Whether you snack or not is more about the presence of temptation than your willpower

giphy1By Christian Jarrett

When you’re in the coffee shop and you watch your hand pick up the muffin and place it on your tray, how much of this was down to the situation, and how much to do with your (lack of) willpower or your long-term intentions? A new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology compared these influences and found that momentary cues, such as seeing someone else snacking, were more strongly associated with how much people snacked than their own baseline psychological traits and intentions.

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There is no such thing as the true self, but it’s still a useful psychological concept

GettyImages-492740240.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

“I don’t think you are truly mean, you have sad eyes” Tormund Giantsbane ponders the true self of Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane in Game of Thrones, Beyond The Wall.

Who are you really? Is there a “true you” beneath the masquerade? According to a trio of psychologists and philosophers writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the idea that we each have a hidden true or authentic self is an incredibly common folk belief, and moreover, the way most of us think about these true selves is remarkably consistent, even across different cultures, from Westeros to Tibet.

This makes the concept of a true self useful because it helps explain many of the judgments we make about ourselves and others. Yet, from a scientific perspective, there is actually no such thing as the true self. “The notion that there are especially authentic parts of the self, and that these parts can remain cloaked from view indefinitely, borders on the superstitious,” write Nina Strohminger and her colleagues at Yale University.

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Trans men show unusual connectivity patterns in brain networks involved in self perception

Screenshot 2017-08-21 13.55.14.png
Photographic stimuli from the “body morph” task that was used in the new research

By Christian Jarrett

Most brain imaging studies involving transgender people or people with gender dysphoria have focused on whether their brains look more like what’s typical for the gender they identify with, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. For example, whether trans men have “masculine” brains, and trans women have more “feminine” brains.

The results have been mixed and if anything point towards trans people having brains with distinct features that are neither stereotypically male or female.

A new study in Brain Imaging and Behaviour adds to this trend, showing that trans men have unusual patterns of connectivity in brain networks involved in processing of the self, as compared with male and female controls. “The present data do not support the hypothesis that sexual differentiation of the brain of individuals with gender dysphoria is in the opposite direction as their sex assigned at birth,” the researchers said, adding that the unusual connectivity patterns they found in trans men “was detected in comparison with both male and female controls, and there were no differences between the control groups”.

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Hate sport? Maybe it’s because you have the genes that make exercise feel awful

GettyImages-477104912.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Have you seen those people who come out of an exercise class with a spring in their step and self-satisfied smile on their face? They really pushed themselves this time and now they’re riding that endorphin high. To them, the ache and burn feels good. But it’s not so for everyone. Others find exercise unpleasant and unrewarding – the aches just, well, ache. Psychologists call this difference the “affective response to exercise” and in a paper in Psychology of Sport and Exercise researchers in the Netherlands report new evidence that it is to a significant degree genetically inherited.

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MDMA/Ecstasy may boost psychotherapy by increasing clients’ openness

GettyImages-488358430.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Researchers reported recently that MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine; also known as Ecstasy) can act as a catalyst for psychotherapy, apparently improving outcomes for clients with previously intractable PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Now a study from the same group in Journal of Psychopharmacology has uncovered what may be the key psychological mechanism: lasting positive personality change, especially increased trait Openness to Experience and reduced trait Neuroticism.

Speculating as to how MDMA might facilitate these trait changes, the research team, led by Mark Wagner at the Medical University of South Carolina, and including Ann Mithoefer and Michael Mithoefer who’ve conducted a lot of the recent pioneering research on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, observed that “Qualitatively, a consistent subjective theme emerged, with our subjects reporting a profound cathartic experience, often described as going to a ‘place’ (in their mind) where they had never been before”.

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More intelligent people are quicker to learn (and unlearn) social stereotypes

GettyImages-489205086.jpgBy Emma Young

Smart people tend to perform better at work, earn more money, be physically healthier, and be less likely to subscribe to authoritarian beliefs. But a new paper reveals that a key aspect of intelligence – a strong “pattern-matching” ability, which helps someone readily learn a language, understand how another person is feeling or spot a stock market trend to exploit – has a darker side: it also makes that person more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes.

Previous studies exploring how a person’s cognitive abilities may affect their attitudes to other people have produced mixed results. But this might be because the questions asked in these studies were too broad.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, David Lick, Adam Alter and Jonathan Freeman at New York University decided to home in on social stereotyping. “Because pattern detection is a core component of human intelligence, people with superior cognitive abilities may be equipped to efficiently learn and use stereotypes about social groups,” they theorised.

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Psychologists have developed the first scientific test of everyday charisma

GettyImages-673558204.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

“Figures such as Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, and Adolf Hitler share this triumphant, mysterious, and fascinating descriptor”, write the authors of a new paper on charisma. And yet, they add, “the empirical study of charisma is relatively young and sparse, and no unifying conceptualization of charisma currently exists”. The research and theorizing that has been done has focused on charismatic leadership, they explain, neglecting the everyday variety. In their paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the University of Toronto researchers describe how they developed their new six-item measure “The General Charisma Inventory” (GCI), and they show how scores on the GCI are associated with people’s persuasiveness and likability.

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Positive “emodiversity” – experiencing a variety of positive emotions – plays an important role in bodily health

Many ways of happinessBy Emma Young

Your body’s immune system normally fights illness or injury, but when it’s overactive over a prolonged period of time, the consequences can be harmful. “Chronic systemic inflammation” (marked by raised levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines through the body) has been linked to a wide range of physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and depression. One cause is a poor lifestyle, involving little exercise and an unhealthy diet. Anthony Ong, at Cornell University, US, and his team were interested in whether our emotional lives might play a role too. Their new research, published in the journal Emotion, found that people with lower systemic inflammation didn’t simply report more happiness, rather they experienced a greater variety of positive emotions every day.

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The first study to see if fussy-eating children grow into fussy-eating adults

GettyImages-599487120.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Fussy eating – also referred to as “selective eating” in scholarly research – is incredibly common among children, with upper estimates placing the prevalence at 50 per cent. Despite this, many parents understandably fret when their kids avoid a lot of foods, won’t try new things and/or will only eat certain meals. They worry whether their child is getting enough vitamins and if their child’s fussiness is some kind of precursor to later more serious eating problems.

A new, small study in Eating Behaviors is the first to document how fussy eating develops in the same individuals over time into early adulthood and may provide a crumb (sorry) of comfort for anxious parents. It’s true that 60 per cent of fussy eating children in the study were also fussy eaters at age 23, but fussy eating young adults were no more likely to report signs of eating disorder than their non-fussy peers.

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Why pink LEGO might be bad for girls (but we’re not convinced)

GettyImages-681325218.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

While the idea that the lack of women in science and tech is entirely about cultural obstacles is contentious (as demonstrated by the recent Google memo furore), few would argue that social and cultural factors aren’t important. And these social influences may begin early. For example there’s an argument that boys are encouraged to play with toys that are likely to promote skills that will help them in science and maths. Toys aimed at girls, in contrast, are more likely to promote stereotypically feminine skills, such as nurturing.

LEGO, say Megan Fulcher and Amy Hayes, the authors of a new paper in the journal Sex Roles, is a case in point: its marketing is skewed towards boys, especially since the increase in packaged sets, which tend to feature stereotypically masculine items like pirate ships and castles. The result, they argue, is that boys are more attracted to LEGO, girls deterred from it, and that boys get to practice their building skills while girls don’t.

LEGO has heard some of this criticism (and no doubt also seen a gap in the market) and they’ve released girl-friendly packaged sets and product lines, including Friends items with a focus on people and including pink bricks. But Fulcher and Hayes – who very much speak from the nurture perspective on these issues (they fail to cite a single study demonstrating a biological basis for sex differences in toy preference) – fear this could be counterproductive because girlie bricks and sets are likely to promote more stereotypically feminine LEGO play and remind girls of their gender. To find out if their concerns are justified the researchers tested the LEGO building skills and choices of 116 girls and boys (aged 5 to 10) depending on whether they were given boyish LEGO bricks and packages or girlie ones.

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