? Selfish and narcissistic, of course.

But this last stereotype, at least, can now be put to bed. That’s thanks to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in which Michael Dufner from the University of Leipzig and colleagues found that the cliché, though widespread, is fundamentally inaccurate.

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How Cutting Down On Meat Affects Your Social Identity

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By Emily Reynolds

With increased concern about the impact of meat on our health and the environment, and an ever-expanding selection of meat-free products available to buy, popular interest in vegetarianism and veganism has steadily grown.

But for those who want to cut down but aren’t quite ready to give up their burgers, there is a third way: flexitarianism. As a 2019 study from the University of Nottingham on red meat and heart health put it, you “don’t have to go cold turkey on red meat to see health benefits”, finding that halving the amount of red and processed meat eaten can have significant health benefits.

A flexitarian tries to cut down their consumption as much as they can, but still eats the occasional meal or snack containing meat. One recent piece of market research found that 14% of the UK consider themselves flexitarian, and though more formal research would clearly be needed to paint a more critical and comprehensive picture, these figures do seem to suggest something of a cultural preoccupation with how much meat we’re eating.

Now new research, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, has taken a look at how such an approach impacts identity as well as health. The choice to be vegetarian can be a significant source of social identity — but how do flexitarians see themselves?

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Brain Training And Counting Bees: This Week’s Best Psychology Links

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Our weekly round-up of the best psychology coverage from elsewhere on the web

There’s not much evidence that brain training apps really improve our cognitive abilities –  so why do so many people use them? Sabrina Weiss at Wired has the answers.

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Crying Or Kneeling Can Help You Make A Public Apology — But Don’t Expect Faster Forgiveness

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Representatives from Tokyo Electric Power Co. apologise to evacuees after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Credit: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

By Emma Young

Public apologies for misdeeds can be tricky. The usual advice to companies, politicians or celebrities is to acknowledge what you’ve done wrong, express regret, and promise never to do it again. However, the public can still often be sceptical and not particularly forgiving. Matthew Hornsey at the University of Queensland and colleagues wondered if it makes a difference if remorse is also conveyed non-verbally — by dropping to the knees, perhaps, or wiping away tears, as for example when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a “tearful” apology to indigenous Canadians in 2017.

The team’s set of six studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, shows that such “embodied remorse” can go down quite well — at least, among some groups. However, a consistent finding across the studies was that such gestures don’t actually improve levels of public forgiveness.

These results are important in part because while some public apologies are minor — of the “TV star admits drug use” type — they are also considered to be an essential part of the process of reconciliation after gross violations of human rights, and even genocide. The public response to such apologies can clearly have huge ongoing implications.

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Digital Therapy For Insomnia Shows How Technology Can Be Harnessed To Improve Sleep And Mental Health

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By guest blogger Jack Barton

Technology and screens are supposedly the enemy of health. They ruin our sleep, mental health and we’re slaves to their constant need for attention. At least that’s what seems to be the consensus in the news. However, the reality is much more two-sided. In fact, a new study demonstrates that our blue light emitting devices can be a force for good — by providing a novel way to deliver mental health interventions.

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Our Golden Years? Research Into The Ups And Downs Of Retirement, Digested

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By Emma Young

If you ever daydream about retirement, what do you picture? Lie-ins, instead of being woken by an alarm? Walks on a beach, in place of the morning commute? More time for beloved hobbies? Or perhaps endless open, solitary days, with nothing much to do…?

Retirement is what psychologists term a “major life transition”. As such, it’s regarded as a stressor that carries risks as well as potential rewards. Now that the number of retirees in many countries is soaring, so too is the number of studies into whether retirement is good for your mental and physical health — or not. This work certainly suggests that it can be, but there are a few warnings lurking in the results, too.

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People Prefer Their Jobs To Be Taken By Robots, Not Other Workers

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By Emily Reynolds

The rise of automation has already had a significant impact on the work lives of millions of people — and it shows no signs of stopping. In a study released earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics found 1.5 million workers in Britain at “high risk of losing their jobs to automation”, with women and low-paid workers bearing the brunt of the risk. And another paper published in Social Science and Medicine found that exposure to automation risk exacerbated poor health: higher risk of automation meant higher job uncertainty and subsequently a greater chance of physical and mental health problems.

All of which makes the findings of a new Nature Human Behaviour study on almost 2,000 North American and European participants even more surprising. While most people prefer it when workers are replaced by humans, not robots, the majority of those surveyed said that if their job was at risk, they would find it less upsetting for it to be handed to robots rather than other employees.

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Spending More Time On Your Hobbies Can Boost Confidence At Work — If They Are Sufficiently Different From Your Job

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By Matthew Warren

None of us enjoys having our job cut into our leisure time. So the next time your boss asks you to work late and miss your band rehearsal or board game night, point them to a new study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. Researchers have found that spending more time on a hobby can boost people’s confidence in their ability to perform their job well. But watch out — if your hobby is too similar to your work, then increased time on leisure activities may actually have a detrimental effect.

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