Episode 28: Why Songs Get Stuck In Our Heads

This is Episode 28 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.

Why do some songs get stuck in our heads? In this episode, our presenter Ginny Smith explores the psychology of earworms. Ginny hears about the possible evolutionary reasons for why we experience the phenomenon, learns what earworms can teach us about memory — and finds out how to get rid of them.

Our guests, in order of appearance, are Kelly Jakubowski, assistant professor of music psychology at Durham University; Petr Janata, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis; and Michael K. Scullin, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University.

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Scared Of Spiders? There’s An App For That

By Emma L. Barratt

Specific phobias are incredibly common. According to estimates, around 3‒15% of people will develop one in their lifetime, the majority of whom won’t seek treatment. Phobias can manifest around a huge number of stimuli, such as lightning, dentists, and — most commonly — animals such as spiders.

Although exposure therapy is well established and is very effective at reducing fear and anxiety in those with specific phobias, not many end up accessing treatment. Unsurprisingly, the certainty of being exposed to terrifying things doesn’t entice many people. Even those who do make it into a therapeutic setting are also quite likely to drop out due to the extreme fear caused by these controlled exposures.

However, modern technology may help us to sidestep these issues entirely. Anja Zimmer and team at the University of Basel and Saarland University believe that the solution may lie in augmented reality.

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A Jekyll And Hyde Emotion? Research On Anger, Digested

By Emma Young

At times, it feels that the world is awash with anger.  From the streets of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to any form of social media you’d care to mention, anger and outrage are seemingly everywhere. New research helps to reveal why this is. It also reveals anger to be itself a Jekyll and Hyde emotion — if we can rid ourselves of the dark, destructive side, what is left can act as a force for good. 

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We’re More Likely To Steal From Large Groups Than From Individuals

By Emma L. Barratt

We’re all aware of the financial disparity that plagues our economic systems. Many of those at the top of large corporations seem content to exploit large groups of people for their own significant financial gain.

Strangely, this is somewhat at odds with previous research in behavioural economics, which tends to find that people are generally quite prosocial, honest, and overall unwilling to steal considerable amounts from others. From results like these, it’s difficult to piece together exactly how we’ve arrived at such levels of financial inequality.

Psychologists have floated a number of potential explanations for this phenomenon. Perhaps those who end up rich have innately higher levels of psychopathy, for example. Or perhaps it’s the case that the cultural norms within certain businesses change the way people make economic decisions. However, new research in Nature Human Behaviour from Carlos Alós-Ferrer and colleagues suggests an alternative explanation: when it comes to acting selfishly, we are much more likely to do it at a grand scale than a small one.

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Only Children Are No More Selfish Than Those With Siblings

By Emma Young

Do you think that an only child behaves differently to a kid with siblings? If you do, you’re hardly alone. Stereotypes about only children being spoiled, self-centred “little emperors” abound. In 2019, though, research in Germany concluded that while the idea that only children are more narcissistic is widespread, it’s wrong. Now a team in China has failed to find any evidence for another of the clichés: that only children are more selfish.

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Language Proficiency Can Determine How Similarly First And Second Languages Are Represented In The Brain

By Emma L. Barratt

Researchers widely agree that first and second languages are handled similarly in the brain. According to previous research, proficient bilinguals’ brain activity is broadly quite similar when accessing their first and second languages.

However, the literature exploring this until now has relied on imaging methods that can tell us where in the brain there is activity, but not how languages are represented in those areas. Distinct patterns of activation may have differentiated first and second languages in those same regions all this time, and by relying on traditional forms of imaging analysis alone, we could have been none the wiser.

Thanks to new imaging methods, however, we’re finally able to take a look at activation in these areas in a much more detailed way. Now, newly published work from Emily Nichols at The University of Western Ontario and colleagues suggests that languages are represented more distinctly than we thought.

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“Zoom Fatigue” Disproportionately Affects Women And New Hires

By Emily Reynolds

Anyone who has worked from home will probably be familiar with the miserable, draining feeling of having spent too much time on Zoom. Such is the pressure of all-day-every-day video calling that some companies have even announced Zoom-free Fridays to give employees a little time away from their screens.

The fact that video-calling is tiring, then, will not be news to many of us. But a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology explores in more detail who is affected the most, finding that both gender and length of time spent within an organisation both impact fatigue. And this suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to combatting video call burnout may not work for everyone.

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Rage Over Repetitive Movements? It Could Be Misokinesia

By Emma L. Barratt

You may be aware of misophonia — an automatic, intense hatred of certain types of sounds, such as chewing, tapping, and breathing, to name a few. Misophonia entered mainstream awareness relatively recently, but hot on its heels is an extremely similar condition which relates not to sound, but to movement: misokinesia.

There are several well-established online support groups for those who relate to having strong negative affective responses to certain types of stimuli — typically small, repetitive movements, such as leg shaking or finger tapping. And, while it appears to be widespread, there has been a lack of dedicated research into the phenomenon — until now.

To properly introduce this under-recognised condition, Sumeet Jaswal and her colleagues based at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies in Scientific Reports which aimed to establish key facts about the prevalence of misokinesia and what may cause it.

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Left-Wing Authoritarianism Is Real And Needs To Be Taken Seriously In Political Psychology, Study Argues

By Emma Young

Authoritarianism has been well-studied by psychologists. Well, right-wing authoritarianism has. In fact, as that’s typically the only type that’s studied, you might be forgiven for thinking that’s what authoritarianism is. The very idea of left-wing authoritarianism (LWA) has received not only little academic attention, but a lot of scepticism from psychologists. “I think I have not found any authoritarians on the left because if there ever were any, most of them have dried up and blown away….” wrote Bob Altemeyer, pioneer of work on right-wing authoritarianism, in 1996.

But as Thomas Costello at Emory University and colleagues write in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, “From Maoist China to the Khmer Rouge (and perhaps even the French Reign of Terror), history abounds with examples of LWA at the broader societal level, rendering psychology’s inability to identify left-wing authoritarians puzzling.”

Puzzling is right. Perhaps predominantly left-leaning researchers have been unwilling to even go there…. But in their new paper, Costello and his colleagues absolutely go there. They conclude that LWA does indeed exist, and they define not only its characteristics but the characteristics of the people who subscribe to it. They also reveal substantial similarities between authoritarians on the political right and the left.

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Blind And Sighted People Understand Colour Similarly

By Emma L. Barratt

Colour is generally thought of as something experienced only by those with sight. It’s often assumed that those who’re born blind can learn facts about colours — that a banana is yellow, say — but won’t have the same complex understanding of colour that sighted people have.

But new research in PNAS from Judy Kim and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University shows that this is not the case. Instead, the researchers find that blind people have a rich understanding of colour developed through language alone.

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