Fast food chains are not exactly renowned for encouraging healthy eating. But in a new study a team of psychologists, eager to turn that assumption on its head, chose McDonald’s as their target for a somewhat unconventional, psychologically-informed health intervention. Writing in Psychology & Marketing, the researchers report successfully “nudging” a group of Coca-Cola-guzzling customers into opting for its sugar-free counterpart, Coke Zero — simply by changing the order of options on the menu.
If you hear an unfounded statement often enough, you might just start believing that it’s true. This phenomenon, known as the “illusory truth effect”, is exploited by politicians and advertisers — and if you think you are immune to it, you’re probably wrong. In fact, earlier this year we reported on a study that found people are prone to the effect regardless of their particular cognitive profile.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves against the illusion. A study in Cognition has found that using our own knowledge to fact-check a false claim can prevent us from believing it is true when it is later repeated. But we might need a bit of a nudge to get there.
It’s a trick that politicians have long exploited: repeat a false statement often enough, and people will start believing that it’s true. Psychologists have named this phenomenon the “illusory truth effect”, and it seems to come from the fact that we find it easier to process information that we’ve encountered many times before. This creates a sense of fluency which we then (mis)interpret as a signal that the content is true.
Of course, you might like to believe that your particular way of thinking makes you immune to this trick. But according to a pre-print uploaded recently to PsyArXiv, you’d be wrong. In a series of experiments, Jonas De keersmaecker at Ghent University and his collaborators found that individual differences in cognition had no bearing on the strength of the illusory truth effect.
Randomised experiments (also known as A/B testing) are an absolutely critical tool for evaluating everything from online marketing campaigns to new pharmaceutical drugs to school curricula. Rather than making decisions based on ideology, intuition or educated guess-work, you randomise people to one of two groups and expose one group to intervention A (one version of a social media headline, a new drug, or whatever, depending on the context ), one group to intervention B (a different version of the headline, a different drug etc), and compare outcomes for the two groups.
To anyone who believes in evidence-based decision making, medicine and policy, randomised tests make sense. But as a team led by Michelle N. Meyer at the Center for Translational Bioethics and Health Care Policy at the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, write in PNAS, for some reason A/B testing sometimes elicits moral outrage. As an example, they point to the anger that ensued when Pearson Education “randomized math and computer science students at different schools to receive one of three versions of its instructional software: two versions displayed different encouraging messages as students attempted to solve problems, while a third displayed no messages.” The goal had been to test objectively whether the encouraging messages would, well, encourage students to do more problems, yet for this, the company received much criticism, including accusations that they’d treated students like guinea pigs, and failed to obtain their consent.
You can have £10 today or £12 next week. Which do you go for?
Being able to forego a reward now in favour of gaining something better later is known to be important in determining all kinds of desirable outcomes in life, including greater educational attainment, social functioning and health.
However, choosing to delay gratification won’t always be the best option. If you’re in desperate circumstances – you badly need money to buy food, for example – taking the £10 today could be sensible. But this isn’t necessarily an entirely conscious judgment – there may be biological systems that automatically shift your decision-making priorities according to what is most likely to enhance your survival. A new open-access study published in Scientific Reports provides evidence that having raised levels of inflammation in your body, which is generally caused by the immune system’s response to infection or injury, can skew your judgment to focus more on present rewards, and on instant gratification. If further research backs this up, there could be wide-ranging implications not only for understanding why some people are more impulsive than others, but even for treating substance abuse.
So entrenched is the association in our culture between coffee and ideas of arousal, ambition and focus that merely thinking about, or being reminded of, the drink is enough to increase the body’s arousal levels, in turn provoking a more focused, literal cognitive style. That’s according to Eugene Chan at Monash University and Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto Scarborough who, reporting their findings in Consciousness and Cognition, write that “… people may be more aroused simply after walking by a coffee shop. Not only would they be more aroused, but at a more downstream level, their decision making might shift as well.”
The intriguing results come from four studies involving hundreds of online and lab-based participants, but given the replication problems in the general area of “social priming” (concerned with how abstract ideas and sensory experiences can influence thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa), some readers may find that merely hearing about this new research is enough to elevate their pulse and alter their mindset to a more sceptical mode.
Smartphone addiction (SA) is a controversial concept that is not recognised by psychiatry as a formal diagnosis. Critics say that a problematic relationship with one’s phone is usually a symptom of deeper underlying issues and that it is inappropriate to apply the language of addiction to technology. Nonetheless, other mental health experts believe SA is real and they’ve accumulated evidence suggesting it is associated with reductions in academic and work performance, sleep disorders, symptoms of depression and loneliness, declines in wellbeing – and an increased risk of road traffic accidents. According to a group of psychiatry and psychology researchers at one of the largest universities in Brazil, to that list can now be added: poorer decision-making.
There are few subjects where a larger gap exists between public opinion and expert opinion than people’s views on foods, like corn or wheat, that have been genetically manipulated to, for example, increase crop yields or bolster pest-resistance. Experts generally view so-called GM foods as totally safe to consume, while the public is suspicious of them — and this divide is massive. One Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 per cent of the American public believed GM foods are safe to eat, compared with 88 per cent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (public attitudes are similarly negative in the UK, with a 2014 poll finding that 40 per cent of adults felt the government should not promote GM foods, compared with 22 per cent in favour, and the rest unsure).
Unlike some subjects where this divide between layperson and expert opinion is heavily mediated by politics, such as climate change caused by human activity — in the U.S. and elsewhere, conservatives are far less likely to believe in it than are liberals and climate scientists — the GM-food divide doesn’t really have a political dimension: Liberals, centrists, and conservatives are all about equally likely to have what are, from the point of view of experts, unfounded fears about the safety of GM foods.
To better understand the source of these fears, a team led by Philip M. Fernbach, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed nationally representative samples in America, Germany and France, and other online participants, about their views on both GM foods and climate change, tested their knowledge on these subjects by asking them to answer factual questions, and also asked them to gauge their perceived level of knowledge on those subjects.
Curiosity is a welcome trait in many respects and is the fuel that powers science. Yet literature is filled with fables that warn of the seductive danger of curiosity (think of how Orpheus loses his wife Eurydice forever after he succumbs to the temptation to glimpse at the underworld). In real life too, we all know the regret that can follow if we give in to curiosity – glancing at a private message that we shouldn’t have, for instance; reading a TV review when we know it contains spoilers; or trying out what happens if you put metal in a microwave (tip: don’t).
From whence does curiosity derive such power over us? One answer lies in the brain. In a pair of brain-imaging studies published as a preprint at bioRxiv – aptly titled Hunger For Knowledge: How The Irresistible Lure of Curiosity Is Generated In the Brain – Johnny King Lau and his colleagues have shown that curiosity appears to be driven by the same neurobiological process as physical hunger.
You may think of people with high self-control as having enviable reserves of willpower, but recent findings suggest this isn’t the case. Instead it seems the strong-willed are canny folk, adept at avoidingtemptation in the first place. A new study in the journal Self and Identity builds on this picture, showing that people high in self-control tend to experience less intense visceral states, like fatigue, hunger and stress (states that are known to encourage impulsive behaviour).
The new findings make sense: after all, it is much easier to be in control of your decisions if you are organised enough to ensure your animalistic needs rarely become overpowering.