Intelligence is a concept that some people have a hard time buying. It’s too multifaceted, too context-dependent, too Western. The US psychologist Edwin Boring encapsulated this scepticism when he said “measurable intelligence is simply what the tests of intelligence test.” Yet the scientific credentials of the concept are undimmed, partly because intelligence is strongly associated with so many important outcomes in life. Now Utah Valley University researchers Russell Warne and Cassidy Burningham have released evidence that further strengthens the case for intelligence being a valid and useful concept. Their PsyArXiv pre-print presents a cross-study analysis suggesting a single intelligence-like factor underpins mental performance across a wide range of non-western cultures.
No matter where they live, people interpret certain kinds of vocalisations, even from animals, as conveying a particular emotion – as “angry”, for instance, or “soothing”. It’s tempting to think that there might be similar cross-cultural universals in the ways that we use music – that a song used to calm an infant in Melanesia, say, should bear striking similarities to a song created for the same purpose by a culture in the Arctic Circle.
Well, it’s tempting if you’re a cognitive scientist – though not if you’re an ethnomusicologist (who studies music from different cultures), according to a survey of the opinions of academics reported in a new paper, published in Current Biology. “Historically, the idea that there might be universals in music from many cultures has been met with considerable scepticism, especially among music scholars,” note the authors of the study, led by Samuel Mehr at Harvard University, which then goes on to explore whether they do exist.
What lies at the dark heart of psychopathy? Is it a lack or emotion and empathy, a willingness to manipulate others – or, perhaps, a failure to take responsibility for misdeeds? All of these traits, and many more, are viewed as aspects of a psychopathic personality. But there’s still a debate among experts about which of these are core, and which less important.
Now a new study of 7,450 criminal offenders in the US and the Netherlands, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, has identified what the researchers believe are the psychopath’s most “central” traits . But while there were striking similarities in the data from the two countries, there were also intriguing differences. This raises the question: does the meaning of the term “psychopath” vary between cultures?
Imagining ourselves as no longer existing is, for most of us, terrifying. Buddhism may offer some reassurance. A central tenet of the religion is that all is impermanent and the self is actually an illusion. If there is no self, then why fear the end of the self?
To find out if the logic of the Buddhist perspective eliminates existential fear, Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of monastic Tibetan Buddhists (monks-in-training) in exile in India, as well as lay Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhists from Bhutan, Indian Hindus and American Christians and atheists.
To their astonishment, the researchers report in Cognitive Science that fear of the annihilation of the self was most intense among the monastic Buddhists, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to sacrifice years of their own life for a stranger.
Feeling positive emotions is good for your physical health, right? There’s certainly evidence in support of the idea. But it’s mostly come from studies of people living in Western countries. Now a study published in Psychological Science, concludes that for people in Japan, it may not be the case.
While positive emotions, like happiness, are seen as a good thing in the US, UK, and elsewhere in Europe, the picture is different in east Asia: they aren’t seen being as necessarily desirable, and negative emotions aren’t considered to be all that bad. As the researchers, led by Jiah Yoo at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, write in their introduction: “No study to date has directly compared the biological correlates of positive affect across cultures.”
Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test of self-control is one of psychology’s iconic experimental set-ups. First conducted in the 1960s, Mischel told the kids he tested that if they managed to resist eating the marshmallow in front of them until he returned (usually about 15 minutes later), they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.
The children varied greatly in their powers of restraint and those who performed better displayed some cute distraction strategies, such as singing to themselves and covering their eyes. Perhaps most important, those kids who performed well at the test tended to do well in later life too, in terms of their health, education and career success. Given the huge impact this research has had, it’s amazing that it’s never been exported to a non-Western setting. Until now.
In a new paper in Child Development, Bettina Lamm and her colleagues have compared the performance of 125 4-year-olds from urban middle-class Germany with the performance of dozens of 4-year-olds from the Nso farming families of rural Cameroon. The Cameroonian kids aced the test, performing much better than their German peers. What’s more, their success seemed to be tied to the traditional, strict, hierarchical culture in which they’d been raised. The results challenge Western assumptions about what constitutes an ideal parenting style, and they provide another powerful demonstration of the urgent need for psychology to conduct more research outside of its usual Western focus.
Exercising self-control leaves you feeling drained. That’s what many of us in the West believe and it’s what we seem to experience – think of the fatigue after a morning spent dealing with difficult clients or focused on spreadsheets on a computer screen. But in Indian culture, there is a widespread belief that mental effort is energising – that the more concentration and self-control you expend in one situation, the more invigorated you will feel for the next challenge.
Psychology has, so far, mostly backed up our Western intuitions. Over 100 studies – nearly all conducted in the West – have shown that participants are less able to resist temptation or exercise mental focus after completing a mentally taxing task, an effect that researchers call “ego depletion”. But now a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has tested Indian participants and it shows for the first time a “reverse ego-depletion effect” – the more difficult an initial mental task, the better participants performed on a subsequent challenge.
Fifty years ago, in Connecticut, a series of infamous experiments were taking place. The volunteers believed they were involved in an investigation into learning and memory, and that they would be administering shocks to a test subject whenever he answered questions incorrectly. But despite pretences, the scientist behind the research, Stanley Milgram, wasn’t actually interested in learning. The real topic of study? Obedience.
Milgram recorded how far his participants were willing to go when told to deliver larger and larger shocks. In one version of the study, 26 out of 40 participants continued to the highest shock level – two steps beyond the button labelled “Danger: severe shock”.
But this was 50 years ago – surely the same wouldn’t happen if the experiment were conducted today? That’s what a group of researchers from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland aimed to find out, in a “partial replication” of Milgram published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Biologists have their fruit flies and rats, psychologists have students. An overwhelming amount of behavioral science is conducted with young people at universities on the assumption that it’s safe to generalise from this species of human to people more generally. There are some common-sense reasons for thinking this might be a problem and also some more specific issues, which we’ve documented before, such as that burnt out students could be skewing the findings.
Now a recent study in PLOS One shows that the ways students differ from the public is different depending on which country you’re in, meaning it’s extra complicated to figure out if and when it’s appropriate to extrapolate student-based findings to people as a whole.
It’s really awkward when you’re chatting to someone whose sense of appropriate interpersonal space is way too close. There’s the option of performing a subtle backward shuffle, but what if they simply close the gap again?
Our judgments about such things obviously vary with individual personality – people with more social anxiety tend to prefer a greater distance – and also on the nature of the relationship we have with the other person. But culture must surely play a part too.
To find out how preferred interpersonal distances vary across the world, the authors of a new study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology approached – not too close, presumably – nearly 9,000 participants in 42 countries and asked them to indicate on a simple graphic how close another person – either a stranger, friend or more intimate relation – could get to them during a conversation for things to remain comfortable.