Category: Cognition

We Have A Strong Urge To Find Out What Might Have Been — Even When This Leads To Feelings Of Regret

By guest blogger Anna Greenburgh

Regret seems to be a fundamental part of the human experience. As James Baldwin wrote, “Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.” Expressions of regret are easy to find throughout the history of thought, and, as indicated in the Old Testament, intrinsic to regret is a sense of emotional pain: “God regretted making humans on earth; God’s heart was saddened”.

Given the aversive experience of regret, traditional models of decision-making predict that people should to try to avoid it. But of course, the picture is more complex — we all have experienced the desire to know what might have been, even if it leads to regret. Now a study in Psychological Science, led by Lily FitzGibbon at the University of Reading, finds that the lure of finding out what might have been is surprisingly enticing.

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People With Depression Show Hints Of Distorted Thinking In The Language They Use On Social Media

By Emily Reynolds

A key facet of cognitive behavioural therapy is challenging “cognitive distortions”, inaccurate thought patterns that often affect those with depression. Such distortions could include jumping to conclusions, catastrophising, black and white thinking, or self-blame — and can cause sincere distress to those experiencing them.

But how do we track cognitive distortion in those with depression outside of self-reporting? A new study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, explores cognitive distortions online, finding that those with depression have higher levels of distortion in the language they use on social media.

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

By Emily Reynolds

Over the last few years, conspiracy thinking seems to have mushroomed — most visibly perhaps in the US, where QAnon supporters stormed the Capitol. Elsewhere, across the world, coronavirus-related conspiracies have abounded; one large-scale survey conducted last year found that as many as one in five Britons believed the COVID-19 fatality rate may have been exaggerated.

We already know that certain factors make individuals particularly prone to conspiratorial thinking — their level of education, for example, or a desire to feel special. And a new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, has identified another facet of cognition linked to conspiratorial beliefs: critical thinking. Anthony Lantian from Université Paris Nanterre and colleagues find that the higher the level of critical thinking, the lower the belief in conspiracy theories, potentially offering a path out of conspiratorial thinking for those particularly susceptible.

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After Cheating On A Test, People Claim To Have Known The Answers Anyway

By Emily Reynolds

Cheating is common, ranging from benign instances like looking up an answer on your phone during a pub quiz, to the fairly major, such as using a series of coughs to fraudulently bag yourself a million pounds on a popular TV game show. But wherever we fall on that scale, research suggests, we’re still likely to think of ourselves as honest and trustworthy.

There’s something of a tension here — we’re seemingly both prone to cheating and convinced of our own integrity. Matthew L. Stanley and colleagues from Duke University have one explanation for this apparent contradiction in their latest paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review: when we cheat, we claim we knew the answers all along.

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A New Take On The Marshmallow Test: Children Wait Longer For A Treat When Their Reputation Is At Stake

 By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Most people — even the non-psychologists among us — have at some point heard of the legendary marshmallow test, which measures the ability of preschool children to wait for a sweet treat. Researchers have found that the amount of time children are willing to wait for their marshmallow is surprisingly predictive of various life outcomes, such as educational attainment during adolescence, as well as social competence and resilience to stress throughout development. A recent fMRI brain scan study even found that people’s performance as kids is related to their ability to suppress their impulses, and is reflected in neurological signatures of cognitive control, 40 years later.

The test is clearly tapping into something crucial that shapes children’s futures to a considerable degree. But what exactly is it? Does the test  capture an ability that is akin to intelligence or intrinsic cognitive control, or might performance be a marker of some other underlying factor — such as the privilege of living in a supportive home where children can develop the trust capacity that enables them to wait for a reward?

The list of potential explanations is long — and now it has received a surprising new addition from a study recently published in Psychological Science. Fengling Ma from Zhejiang Sci-Tech University and colleagues have discovered that children can radically improve their performance on the marshmallow test if they believe their social reputation might be at stake — an effect that begins to emerge as early as three years of age.

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How Well Do You Know Yourself? Research On Self-Insight, Digested

By Emma Young

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1750.

Franklin was writing over 250 years ago. Surely we humans have learned strategies since then to aid self-insight — and avoid well-known pitfalls. Most of us are familiar, for example, with the better-than-average effect, the finding that most of us rank ourselves above average at everything from driving ability to desirable personality traits (even though of course we can’t all be right). So armed with this kind of knowledge, are we better placed now to view ourselves accurately? And if not, how can we get better at this — and what benefits can we expect?  The following studies provide some illuminating answers…

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Reminders Of God Don’t Actually Encourage Us To Take Risks, Replication Study Finds

 By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

“…Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.”

This passage, pulled from Isaiah 41.10, is just one example of the Bible’s many references to God’s power to protect. And this protective persona might affect you much more than you think. At least that’s what emerged in 2015, when researchers from Stanford University published a string of studies finding that people prompted to think of God made significantly riskier decisions — whether or not they were religious.

The scientists’ explanation, promptly picked up by the media, was that thinking of God makes risk-taking less intimidating because it primes us to expect divine protection. As of recently, however, this narrative has not stood up to scrutiny. The first pre-registered replication of this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that the effect was probably no more than an exciting false positive.

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People May Only Notice They’ve Become More Active After More Frequent Vigorous — But Not Moderate — Physical Activity

By Emily Reynolds

Starting a new habit isn’t always easy — we probably only have to look at our own history of failed New Year’s Resolutions to know that. One common frustration is that things don’t happen fast enough — we start doing something that’s supposedly good for us but don’t see a significant behaviour change as quickly as we’d hoped.

That certainly seems to be the case with exercise, at least according to a new study in Frontiers in Psychology. It found that people only feel they’ve become more active when they increase the amount of vigorous activity they do —  if it’s moderate, they don’t feel like they’ve changed at all.

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Overconfidence Can Be Transmitted From Person To Person

By Emma Young

There will always be some people within a group who are more confident than others. But some groups as a whole tend towards modesty — as with the !Kung hunters of the Kalahari Desert, for example, who deliberately downplay their own achievements and efforts. However, the opposite can also occur — and widespread overconfidence can of course become a problem, as with the US energy company Enron, whose “culture of arrogance” ultimately led to its downfall.

These two examples are highlighted in a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which reveals a route by which a bias towards overconfidence can develop. In their paper, Joey T Cheng at York University and colleagues first propose and then provide evidence for the idea that if we’re exposed to people who are overconfident, this rubs off on us. In other words, we calibrate our self-assessments based on the confidence level of those around us. Overconfidence can, then, be transmitted socially — and this could help to explain how groups, teams and organisations form their own, sometimes drastically different, confidence norms.

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Plant “Cognition” Deserves Greater Attention In Comparative Psychology, Paper Argues

By Emma Young

Comparative psychology is the study of animal behaviour, and its psychological underpinnings. But the term wasn’t always this restrictive. Until about 1935, plant behaviour also featured in texts in the field. Now Umberto Castiello at the University of Padua argues that it’s high time that plants regained their rightful place in the study of the psychology of non-human organisms.

In a paper published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Castiello gathers together a selection of recent evidence that plants can communicate, remember, recognise kin, decide and even count — “all abilities that one would normally call cognitive if they were observed in animals”. Far from being hard-wired, inflexible respondents to a changing world, they can adapt to change, benefit from classical conditioning, and even come to make predictions about the future.

There’s more than an improved understanding of plants at stake, writes Castiello: “As plants should be considered cognitive agents, as such, they offer us a unique opportunity for a comparative approach, which can potentially lead us to the ‘roots’ of cognition.”

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