Category: Cognition

Stigmatisation of yawning could be a strategy to avoid disease, study argues

By Matthew Warren

It’s really common to start yawning after seeing someone else do it.  You might even be yawning right now, just reading about it. But we also instinctively know that there’s something a bit rude about yawning: we’re less likely to show this “yawn contagion” when we’re being watched, for instance. And even when we do yawn in the presence of others, we’ll often cover our mouth.

Why does yawning carry this stigma? The obvious explanation is that yawning indicates that we are tired or bored, and we might not want to make others feel like they are the source of that boredom (even if they are!). But the authors of a new study in Personality and Individual Differences have another intriguing theory: we dislike yawning because it can be a sign of disease.

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People prone to mind-wandering are better at shifting between tasks

By Emma Young

Letting your mind wander while you’re meant to be working on a task doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea. Indeed, psychologists have viewed mind-wandering in this context as a failing — specifically, a failure of executive control to maintain focus. Evidence that mind-wandering worsens performance on tasks that tap into working memory, for example, supports this idea. However, the full picture is not so neat…

Though older adults generally have poorer executive control than younger people, they tend to report less mind wandering. And some studies that required young adults to switch between various tasks have found that mind-wandering made no difference to their performance. This is “perplexing”, note the authors of a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition — at least in the context of traditional theories. But Yi-Sheng Wong at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and colleagues report findings that support an alternative idea: that people who have a tendency to mind-wander enjoy greater “cognitive flexibility” — that is, they can shift more easily from one type of cognitive challenge to another.

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Here’s how actors differ in their ability to read their own bodily signals

By Emma Young

How is it that some people can slip into another character so perfectly that they win acting plaudits, while the rest of us struggle to act at all?

Good actors have to convincingly convey a range of emotions. And one way that we feel and control our own emotions is by tuning into bodily signals — such as the more rapid heartbeat that comes with excitement, joy or fear. So, reasoned Peter Sokol-Hessner at the University of Denver and colleagues, perhaps actors are better at sensing these signals — a process known as interoception.

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Women candidates are seen as less electable — which makes voters less likely to support them

By Emily Reynolds

Politics in the UK is becoming increasingly diverse. But there is still a way to go. When it comes to gender, the proportion of women in the House of Commons is at an all time high — but at 35%, is still far from representative of the population. 

A new study, published in PNAS, looks at the barriers to women being elected. And the Stanford University team finds even voters who would prefer a female candidate show a level of “pragmatic bias”: if they believe that women candidates face barriers that make them less electable, they are less likely to vote for them. 

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People who grew up in cities tend to be worse navigators

By Matthew Warren

The environment in which you grew up can have a long-lasting effect on your navigational skills, according to an analysis of data from nearly 400,000 players of a mobile game.

People who spent their childhood in rural or suburban areas tended to be better at navigating in the game Sea Hero Quest than those who grew up in cities. This difference could be seen decades later, the researchers report in Nature, and was particularly striking in countries where cities are organised in a grid layout.

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Repetition can make even the most bizarre claims seem more true

By guest blogger Emma L. Barratt

The spread of misinformation over recent years poses huge dangers, and has so far proven extremely difficult to bring under control. Psychological research has revealed much of what brings people to believe false information, but the full picture is still far from complete, and new findings are bringing to light yet more factors that may maintain this problem.

One example is the Truth-by-Repetition (TBR) effect — that repeating a statement increases how true it’s perceived to be. A prominent theory for why this happens emphasises the role of “processing fluency”; in essence, repetition makes the information easier to cognitively process, and this ease is misinterpreted as a signal that the information is true.

Until recently, this phenomenon was thought to be limited to statements which could conceivably be true. But new research suggests that the effect extends much further, and can make even outlandish claims seem more truthful.

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We’re only able to mentally represent an exact number if we have a word for it

By Emma Young

Babies, monkeys and even bees have a basic “sense of number”. They can instantly perceive that there are one, two, three or four objects in a pile, without having to count them. They can also tell at a glance that a pile of 50 objects contains more than a pile of 20, say. But what explains the unique ability of older kids and adults to go far beyond this, and mentally represent quantities much bigger than four exactly? Some researchers argue that language must be key — that learning to count “one”, “two”, “three”, and on and on, enables this cognitive feat. Others argue that language can’t be fundamental to this “numerical” ability.

Now a striking new study in Psychological Science by Benjamin Pitt at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues comes down firmly on the side of language as being key. And this has a broader significance. It supports the hotly contested idea that language itself influences or even enables abilities that have been viewed as being completely independent — such as colour perception, or, in this case, understanding of number.

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Labelling something a “conspiracy theory” does little to stop people from believing it

By Emma Young

The label “conspiracy theory” is often slapped on unsubstantiated ideas. But does labelling something a conspiracy theory actually discredit it? A new paper in the  British Journal of Psychology suggests not. Karen M. Douglas at the University of Kent and colleagues find that people call an idea that they already consider unbelievable a “conspiracy theory” — rather than being influenced by that term to disbelieve it.

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Aha! moments give a “ring of truth” to completely unrelated statements

By Matthew Warren

Word puzzles are all the rage right now. But if you’ve already done today’s Wordle, here are some anagrams to keep you going until tomorrow:

Reality is only a matter of…..   tvesrecipep

Free will is a powerful….. oinliusl

If you managed to solve the anagrams at the end of these statements, you may have experienced a “Eureka” or “Aha!” moment, in which the solution suddenly seemed to appear, perhaps accompanied by a sense of happiness or relief. And if you did, according to a new study in Scientific Reports, you’d be more likely to believe that the statement itself is true.

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Conflicting health information can compromise our attention

By Emily Reynolds

We get our information about health from many sources. Sometimes we seek advice from doctors or other medical professionals; sometimes we talk to friends or family; we read newspapers and watch TV; and we diagnose ourselves with rare and alarming afflictions with the help of the internet.

In some ways, this variety offers a democratisation of knowledge, a way for more of us to understand what’s going on with our health. But what happens when this information contradicts itself? This is the subject of a new study from a team at Rutgers University, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

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