Category: Cognition

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

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People more prone to boredom performed better without background music

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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While your deliberate “monogamy maintenance strategies” probably won’t keep you faithful, your automatic psychological biases just might

GettyImages-493656728.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Half of us have been unfaithful in our lifetime, and one in five people within their current relationship. As sexual infidelity is the primary cause of divorce and one of the hardest issues to address in couples therapy, identifying any useful defences could make a huge difference to people’s happiness. In a recent paper in Personal Relationships Brenda Lee and Lucia O’Sullivan from the University of New Brunswick investigated what strategies people in relationships use to reduce the chances they will cheat – so-called “monogomy maintainance strategies” – and looked into whether or not they are actually effective. 

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Beyond the invisible gorilla – inattention can also render us numb and anosmic (without smell)

GettyImages-598817398-2.jpgBy Emma Young

It’s well-known that we can miss apparently obvious objects in our visual field if other events are hogging our limited attention. The same has been shown for sounds: in a nod to Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ famous gorilla/basketball study that demonstrated “inattentional blindness”, distracted participants in the first “inattentional deafness” study failed to hear a man walking through an auditory scene for 19 seconds saying repeatedly “I am a gorilla”. Now, two new studies separately show that a very similar effect occurs in relation to touch (inattentional numbness) and to smell  (inattentional anosmia). 

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New findings explain why, if you’re sensitive to alcohol, you’re probably sensitive to sleep deprivation too

GettyImages-830297466.jpgBy guest blogger Julia Gottwald

The last time you and your class-mates or co-workers pulled an all-nighter before a deadline, you may have noticed: there are always those lucky individuals who seem to do just fine after a lack of sleep, while others feel drowsy and confused – almost like they had too much to drink. 

New research conducted at the German Aerospace Center suggests this could be because alcohol intoxication and sleep deprivation are more similar than we once thought.

In their study published recently in PNAS, Eva-Maria Elmenhorst and David Elmenhorst and their colleagues show how both affect us via a shared mechanism. And what’s more, if you’re sensitive to one, you’re likely to cope poorly with the other as well.

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Pilot study finds “smart drug” Aderall has limited benefits for healthy students, and may harm working memory

GettyImages-1009056818.jpgBy Emma Young

Stimulants available on prescription such as Adderall improve cognitive functioning as well as attention in people with ADHD, but many students without this condition also take them, believing that they will act as “smart drugs” and boost their cognition, and so their academic performance. The limited research to date into whether this is actually the case has produced mixed results. A new double-blind pilot study of healthy US college students, published in Pharmacy, found that though Adderall led to minor improvements in attention, it actually impaired working memory. 

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