Surveys and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting election results, as a chain of rather unexpected events last year demonstrated. These instruments usually ask people about their explicit attitudes and opinions. Often, however, these “external” proxies are not entirely representative of what a person is really thinking. For example, severalstudies have shown that implicit attitudes – that is, subtle preferences or biases outside the realm of our consciousness – can be more useful in predicting our future choices.
As scary as this may sound, there is also mounting evidence that our physiological responses can be even more accurate in revealing how we’re likely to vote. In a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from Kingston University and the University of Essex have taken a closer look at a voting outcome in the UK that, last year, came as a surprise to a lot of people. Their findings suggest that people’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of they way they went on to vote in the Brexit referendum than their stated intentions.
Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
The authors of the new paper, led by Amit Bhattacharjee at Erasmus University, believe this anti-profit bias leads many voters and politicians to endorse anti-profit policies that are likely to lead to the very opposite outcomes for society that they want to achieve. “Erroneous anti-profit beliefs may lead to systematically worse economic policies for society, even as they help people satisfy their social and expressive needs on an individual level” they said.
To lead a good life, we need to make good decisions: manage our health and financial affairs, invest in appropriate relationships, and avoid serious lapses like falling for online scams. What equips us to do this? One candidate is IQ: after all, people who score higher on intelligence tests tend to go on to do better academically and in their careers. But many of us know intellectual titans who still make grave errors of judgment in their lives. Book-smart doesn’t necessarily make you life-smart, and a new article in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity examines the utility of IQ in navigating existence, and how another mental ability may put it in the shade.
We know from past research that autistic people process the world differently at a perceptual level, including showing reduced sensitivity to context. One consequence is that they’re better than average at finding figures in complex shapes. But does this way of looking at the world also influence their higher-level decision-making? According to a new study in Psychological Science, it does: William Skylark and his University of Cambridge colleagues George Farmer and Simon Baron-Cohen found that people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) – as well as people in the general population with relatively high levels of autistic traits – make more “conventionally rational” decisions, which could influence everything from how they vote to what products they choose to buy.
Thinking like a scientist is really hard, even for scientists. It requires putting aside your own prior beliefs, evaluating the quality and meaning of the evidence before you, and weighing it in the context of earlier findings. But parking your own agenda and staying objective is not the human way.
Consider that even though scientific evidence overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, a third of Americans think the theory is “absolutely false”. Similarly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet around a third of Americans doubt it.
We Brits are just as blinkered. In a recent survey, over 96 per cent of teachers here said they believed pupils learn better when taught via their preferred learning style, even though scientific support for the concept is virtually non-existent. Why is it so hard to think like a scientist? In a new chapter in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation book series, Priti Shah at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have taken a detailed look at the reasons, and here I’ve pulled out five key insights:
Humans are infovores, hungry to discover, and nothing holds more fascination than the future. Once we looked for answers through divination, now science can forecast significant events such as the onset of certain hereditary disease. But the fact that some people choose not to know – even when information is accessible, and has a bearing on their lives – has encouraged scientists, including Gerd Gigerenzer and Rocio Garcia-Retamero, to try to map out the limits of our appetite for knowledge. Their recent study in Psychological Review suggests that it is a fear of what we might discover – and wishing that we’d never known – that often drives us to deliberate ignorance.
There could be an Arctic blizzard blowing outside for all little Mary cares. The fact is, she’s hot from running around indoors, and no matter how much you try to explain to Mary that her future self – the one that’s about to go walking in the cold – would really appreciate that she put her coat on, Mary, like most kids aged under five, finds it very difficult to step outside of the present and consider her future needs.
While psychologists have already spent a lot of time demonstrating the limitations of young children’s ability to plan for the future, until now they’ve not looked much at whether it’s possible to target these “prospective abilities”. However, a new study in Developmental Psychology has done that, showing that a mere five-minute chat about their recent past or future selves seems to help preschoolers remember to do things in the future, and to “time travel” mentally, so that they make better decisions about their forthcoming needs.
Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.
Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.