If you want to feel happier, avoid small talk and aim instead for profound conversations. That was the message the mainstream media took from a well-publicised paper published in Psychological Science in 2010 (e.g. Talk Deeply, Be Happy? asked the New York Times). But now an extension of that study, in press at the same journal (available as a pre-print), and involving two of the psychologists behind the original work, has found no evidence that how much – or little – time you spend chatting about the weather or what you’re having for dinner will affect your life satisfaction. “The failure to replicate the original small talk effect is important as it has garnered considerable scientific and lay interest,” note the authors.
If you are emotionally sensitive, there are mental defences you can use to help, like reappraising threats as challenges or distracting yourself from the pain. But if you find these mental gymnastics difficult, an alternative approach is to be more strategic about the situations that you find yourself in and the company you keep. Rather than grimacing as you endure yet another storm of emotional angst, make a greater effort to plan ahead and seek out the sunlit places that promise more joy.
As the authors of a new paper in Cognition and Emotion put it: “Situation selection provides an alternative strategy for individuals that does not rely on in-the-moment cognitive resources, and allows reactive and/or less competent individuals to tune their environment in order to promote certain emotional outcomes.”
It’s that song. Again. The one they play over, and over, and over. It might be your roommate, child, or colleague. The year I shared a flat with my brother, it was Worst Comes To Worst thrice daily. What are the properties of the songs that drive some people to repeatedly listen to them over and over? A new article in Psychology of Music explores the tunes that just won’t quit.
For most of us, goose-bumps are something that happens outside of our conscious control, either when we’re cold or afraid, or because we’ve been moved by music or poignant art. However, it seems there are a few individuals with a kind of psychophysiological super-power – they can give themselves goose-bumps at will.
For a new study, which they’ve released as a pre-print at PeerJ, a team led by James Heathers at Northeastern University, Boston, created a Facebook group with descriptions of “voluntary piloerection”, to use the technical term, and invited anyone with this ability to complete a comprehensive questionnaire. Thirty-two voluntary goose-bumpers took part. Though the results are preliminary, this is a landmark study considering that voluntary piloerection has not previously been subject to systematic investigation, and that the scientific record contains just three prior case studies over a period of more than a century.
Kids who are better at resisting unhelpful impulses and distractions go on later in life to perform better academically, professionally and socially. But how this kind of self-control develops with age has not been so clear. Teenagers’ show more self-control than children in many ways, but in other respects – think of their propensity for risk-taking – they actually seem to show less.
In a new paper, published in Developmental Science, Ania Aïte at Paris Descartes University, France, led research investigating whether this might be because there are two types of impulse control – “cool” control, in which emotions are not involved, and “hot” control, in which they are – and that they might show different developmental trajectories. If so, this could have implications for educational interventions aimed at reducing teens’ sometimes dangerous behaviour.
Do you see stress as helpful or harmful? If you recognise that it can have upsides – by sharpening your focus and boosting your motivation, and that stressful challenges can offer learning and achievement opportunities – then you have a positive stress mindset (conversely, if you see stress as unpleasant, debilitating and threatening, then you have a negative stress mindset).
A new diary study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology has explored the implications of stress mindset for the workplace – surprisingly, one of the first investigations to do so. The researchers, led by Anne Casper at the University of Mannheim, found that anticipating a large workload on a given day was associated with employees upping their performance that day, taking more proactive steps to meet the challenge, and ending the day feeling more energised, but only if they had a positive stress mindset.
Video games do not enjoy the best of reputations. Violent games in particular have been linked with aggression, antisocial behaviour and alienation among teens. For example, one study found that playing a mere 10 minutes of a violent video game was enough to reduce helping behaviour in participants.
However, some experts are sceptical about whether games really cause aggression and, even if the games are to blame, it remains unclear what drives their harmful effects. Earlier studies identified empathy as a key trait that may be affected by violent gameplay. Now a study by Laura Stockdale at Loyola University Chicago and her colleagues in Social Affective and Cognitive Neuroscience has taken a closer look at how gamers and non-gamers differ at a neural level, uncovering evidence that suggests chronic violent gameplay may affect emotional brain processing, although more research is needed to confirm this.
For years, “ego depletion” has been a dominant theory in the study of self control. This is the intuitive idea that self control or willpower is a limited resource, such that the more you use up in one situation, the less you have left over to deploy in another. It makes sense of the everyday experience of when you come home after a hard day at the office, abandon all constructive plans, and instead binge on snacks in front of the TV.
The trouble is, the theory has taken some hard knocks lately, including a failed joint replication attempt by 23 separate labs. Critics have pointed out that most supportive studies – and there are over 200 of them – are small and underpowered. A meta-analysis that corrected for a positive bias in the existing literature concluded that ego depletion is not real. A study in India – where there’s a cultural belief that exercising self-control is energising – even found evidence for “reverse ego depletion“.
It’s not easy to weigh the evidence for and against, but perhaps the science is tipping back in favour of ego depletion. Two new studies, made publicly available on the PsyArXiv preprint website, provide what the researchers at Texas A&M University, led by Katie Garrison, describe as “the strongest evidence yet of the ego depletion effect”.
What’s in a smile? According to a widely reported 2010 study of US major league baseball players, which we covered here at BPS Research Digest, one important answer is: an indication of how long the smiler will live.
By analysing official individual photos of players from the 1952 baseball season, and then looking at subsequent death records, Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger at Wayne State University, Detroit, concluded that players who’d smiled like they meant it – with full “Duchenne smiles“, which involve muscles around the eyes as well as the mouth – lived on average seven years longer than players who’d posed with less convincing grins.
The result was taken to support existing evidence that happier people tend to live longer. It also seemed to show that smiles in posed photos – even on just one occasion – are a fairly reliable signal of people’s underlying emotional disposition and therefore their likely longevity.
But a new replication and extension of the Baseball photo study has produced very different results. This is important, because the idea that happier people live longer is widely promoted, and has implications both for individuals and policy-makers.
Psychology research has tended to portray solitude as an unpleasant experience. Studiesconducted in the 1970s and 1990s suggested a clear pattern: people usually felt less happy when alone as compared with having company. More recently, researchers showed that their volunteers preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit in silence with their own thoughts. However, in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a research team led by They-vy Nguyen at the University of Rochester explains the shortcomings in this earlier research and presents a more nuanced picture, showing how 15 minutes solitude can have beneficial effects on our emotions. Their results suggest that if you want to lower the intensity of your emotions, positive and negative, time spent alone may be just the ticket.