Category: Cognition

If you like sick jokes, maybe it’s because you’re just so smart

By Christian Jarrett

Understanding jokes requires a certain amount of mental agility, psychologists tell us, because you need to recognise a sudden shift in meaning, or appreciate the blending of odd contexts that don’t normally go together. A new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has tested whether intelligence plays the same role in the appreciation of sick or black humour: the kind of jokes that make light of death, illness and the vulnerable. Consistent with past research linking intelligence with joke appreciation, the participants who most liked cartoons based on black humour also scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ.

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How did Darwin decide which book to read next?

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A new study published in Cognition blends information theory, cognitive science and personal history

By Christian Jarrett

Between 1837 and 1860 Charles Darwin kept a diary of every book he read, including An Essay on the Principle of Population, Principles of Geology and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. There were many others: 687 English non-fiction titles alone, meaning that he averaged one book every ten days. After Darwin finished each one, how did he decide what to read next? In this decision, a scientist like Darwin was confronted with a problem similar to that afflicting the squirrel in search of nuts. Is it better to thoroughly search one area (or topic), or to continually jump to new areas (topics)? Foraging, whether for nuts or information, comes down to a choice between exploitation and exploration. In a new paper in Cognition, a team led by Jaimie Murdock has analysed the contents of the English non-fiction books Darwin read, and the order he read them in, to find out his favoured information-gathering approach and how it changed over time.

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Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around

Woman glowing brain conceptBy Christian Jarrett

The traffic lights turn amber: should you brake or accelerate on through? If there’s a teenager at the wheel, the chances are he or she will put their foot down and keep going. Teenagers love taking risks, more so than any other age group. This is partly down to the immaturity of the teen brain: they do not yet show the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, as compared with adults. But there’s also a social element. When an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks, and their brains show less reward-related activity after taking a risk, a phenomenon that psychologists call “social scaffolding” because it is as if the adult presence is helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour. A new study in Developmental Science builds on these findings and makes the claim that a teenager’s brain is influenced to a greater extent by the presence of his or her mother than by an unfamiliar adult.  Continue reading “Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around”

Think you’re good with faces? In fact, you probably don’t know much about your own face-recognition skills

6860363223_718ae3ee16_bBy Christian Jarrett

Life would be awfully confusing if we weren’t able to recognise familiar faces. It’s a skill most of us take for granted, and we rarely stop to consider the impressive cognitive wizardry involved. But some of us are better at it than others: in the last decade or so it’s become apparent that around two per cent of the population are born with a severe face-recognition impairment (known as congenital prosopagnosia), that there is a similar proportion of “super-recognisers” with unusually exceptional face-recognition skills, and that the rest of us are on a spectrum in between.

Where do you think your abilities lie? A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that, unless you are severely impaired at face-recognition, you probably don’t have much insight into this question. When participants were confronted with the question: “Overall, from 1-‘very poor’ to 9-‘very good’, how would you describe your general ability to recognise faces?”, the research found that most participants’ answers bore no relation to their performance on a range of lab-based face-recognition tests.

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Why do left-handers earn less than right-handers?

Reaching Out Of MoneyBy Alex Fradera

It’s popularly believed that left-handers are uncommonly blessed with talents like high intelligence or an artistic temperament, but this is a myth. In fact, some studies even show cognitive deficits in lefties (though other research has failed to confirm this) and in terms of their take-home salaries, surveys suggest that left-handers lag behind the right-handed by as much as ten per cent, possibly indicating a difficulty in competing under commercial conditions. In a recent study in PLOS One, Marcello Sartarelli from the Universidad de Alicante attempted to replicate this deficit under controlled laboratory conditions using a simulated labour market. Lefties actually competed more strongly than expected, but they also exhibited some intriguing performance quirks linked with personality that set them apart from the right-handed majority.

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Brain training may be harmful to some aspects of memory performance

Brain lifting bar illustrationBy Christian Jarrett

Much attention has been focused recently on whether brain training programmes have the far-reaching benefits claimed by their commercial purveyors. Brain training usually involves completing exercises on computer to strengthen your working memory – essentially your ability to hold in mind and process multiple items of information at once (“cognitive training” would be a more apt name). The argument put forward by brain training companies like Lumosity and Posit Science, is that working memory is such a fundamental mental process that if you boost your working memory capacity through training, then you will experience wide-ranging benefits, even in ostensibly unrelated activities, such as in your performance at work. However, a comprehensive review published earlier this year concluded that there is in fact inadequate evidence to justify such bold claims. Now a study in Memory and Cognition brings even worse news for brain training enthusiasts – compared to control conditions, working memory training was actually found to worsen performance on a test of recognition memory. Continue reading “Brain training may be harmful to some aspects of memory performance”

Why are some of us better at handling contradictory information than others?

Pros versus cons as vector illustration with speech bubblesBy Alex Fradera

Imagine it: you’re happily surfing through your social media feeds – or what we nowadays call your filter bubble – when some unexpected perspectives somehow manage to penetrate. After you “like” the latest critique of police power, for instance, you come across an article arguing that cracking down on crime can benefit minority neighborhoods. Or, elbowing its way into a crowd of articles celebrating trickle-down economics, you encounter a study showing higher taxes boost growth. What happens next? In new research in Contemporary Educational Psychology, Gregory Trevors and his colleagues looked at how reading conflicting information can push our emotional buttons, and lead us either towards resistance or a chance to learn.

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Bad news for passport control: face-matching is harder than we realised

Passport Officer at Airport SecurityBy Alex Fradera

Experiments suggest that telling if two unfamiliar faces are the same or different is no easy task. Such research has sometimes presented participants with full body shots, has more commonly used cropped shots of people’s heads, but almost never placed the faces in a formal context, such as on a photographic ID card. But these are the situations in which face-to-photo matching is most relevant, when a shop assistant squints at a driver’s license before selling alcohol to a twitchy youth, or an emigration official scrutinises passports before their holders pass ports. Moreover, it’s plausible that the task is harder when juggling extra information, something already found in the realm of fingerprint matching, where biographical information can lead to more erroneous matches because it triggers observer prejudices. A new article in Applied Cognitive Psychology confirms these fears, suggesting that our real-world capacity to spot fakes in their natural setting is even worse than imagined.

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Women who suppress their emotions are as good at mental rotation as men

Female head and refresh iconBy Christian Jarrett

In the ongoing, complex debates about the extent and meaning of psychological differences between the sexes, mental rotation ability is usually quoted as one of the most robust examples of where a difference can be found. This is the ability to rotate objects in your mind’s eye, and while there is a lot of overlap between men’s and women’s performance, there is plenty of evidence that men, on average, are better at this than women. Can we take this to reflect a genuine, specific difference in average cognitive ability between the sexes?

Not necessarily. A new, small study in Psychological Research reminds us why this field of science is so difficult to interpret. The findings suggest that the mental rotation ability of women who habitually suppress the public display of their emotions is equal to that of men. In other words, sex differences in mental rotation ability may reflect an emotional difference between the sexes – emotional suppression is known to be more common in men than women – rather than a cognitive difference. Continue reading “Women who suppress their emotions are as good at mental rotation as men”

Why it’s hard to talk and make eye contact at the same time

By Christian Jarrett

When someone’s talking to you, have you noticed how they seem to keep breaking off eye contact, as if finding it hard to both talk and look you in the eye at the same time? Similarly, when you’re explaining something to someone or telling them a story, do you find yourself looking away from their eyes, so that you can concentrate on what you’re saying? A pair of Japanese researchers say that this happens because eye contact has a “unique effect” on our “cognitive control processes”. Essentially, mutual gaze is so mentally stimulating that it can be tricky to think straight and maintain eye contact at the same time.

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