Category: Cognition

Being Prompted To Think About Coffee Elevates Your Physiological Arousal And Focuses Your Mind, No Ingestion Required

GettyImages-1058507228.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

So entrenched is the association in our culture between coffee and ideas of arousal, ambition and focus that merely thinking about, or being reminded of, the drink is enough to increase the body’s arousal levels, in turn provoking a more focused, literal cognitive style. That’s according to Eugene Chan at Monash University and Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto Scarborough who, reporting their findings in Consciousness and Cognition, write that “… people may be more aroused simply after walking by a coffee shop. Not only would they be more aroused, but at a more downstream level, their decision making might shift as well.”

The intriguing results come from four studies involving hundreds of online and lab-based participants, but given the replication problems in the general area of “social priming” (concerned with how abstract ideas and sensory experiences can influence thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa), some readers may find that merely hearing about this new research is enough to elevate their pulse and alter their mindset to a more sceptical mode.

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The Ninja Brain: Humans Can Prioritise Meaningful Sounds Even While Asleep

GettyImages-532592009.jpgBy Matthew Warren

We often think of sleep as a chance to switch off from the outside world, leaving us blissfully ignorant of anything going on around us. But neuroscience research has shown this is a fantasy – we still monitor the environment and respond to particular sounds while we’re sleeping (at least in some stages of sleep) – a fact that will be unsurprising to anyone who has woken up after hearing someone say their name.

Now a study published in Nature Human Behaviour has revealed more about the brain’s surprisingly sophisticated levels of engagement with the outside world during sleep. Not only does the sleeping brain respond to certain words or sounds – it can even select between competing signals, prioritising the one that is more informative.

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Trait Neuroticism As “Mental Noise” – Neurotic People Have Noisier, More Chaotic Minds, Say Researchers

GettyImages-478669562.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Of the main personality traits, Neuroticism (characterised by emotional instability and lack of resilience) is probably the one with the least going for it. High scorers on this trait are impulsive, tend to worry a lot, and they struggle with low moods and short tempers. Thanks to personality research, we know a lot about what lies in store for people who score high on Neuroticism, such as increased risk of mental health problems and relationship turmoil. But as Robert Klein and Michael Robinson note in their new paper in Journal of Personality we know a lot less about the psychological processes that underlie the trait. From an emotional perspective, neurotic people are said to be more sensitive to threat and punishment, but what about the cognitive side? Across four studies, Klein and Robinson present evidence consistent with what they call the mental noise hypothesis – “neurotic people have noisier, more chaotic mental control systems”, they write.

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Good News For Science, Bad News For Humanity – The “Bias Blind Spot” Just Replicated (“Everyone Else Is More Biased Than Me”)

GettyImages-1092016748.jpgBy Matthew Warren

Psychology’s replication crisis receives a lot of airtime, with plenty of examples of failed replications and methodological issues that cast doubt on past research findings. But there is also good news: several key results in cognitive psychology and personality research, for example, have been successfully replicated.

Now researchers have reproduced the results of another highly-cited study. Back in 2002, Emily Pronin and colleagues first described the “bias blind spot”, the finding that people believe they are less biased in their judgments and behaviour than the general population – that is, they are “blind” to their own cognitive biases. And while that study kick-started a whole line of related research, no one had attempted to directly replicate the original experiments.

But in a preregistered preprint published recently to ResearchGate, Prasad Chandrashekar, Siu Kit Yeung and colleagues report reproducing the original study, first in a small group of Hong Kong undergraduates, and then in two larger samples of 303 and 621 Americans who completed online surveys. 

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Should You Listen To Music While Doing Intellectual Work? It Depends On The Music, The Task, And Your Personality

By Christian Jarrett

Given how many of us listen to music while studying or doing other cerebral work, you’d think psychology would have a set of clear answers as to whether the practice is likely to help or hinder performance. In fact, the research literature is rather a mess (not that that has deterred some enterprising individuals from making bold claims).

There’s the largely discredited “Mozart Effect” – the idea that listening to classical music can boost subsequent IQ, except that when first documented in the 90s the effect was on spatial reasoning specifically, not general IQ. Also, since then the finding has not replicated, or it has proven weak and is probably explained as a simple effect of music on mood or arousal on performance. And anyway, that’s about listening to music and then doing mental tasks, rather than both simultaneously. Other research on listening to music while we do mental work has suggested it can be distracting (known as the “irrelevant sound effect”), especially if we’re doing mental arithmetic or anything that involves holding information in the correct order in short-term memory.

Now, in the hope of injecting more clarity and realism into the literature, Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello have tested the common-sense idea that the effects of background music on mental task performance will depend on three things: the nature of the music, the nature of the task, and the personality of the person. “We hope that our findings encourage researchers to adopt a more holistic, interactionist approach to investigate the effects of music (and more broadly, distractions) on task performance,” they write in their new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

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Blinded By Ideology: People Find It Difficult To Think Logically About Arguments That Contradict Their Politics

By Jesse Singal

A heated political story in the United States last weekend perfectly illustrates how tribal politics can supercharge a human weakness that psychologists have been studying for some time – our deep-seated tendency to accept evidence that supports our existing beliefs, and to ignore evidence that contradicts them.

It involved a conflict near the Lincoln Memorial featuring a handful of Black Israelites (a radical black nationalist group), a large group of mostly White American high-schoolers, some in Donald Trump hats, who were in town for an anti-abortion march, and a small group of Native American protesters, one of whom found himself in the midst of the high-schoolers.

Following the initial reports of what happened, and spurred along by a short video and dramatic photos, suggesting that the teens had encircled and confronted the Native American protester in an apparent act of intimidation, there was widespread condemnation of the teenagers, calls for them to be suspended or expelled from school, doxxed, and so on. But what’s telling is that when new details emerged, most notably the emergence of a longer video showing it was the protester who had waded into the sea of teens (because, he said later, he wanted to break up the conflict between them and the Black Israelites), and which complicated other aspects of the narrative as well, still many commentators continued to interpret events in line with their own political leanings. In fact the cacophonous online argument about what happened only seemed to explode in volume when the longer video was released — more information didn’t resolve things. At all.

As the Georgetown University professor Jonathan Ladd put it so well on Twitter: “Regarding the incident at the Lincoln Memorial,” he wrote, “it’s fascinating to see motivated reasoning play out in real time over a 24 hr period … Despite lots of video, all interpretations now match people’s partisanship.”

These politically motivated cognitive gymnastics are the subject of an important new paper lead-authored by Anup Gampa and Sean P. Wojcik that’s just been made available as a preprint (and due to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science). Specifically, Gampa and Wojcik, working with a team that includes the open-science advocate Brian Nosek, decided to test the effects of politically motivated reasoning using logical syllogisms, a type of logical argument in which premises are assumed to be true, and arguments proceed from there.

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The Mental Snag That Makes It Seem Like Food Is Everywhere, Especially If You’re Overweight

GettyImages-464417620.jpgBy guest blogger Stacy Lu

If you’re planning to take off weight in the new year and it suddenly seems like food is everywhere – and is especially enticing – that’s probably your mind playing a particularly unhelpful trick on you. Thinking about food, even in terms of trying to avoid it, can actually make it more likely that you’ll notice food in your environment, especially if you’re already overweight or obese.

That’s according to a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity that compared how overweight and healthy weight people pay attention to food. Food cues – sights, smells, advertisements and social contexts like parties – are everywhere these days, so understanding why some people find it harder to ignore them could be key to designing weight loss programmes.

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Story-listening shows promise as an intervention for people living with dementia

GettyImages-593316024.jpgBy Emma Young

Listening to a story is known to be cognitively demanding, in part because the listener has to pay close attention to, and remember, plot and character detail in order to understand what’s going on. Attention and memory are both diminished in people living with dementia. Might regularly reading aloud to such people help, then, to train their attention and memory, and function as a treatment? A new study of people with various kinds of dementia, published in Psychology and Neuroscience, suggests that it could. 

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“My-side bias” makes it difficult for us to see the logic in arguments we disagree with

By Christian Jarrett

In what feels like an increasingly polarised world, trying to convince the “other side” to see things differently often feels futile. Psychology has done a great job outlining some of the reasons why, including showing that, regardless of political leanings, most people are highly motivated to protect their existing views.

However a problem with some of this research is that it is very difficult to concoct opposing real-life arguments of equal validity, so as to make a fair comparison of people’s treatment of arguments they agree and disagree with.

To get around this problem, an elegant new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has tested people’s ability to assess the logic of formal arguments (syllogisms) structured in the exact same way, but that featured wording that either confirmed or contradicted their existing views on abortion. The results provide a striking demonstration of how our powers of reasoning are corrupted by our prior attitudes.

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Virtual reality research finds large sex difference in navigational efficiency

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Men took more shortcuts and reached their target location faster (via Boone et al, 2018)

By Emma Young

After spending a day exploring a new city and it’s time to return to your hotel, do you tend to rely on landmarks and routes that you’ve learned, or do you consult a “mental map” that you’ve created of the area, to try to devise a short-cut back? If you’re a man, you’re more likely to try the latter – whereas women tend to use routes they know, according to a new paper in Memory and Cognition by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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