Category: Cognition

The Medusa Effect: We Ascribe Less “Mind” To People We See In Pictures

By Emma Young

Much has been written about the downsides of home-working. “Zoom fatigue”, in particular, is now a term, and an experience, that many of us are familiar with. But the tiring effect of video chat could represent only one of its dangers, according to new work in PNAS. It finds that we ascribe less “mind” to people we see in image form, vs in the flesh, and even less again to images of images of people. There could be serious implications, write Paris Will at the University of British Columbia and colleagues: “Given that mind perception underpins moral judgement, our findings suggest that depicted persons will receive greater or lesser ethical consideration, depending on the level of abstraction.”

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Conspiracy Theories Are More “Entertaining” Than The Truth — And This Helps Explain Why People Believe Them

By Emma Young

Conspiracy theories stoke anxiety and uncertainty and can even threaten the health of those who espouse them. Take Covid-19 anti-vaxxers, for example, who put themselves at risk by refusing a vaccine. So given those negative consequences, it’s surprising that conspiracy theories are so prolific.

Research shows that beliefs that other groups are colluding secretly to pursue malevolent goals (the definition of a conspiracy theory) are more common during times of crisis — like a global pandemic. Heightened anxiety is thought to lead people to (erroneously) believe that there are hostile forces at play. But now a paper in the British Journal of Psychology reveals another reason for why conspiracy theories can be appealing. Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University Amsterdam and colleagues found that conspiracy theories provoke a stronger emotional reaction than relatively dull-but-true reality — and this encourages belief in them, especially for people who have the personality trait of being “sensation-seeking”.

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People Who Trust Science Are Less Likely To Fall For Misinformation — Unless It Sounds Sciencey

By Matthew Warren

“Trust in the science” is the kind of refrain commonly uttered by well-meaning individuals looking to promote positive, scientifically-backed change, such as encouraging action against climate change or improving uptake of vaccines. The hope is that if people are encouraged to trust science, they will not be duped by those who are promoting the opposite agenda — one which often flies in the face of scientific evidence. But are people actually less likely to fall for misinformation when they have trust in science?

Yes and no, according to a new a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Thomas C O’Brien and colleagues from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign find that people with greater trust in science are generally less likely to believe misinformation. But when that misinformation is presented with scientific-sounding content to back it up, they become more easily duped by it.

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How Should You Talk To A Loved One Who Believes In Conspiracy Theories?

By Emily Reynolds

Conspiracy theories have surged over the last few years, as we’ve frequently reported. One 2018 study, for example, found that 60% of British people believed in a conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the rise of QAnon in America has been particularly alarming.

It’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists — but this is not a productive way to tackle the issue. Instead, researchers are exploring why people get sucked into such belief systems, even at the expense of personal relationships. This work can help us understand why conspiracies spread, and provide some useful guidance for talking to loved ones who may have fallen for a conspiracy theory.

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

By Emma Young

The world is not exactly short of videos of cute cats up to strange antics. But one particular set of videos collected by cat owners during a COVID-19 lockdown reveals something genuinely interesting: a famous optical illusion that fools us also gets cats. The citizen science project, in which cats were experimented on in their own homes, shows that they, too, are tricked by “Kanizsa squares”, an illusion that suggests the presence of a square that doesn’t in fact exist.

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Mindfulness Can Make Independent-Minded People Less Likely To Help Others

By Emily Reynolds

Mindfulness — in basic terms, the practice of being “present” in the moment and paying attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings — has seen something of a boom over the last few years. In the United States, the mindfulness business is set to reach a value of $2 billion by next year, while in the United Kingdom, lockdown saw a spike in downloads for digital meditation offerings such as Headspace and Calm. 

But is mindfulness all it’s cracked up to be? While it certainly has its benefits, some argue that it encourages blind acceptance of the status quo, taking us so far into ourselves that we forget the rest of the world. In a new preprint on PsyArxiv, Michael Poulin and colleagues from New York’s University at Buffalo also find that mindfulness can decrease prosocial behaviours — at least for those who see themselves as independent from others.

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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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