Category: Cognition

Most Comprehensive Review To Date Finds The Average Person’s Reading Speed Is Slower Than Previously Thought

giphyBy Matthew Warren

You should take just under two-and-a-half minutes to finish reading this blog post. That’s going by the findings of a new review, which has looked at almost 200 studies of reading rates published over the past century to come up with an overall estimate for how quickly we read. And it turns out that that rate is considerably slower than commonly thought.

Of the various estimates of average reading speed bandied around over the years, one of the most commonly cited is 300 words per minute (wpm). However, a number of findings of slower reading rates challenge that statistic, notes Marc Brysbaert from Ghent University in Belgium in his new paper released as a preprint on PsyArxiv. 

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Researchers Were Surprised To Find Bungee Jumpers’ Cognition Was Enhanced After A Jump

GettyImages-157561029.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

It’s well-established in psychology that intense emotion and physiological arousal interfere with people’s ability to think straight. Most theories explain this in terms of anxiety consuming mental resources and focusing attention on potential threats. Although it’s tricky to study this topic in the psych lab, a handful of field studies involving parachutists and emergency simulations have largely supported this picture. However, a team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona believe that not enough consideration has so far been given to what they call the “valence” of intense situations – whether or not the person sees the intense experience as positive or negative. To find out whether this makes a difference, Judit Castellà and her colleagues tested dozens of bungee jumpers (most of them first-timers) three times: 30 minutes before a 15M free fall jump; immediately afterwards; and again eight minutes after that. 

The surprising findings, reported in Cognition and Emotion, suggest that when an intensely arousing experience is perceived positively, it may actually enhance cognition rather than be impairing. “Although we expected some degree of moderation, that is, an attenuation of the negative impact of high arousal reported in the literature, we did not predict an actual improvement or a total lack of impairment,” the researchers said. 

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Taking Tiny Breaks Is Key To Learning New Skills

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Brain activity associated with learning of left-handed key-presses during rest periods, via Bönstrup et al 2019

By Matthew Warren

A wealth of research has shown that taking breaks is an important part of learning. Resting straight after acquiring new information seems to improve memory of that information, for example, and sleep is particularly important for consolidating what we have just learned. 

Now it seems that even miniscule breaks, just seconds long, are also vital for learning new skills. A study published recently in Current Biology has found that most of the improvement while learning a motor task comes not while actually practicing, but instead during the breaks between practice sessions.

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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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