The effect of emotions on your behaviour depends partly on your expectations

GettyImages-598165432.jpgBy Emma Young

Will you get a better result from a business negotiation if you get angry or remain calm? What about a creative task – will you come up with more solutions to a problem if you’re excited, or relaxed?

The answer, according a new study in Emotion, is that it depends at least in part on what you expect the impacts of emotions to be.

Some theories linking emotion and behaviour hold that emotions activate fixed behavioural “programmes” (anger activates aggressive actions, for example). Others hold that while emotions do influence behaviour, how they do so depends upon the individual’s past experiences, and the current context. (Faced with a bullying boss, the anger you feel may lead you respond aggressively, if this has worked for you in the past; alternatively, it may prompt you to go off and strengthen bonds with colleagues.)

Maya Tamir and Yochanan Bigman at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, reasoned that if this second class of theory is correct, a given emotion will lead to a particular behaviour if a person expects it to do so – but if that expectation is not there, it won’t.

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Reverse “stereotype threat” – women chess players perform better against men

GettyImages-103660991.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Stereotype threat is one of those social psychology concepts that has managed to break out of the academic world and into everyday conversation: the idea that a fear of conforming to stereotypes – for example, that girls struggle at maths – can make those stereotypes self-fulfilling, thanks to the adverse effect of anxiety and excessive self-consciousness on performance.

A recent review suggested that stereotype threat has a robust but small-to-medium sized effect on performance, but a meta-analysis suggests that publication bias may be a problem in this literature, inflating the apparent size of the effect. Also, the majority of the work has been done under laboratory conditions, which may not reflect what happens in the wider world. So when a field study comes along, it’s worth paying attention to, and a paper published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv from Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield looks at a domain involving high pressure, clear success criteria, and a presupposition that’s it’s more a guy thing: chess.

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The concept of “compensation” makes sense of several autism puzzles

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On British television last night, naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham described how he hid his autistic traits for most of his life

By Alex Fradera

A process involved in neurodevelopmental disorders that we are only just beginning to understand is “compensation” – the way that a deficit can be partially or wholly masked by automatic mental processes and/or deliberate behavioural strategies. For instance, a person with dyslexia may achieve typical levels of reading ability after an earlier diagnosis, not because the disorder has gone away (subtle tests might show continuing problems in phonological processing, for example) but through the use of behavioural strategies, such as reverse-engineering a tricky word from the meaning of words around it. In a new review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews Lucy Anne Livingston and Francesca Happé, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, take us through what compensation might mean for autism.

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Believers in conspiracy theories and the paranormal are more likely to see “illusory patterns”

GettyImages-177765632.jpgBy Emma Young

Democratic bankers caused the global financial crisis to get Barack Obama elected. 

Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence. 

Irrational beliefs – unfounded, unscientific and illogical assumptions about the world – are widespread among “the population of normal, mentally sane adults” note the authors of a new study in European Journal of Social Psychology. It’s been proposed that they arise from a mistaken perception of patterns in the world. But though this idea is popular among psychologists, there’s been surprisingly little direct evidence in favour of it. The new work, led by Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University of Amsterdam, helps to fill the void.

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Find a gym buddy – not letting them down can be a powerful incentive

GettyImages-668194250.jpgBy guest blogger Juliet Hodges

Spreading information about the benefits of exercise – including how it reduces the risk of chronic diseases and improves mental health and wellbeing, from sleep quality to self-esteem – hasn’t been enough to change people’s behaviour. Only 30 to 40 per cent of adults in the UK say they get the recommended amount of physical activity per week, and this figure drops to just 5 per cent when using accelerometers to measure movement. It’s a similar story even for people who have made the effort to join a gym – in a recent poll, a third of members reported visiting their gym three times a year or less. It seems we need to get more creative to persuade people to get active.

To test out some innovative psychological approaches, a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics selected 181 infrequent gym-goers at the University of West Chester, who went on average less than once a week before the experiment. All students at the university have free access to the fitness centre, and their attendance is automatically recorded when they swipe in.

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Introverts may miss leadership chances because they overestimate how stressful it will be

GettyImages-637902386.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

There are certain situations where it’s advantageous for an introvert to take charge. For instance, perhaps they are better qualified than their extroverted peers. The trouble is, most introverts tend to shy away from seizing informal leadership opportunities when they arise (psychologists call this “emergent leadership” – when someone takes charge in a team without a formal hierarchy).

A new study in Personality and Individual Differences suggests this might be because introverts expect to find group tasks and situations unpleasant, which inhibits them from displaying the kind of behaviours required to take charge of their group. By helping introverts to realise they may enjoy leadership more than they expect, Andrew Spark and his colleagues at Queensland University of Technology say it may be possible to encourage more introverts to step up to the plate.

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Pretending to be Batman helps kids stay on task

GettyImages-508829450.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Do their homework or reach over there for the iPad and dive into a world of games? It’s the ever-present dilemma facing young children today. Here’s a simple technique that could tip the balance a little in favour of the homework. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. The challenge now is to nail down exactly why the technique works, and to see if over time it could improve children’s self-regulation skills without them needing to go through the ritual of pretending to be someone else.

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In or out – how brain activity can predict your vote on Brexit 

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People’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of how they voted than their stated intentions

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Surveys and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting election results, as a chain of rather unexpected events last year demonstrated. These instruments usually ask people about their explicit attitudes and opinions. Often, however, these “external” proxies are not entirely representative of what a person is really thinking. For example, several studies have shown that implicit attitudes – that is, subtle preferences or biases outside the realm of our consciousness – can be more useful in predicting our future choices.

As scary as this may sound, there is also mounting evidence that our physiological responses can be even more accurate in revealing how we’re likely to vote. In a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from Kingston University and the University of Essex have taken a closer look at a voting outcome in the UK that, last year, came as a surprise to a lot of people. Their findings suggest that people’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of they way they went on to vote in the Brexit referendum than their stated intentions.

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The Psychology of Sex Differences – 5 Revealing Insights From Our Primate Cousins

GettyImages-519106121.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

There are behavioural differences, on average, between the sexes – few would dispute that. Where the debate rages is over how much these differences are the result of social pressures versus being rooted in our biology (the answer often is that there is a complex interaction between the two).

For example, when differences are observed between girls and boys, such as in preferences for play, one possibility is that this is partly or wholly because of the contrasting ways that girls and boys are influenced by their peers, parents and other adults (because of the ideas they have about how the sexes ought to behave). Studying non-human primates allows us to identity sex differences in behavior that can’t be due to human culture and gender beliefs.

Learning more about the biological roots of behavioural sex differences should not be used as an excuse for harmful stereotyping or discrimination, but it can help us better understand our human nature and the part that evolved sex differences play in some of the most important issues that affect our lives, including around diversity, relationships, mental health, crime and education.

Earlier this year, as part of a special issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research – titled “An Issue Whose Time Has Come: Sex/Gender Influences on Nervous System Function” – Elizabeth Lonsdorf at Franklin and Marshall College published a useful mini-review detailing some of the sex differences observed among monkey and ape infants and juveniles.

“Many sex differences in behavioral development exist in nonhuman primates,” she writes, “despite a comparative lack of sex-biased treatment by mothers and other social partners”. Here is a digested account of five of these behavioural sex differences:   

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Could language analysis tools detect lone wolf terrorists before they act?

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Nidal Hasan, the US army psychiatrist turned lone wolf terrorist

By Alex Fradera

By the time a terrorist attack has begun, the security services have already failed. But the challenge they face in detecting potential attacks is substantial, especially since the tactic of terrorism has increasingly been taken up by individual attackers inspired by, but not directly beholden to, formal movements. Spotting a lone wolf among the flock is no easy task, especially when it relies on a bottleneck of human analysis. A new paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior uses a test case of a real lone wolf attack to explore ways we may be able to deal with this in the future. Using online language analysis tools, it hunts within blocks of text for the warning signs we might otherwise miss, with the hope of helping us to more effectively detect the predator.

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