Our Most Popular Posts Of 2021

By Matthew Warren

This time last year, we wrote that Covid-19 had rendered 2020 a year like no other. Yet it quickly became clear that 2021 was going to be pretty similar, with the pandemic continuing to affect the day-to-day lives even of those of us who were lucky enough not to contract the virus. It’s not surprising, then, that much of our coverage this year has focused on the work of psychologists studying the effects of Covid-19 and lockdowns.

But the year also began with some hope: vaccines had just been approved, and were being rolled out across the world. Unfortunately, alongside this massive public health effort there was a proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation. So we’ve also focused on efforts to understand how false information spreadsand how to combat it.

For me, the year began with hope of another kind: on 1st January I became a father. It’s no coincidence that a lot of my own posts this year have been about child development. And while I was off on parental leave, Research Digest welcomed Emma Barratt, whose fascinating articles covered everything from video games to hallucinations — and yes, Covid-19.

So it’s been a year of ups and downs — and this is reflected in our most popular posts of the year, which are as wide-ranging as ever…

10) Hand Gestures Help Students Mentally Organise New Information

Teachers might want to consider using more hand gestures in class, according to this study we covered in September. The researchers found that students were better at making inferences based on material they had just learned if their instructor had used “structure gestures”, which allocate spoken information to physical space. The team thinks this is because these gestures provide a scaffold that students can use to mentally organise information.  


9) Belief In Conspiracy Theories Is Associated With Lower Levels Of Critical Thinking

This year’s vaccination drive was a huge public health undertaking — and one that inevitably attracted a small but vocal group of conspiracy theorists. This post from February looked at one factor associated with believing in conspiracy theories: reduced levels of critical thinking. Although the work is limited by its correlational design, it suggests that fostering critical thinking skills may help to protect people against conspiratorial thinking. And for practical advice on how to talk to loved ones who may have fallen for a conspiracy theory, check out our feature from July.


8) It Turns Out You Can Bullshit A Bullshitter After All

We all love a pithy saying — but they’re not always the most reliable sources of information about how the world works. This year, for instance, researchers found that it’s not true to say that “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter”. Using the delightfully-named “Bullshitting Frequency Scale” and “Bullshit Receptivity Scale”, the team found that people who bullshit out of a desire to impress or persuade others are also more susceptible to believing bullshit themselves. (See also “Money can’t buy happiness” — it’s a bit more complicated than that).


7) The Experience Of Being “Tolerated”, Rather Than Accepted, Leads To Lower Wellbeing Among Ethnic Minority Groups

Tolerance is often seen as a virtue — and yet, if you “tolerate” someone, you’re not exactly giving them a warm welcome. This study found that for people from ethnic minority backgrounds, the experience of being tolerated is actually closer to discrimination than it is to acceptance.


6) How To Cope With Failure, According To Psychology

Countless articles tell us how to set ourselves up for success and live our best lives. But it’s equally important — or perhaps more important — that we learn how to deal with the inevitable failures. So in March we highlighted five evidence-based tips for coping with failure.  


5) Study Explores Personalities Of People With Adult Separation Anxiety, A “Neglected Clinical Syndrome”

Separation anxiety in children is a well-known phenomenon. But a paper we covered in October looked at how it manifests in adults — and whether it is related to any particular personality traits. The team found links between adult separation anxiety and a number of personality measures, including negative emotionality, absorption, and aggression.


 4) Cats Like To Sit In Squares — Even Ones That Are Really Optical Illusions

A story about cats and optical illusions?! No wonder it was one of our most read of the year.


3) We Think Anger Is A Sign Of Guilt — But It May Actually Be A Better Sign Of Innocence

We tend to think that an accused person who makes an angry denial is more likely to be guilty than one who reacts calmly. And yet, this study showed, anger isn’t a good sign of guilt — in fact, it may be more likely that an angry person is innocent. 


2) Ghosting Is More Acceptable To People With “Dark Triad” Traits

What kind of person thinks it’s OK to end a relationship by just disappearing? This study provided some clues, finding that people with Machiavellian and psychopathic traits are particularly likely to think that ghosting is acceptable.


1) The “Learning Styles” Myth Is Still Prevalent Among Educators — And It Shows No Sign of Going Away

I remember completing an exercise at school that taught me whether I was a “visual”, “auditory”, or “kinaesthetic” learner. The only issue? It’s simply not true that we each have a specific “learning style” that works best for us. And yet most educators continue to believe this myth. This paper reviewed existing work on the topic, finding that a whopping 89% of teachers or trainees across studies subscribed to the idea of learning styles.


That’s it from us for this year — we’ll see you back here in 2022!

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest