When responding to science denialism (or, for that matter, any sort of false or harmful information), such as claims that vaccines are ineffective and harmful, it can be difficult to establish the right strategy. Because of the fast-paced way in which information spreads these days, there is a risk that responding to a given inaccurate claim can give it further oxygen, leading the falsehood to reach more people who are vulnerable to being misled, and so forth. There’s also the possibility of the “backfire effect” – people who already endorse the false claims reacting to the debunking information by digging into their beliefs further (though there’s now evidence such fears were overhyped, and that the backfire effect may not be a regular occurrence overall).
To better understand when science-denialism debunking does and doesn’t work, Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch, both of the University of Erfurt in Germany, ran a series of studies that involved online respondents being exposed to various sorts of science debates. The results, published in Nature Human Behavior, offer some useful insights about how to best stem the tide of science denialism.
We’re all familiar with the idea that nature can be psychologically uplifting. But for some people, a single, brief “peak experience” in a natural setting, lasting mere seconds or minutes, changes their view of themselves or their relationships with others so profoundly that their lives are positively transformed as a result. A new study in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology explores exactly how and why this happens. The researchers LIa Naor and Ofra Mayseless at the University of Haifa, Israel, advertised on the internet for people who felt they’d had a transformative experience in nature to get in touch for an interview. “It was not difficult to find participants; in fact many people replied and were eager to share their experience,” they wrote.
In the TV series Better Call Saul, Saul’s brother Chuck believes that electromagnetic signals from mobile phones and other devices make him seriously ill. He lives as a recluse and uses a foil blanket to protect himself. By some estimates, millions of people – around 5 per cent of the population – believe that they too suffer from “electrosensitivity” or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. Though they may not suffer as much as Chuck, these individuals claim that wi-fi and other signals make them ill, triggering headaches and other symptoms.
The medical consensus based on double-blind trials (in which neither researcher nor test subject knows when a test device is real or pretend) is that while the experience of electrosensitivity-related symptoms may be real, they are not caused by electromagnetic fields. More likely is that the symptoms arise from a “nocebo effect” – a strong belief that the fields are harmful.
A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology sheds new light on electrosensitivity by suggesting that it is people who feel especially connected to nature – normally considered a positive trait – who may be particularly likely to suffer from electrosensitivity, probably because their love of nature is accompanied by a heightened negative attitude to anything they consider artificial.
Zsuzsanna Dömötör and her colleagues surveyed 510 people online, 74 of whom described themselves as electrosensitive. The electrosensitive participants tended to score higher than the others on modern health worries in general (related to things like pollution and tainted food), on sensitivity to bodily symptoms, and nature relatedness (measured by agreement with items like “I always think about how my actions affect the environment” and “My ideal vacation spot would be a remote, wilderness area”). What’s more, nature connectedness interacted with the other variables: people prone to modern health worries were especially likely to complain of electrosensitivity if they also felt a connection with nature.
How do you get people to act in a climate friendly manner? The received wisdom is to push the basic message that climate change is real, humans have a hand in it, and we must mitigate it through action. But this approach hits a wall when people are disposed against that goal ideologically or because they simply don’t care enough. New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests another strategy: encourage environmental behaviours by linking them to goals that are already personally important.
To maintain pleasant public spaces requires that we all implicitly agree to certain civil behaviours, like pocketing our chocolate wrappers rather than leaving them strewn on the pavement, or turning the stereo down after eleven. But when these implicit agreements are too frequently ignored they can lose their force entirely, jeopardising the social order. To keep things together, one or more of us need to hold any miscreants to account… but who wants that hassle? A new paper in the journal Rationality and Society explores real-life littering norm enforcers, taking us from the streets of Switzerland to the New York underground.
We all have routes that are part of our daily lives, whether it’s the way to the local convenience store, school or the office. How does this deep familiarity affect the way our brains represent the space and our ability to move through it?
Based in part on what we’ve learned from studies of so-called “grid cells” in rats’ brains, Anna Jafarpour at the University of California, Berkeley and Hugo Spiers at University College London predicted that greater familiarity with an area would lead us to overestimate its physical extent – in essence, they thought a more detailed neural representation would make that space seem larger. In turn, they predicted that same detail would make us more likely to exaggerate the walking time to destinations reached through that familiar space.
In fact, while their new findings published in Hippocampus suggest spatial familiarity does indeed stretch our perception of the magnitude of physical distance, it has the opposite effect on our judgments of travel times through that space – that is, we underestimate how long it will take us to travel through highly familiar routes. It’s a mental quirk that might just provide us with a new excuse for why we’re so often running late. Continue reading “This mental quirk could explain why you’re always running late”→
As a house evolves into a home it becomes a place of refuge and ultimately an extension of the self. Each room is a witness to your life: the arguments, the passions and the change. Your photos on the walls, your stuff on the shelves, these are more than mere objects, they tell the story of places you’ve been and people you’ve known. All of this helps create what psychologists call a sense of “psychological home”. But it can go too far. There’s a saturation point beyond which your possessions turn into clutter, clogging your space and undermining your wellbeing. A new study “The dark side of home” in The Journal of Environmental Psychology investigates these processes in a group of 1394 people (average age 54, mostly women in the US) who had previously sought advice from The Institute For Challenging Disorganization.
The results showed that attachment to one’s home (measured by agreement with statements like “I identify strongly with this place”) and identifying with one’s possessions (“I consider my favorite possessions to be a part of myself”) were both linked to a greater sense of psychological home (“I get a sense of security from having a place of my own”), and in turn this was associated with more psychological well-being. But, at the same time, a sense of home and wellbeing were undermined by excessive clutter, as measured by agreement with statements like: “I have to move things in order to accomplish tasks in my home” and “I feel overwhelmed by the clutter in my home”.
The researchers based in New Mexico and Chicago said their study is “the first to investigate the dark side of home arising from negative impacts of clutter.” They warned: “Clutter is often an insidious and seemingly harmless outgrowth of people’s natural desire to appropriate their personal spaces with possessions that reflect self-identity and remind them of important people, places, and experiences in their lives. However, when clutter becomes excessive, it can threaten to physically and psychologically entrap a person in dysfunctional home environments which contribute to personal distress and feelings of displacement and alienation.”
The sparring mitt, yellow stitches spelling “SLUGGER” casually lying on the desk. The Mathlete trophy on a high shelf. A Ganesha statue, slightly chipped. Why do people bring these kinds of personal objects into the workplace?
Researchers Kris Byron and Gregory Laurence found answers by consulting 28 people in a range of jobs and workplaces. They used the “grounded theory” approach, starting with a clutch of more open-ended interviews and then pursuing the lines of inquiry that emerged, in every case inventorying the person’s workspace and exploring the significance of each object.
The conventional understanding is that personal objects are territorial markers used to communicate who we are to co-workers. And indeed many interviewees emphasised this function, a “unique fingerprint” that expresses difference. This might be an indicator of character – I’m a happy-go-lucky person – but participants also used objects to emphasise their organisational roles. A framed MBA certificate reminds others that this cubicle bunny is made of management material, thank you, whereas doodles show that the person is part of the creative class. An event planner explained that the thank-you notes pinned to their board were to reassure others of her reliability – a core requirement in her role.
As well as showing differences, personalisation can also affirm shared identity. Star Wars memorabilia across multiple desks shows that “a lot of us have, you know, that techie background”. Similarly, some items were inside jokes, with meaning only apparent to those sharing in its history. And although personalisation could emphasise status – think of that MBA certificate – some managers attempted to de-emphasise status differences by presenting everyday objects that made themselves more approachable.
Interviewees raised another reason for personalisation: to build relationships. These items were seen as icebreakers or ways to find “common ground”, whether through the contents of a bookshelf, or a photo denoting parenthood. Byron and Laurence photographed every desk-setup from the perspective of an outside visitor, and found that 75 per cent of such conversation-starters were positioned to be clearly visible from that view. Many participants felt that these personalisation functions were vital and companies prevent them at their peril: “They want to have such strong relationships with customers but they’re taking away the personal elements that I think can lend towards building those types of relationships with clients.”
In contrast, a certain proportion of personalisation objects – about a third in all – were positioned to only be visible to the owner themselves. These exemplify a final function of personalisation – not to communicate to others, but to remind ourselves of our identity.
This could be an aspirational symbol – the poster put up by a designer that showed “the kind of design I eventually want to do”, or the gift from an inspiring role model. Or it might be a way to put work into a larger context, so on the tough days, “you can look at your picture [of children] and realize this is only a job.”
Many objects had multiple functions – communicating difference, starting conversations, and reminding oneself of identity. Byron and Laurence conclude that “organizations would be unwise to put excessive limits on employees’ personalization of their workspaces,” as an innocuous paperweight may turn out to carry a lot inside.
_________________________________ Byron, K., & Laurence, G. (2015). Diplomas, Photos, and Tchotchkes as Symbolic Self-Representations: Understanding Employees’ Individual Use of Symbols Academy of Management Journal, 58 (1), 298-323 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0932
Each year around one million people die from water-related diseases. In most cases, the causes are painfully obvious. Without access to a modern sewage system, people dump their bodily waste into the nearest river or street, which funnels their filthy excrement and urine back into the water supply. It’s a catastrophic problem without a cheap solution.
Until now. A few years ago Bill Gates teamed up with an engineer named Peter Janicki to create an ingenious machine that uses the same ingredient that taints water supplies—human waste—to clean them. The “Janicki Omniprocessor”, which looks something like a miniature power plant, can turn waste from 100,000 people into 86,000 liters of clean water a day while generating enough electricity to power itself. “The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle,” Gates wrote on his blog.
The Janicki Omniprocessor is a major technological breakthrough, but a psychological barrier remains. We know recycled water is clean, we trust the science, and it’s exciting to think about how many lives it will save. And yet, that nasty “Yuk!” feeling persists.
Part of our deeply rooted aversion for tainted water has clear evolutionary origins. Like many animals, we instinctually avoid food and liquid that has touched nasty substances for health reasons. Think of this instinct as Paleolithic germ theory. It wasn’t exactly modern epidemiology, but for the most part, it worked.
Unfortunately, our instincts occasionally play tricks on our judgment. In a somewhat grotesque but captivating area of study, researchers have shown that people refuse to drink orange juice from unused urine collection bottles, eat soup served in a brand-new bedpan, or touch delicious fudge baked in the shape of dog feces. It’s as if there’s some sort of immaterial essence that tarnishes these perfectly edible items.
This brings me to a new survey of over 2,600 Americans conducted by disgust guru Paul Rozin and his colleagues. Participants first read a short passage explaining how recycled water is certified safe and indicated their willingness to drink it. Next, they scored how comfortable they were drinking different types of water, from commercial bottled water, to tap water, to sewage water that had been boiled, evaporated, and condensed into pure water. Finally, they rated how comfortable they felt drinking recycled water if it had spent a certain amount of time in a reservoir or aquifer before it was fed back into the water supply. The purpose of this question was to see if the contagion heuristic—“Once in contact, always in contact”—wears off over time.
Although 13 percent of the sample indicated that they would never drink recycled water, almost half said that they would, while 38 percent remained uncertain. Disgust sensitivity, as measured by a short disgust test, correlated inversely with a willingness to drink recycled water. The more easily someone is grossed out, the less likely he or she will sip water from the Janicki Omniprocessor.
The next finding revealed something important about how the human mind perceives purity. Even though sewage water that is boiled, evaporated, and condensed is purer than tap water, participants overwhelmingly preferred tap water. Furthermore, compared to tap water, participants were more willing to drink bottled water that was filtered from tap water, even though the two are equally pure. It’s like running your clothes through the wash twice—the second wash doesn’t make anything cleaner; it just makes you feel a little bit better.
The scientists also found that participants were more likely to drink recycled water the longer it remained in a reservoir or aquifer, even though feeding recycled water back into a natural system actually decreases its purity. Rozin attributes this quirk in perception to the idea of “spiritual purification.” Just like we’re more willing to wear Hitler’s sweater if it supposedly came in contact with Mother Theresa, we’re more likely to drink recycled water if it was reintroduced into “natural systems.” (Distance also mattered. The further the water travelled, the cleaner it was perceived by the subjects.)
Rozin and his team didn’t stop there. To tease out some of these initial findings, they created a second survey for about 400 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. This time, participants read about four contaminants—a harmless amount of sodium cyanide, a drop containing active HIV (AIDS) virus, a heat sterilised cockroach, and a convicted murderer—then imagined drinking water that had recently come in contact with each contaminant. Not surprisingly, the undergrads vehemently rejected the idea of drinking any of this water. The cyanide provoked the least discomfort, while the HIV virus provoked the most.
So far, so obvious: when deciding to drink water or not, the most important variable to consider is its perceived purity. The most intriguing part of the paper came when Rozin asked the undergrads if they would drink clean water from the same glass, if the contaminated water was poured out and the glass thoroughly sterilised. It’s worth pausing to think about how you would answer this question. Would you drink from a glass if its previous user were a convicted murderer—even if the glass was completely clean?
Rozin found that the undergrads’ behaviour depended on a few key variables. Similar to the first study, those who were more willing to drink recycled water, and who scored low on the disgust scale, were more likely to drink from a recently contaminated glass. On the other hand, the undergrads who tended to distrust standard purification techniques to clean contaminated water were more likely to refuse. “This is particularly striking,” Rozin writes, “because these same people readily consume tap or bottled spring water, which usually have the very same contamination history as the water they reject as contaminated. We can describe these individuals as responding to what we call spiritual contamination.” For these people, even the most thorough sterilisation processes cannot remove the perceived impurities.
And that’s why I find this topic so interesting. Humans pay special attention to the history of objects—where they have been, what they have touched, and who has touched them—because we subscribe to the notion that objects have an underlying reality, an essence. Normally, this piece of mental software is helpful, but sometimes it can lead us astray. The Janicki Omniprocessor represents a major breakthrough for producing clean water and improving health in the developing world at a low cost. But before we can put it to use, we will have to overcome a bigger obstacle: ourselves.
_________________________________ Paul Rozin, Brent Haddad, Carol Nemeroff, & Paul Slovic (2015). Psychological aspects of the rejection of recycled water: Contamination, purification and disgust Judgment and Decision Making —further reading— Yuk! Unfairness really does leave a bad taste in the mouth Post written by Sam McNerney (@sammcnerney) for the BPS Research Digest. McNerney is a US writer with a focus on cognitive psychology, philosophy and business. He’s written for Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Fortune, Fast Company, TechCrunch and BBC Focus and maintained a blog on BigThink.com called Moments of Genius. He currently blogs at his website: sammcnerney.com.
Levels of trait “openness to experience” are higher in central London than other areas of the city. Image from PNAS.
It is surely easier to be happy in some neighbourhoods than others. But a new study suggests one size does not fit all. Based on data from 56,000 Londoners collected by a BBC initiative, Markus Jokela and his colleagues report that the correlations between different personality dimensions and life satisfaction vary across the capital. The researchers say this shows “finding the best place to live depends on the match between individual dispositions and neighbourhood characteristics.”
Participants filled out a personality and happiness test online as part of the BBC’s Big Personality Test between 2009 and 2011. The test produced scores according to the Big Five personality dimensions (extraversion, neuroticism etc) and a measure of life satisfaction. The researchers then analysed the data by postal district and they also scored the 216 districts according to various neighbourhood dimensions, such as population density and ethnic mix.
This analysis threw up an avalanche of data. Among the highlights, there was evidence of personality clustering. For example, high scorers in the trait “openness to experience” and low scorers in “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” are found in abundance in central London, including Islington and Kings Cross. High extraversion and low neuroticism is common in South West London, for example in Richmond.
Turning to links between happiness, neighbourhood and personality, the researchers found that openness to experience is more strongly tied to greater life satisfaction in neighbourhoods with greater population density and a higher proportion of ethnic and religious minorities. High conscientiousness, by contrast, is more strongly tied to life satisfaction in neighbourhoods characterised by low employment, and by the presence of more people with low conscientiousness and low extraversion. Agreeableness, meanwhile, is tied to happiness in places with more families and more people with low openness to experience and low extraversion.
What to make of these correlations? It’s intuitive that people with a tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas (i.e. high scorers in openness to experience) should be happier in districts characterised by a rich mix of humanity. That high scores in openness are clustered in central London also provides tentative evidence of adaptive clustering – people moving to neighbourhoods that suit them. However, this was the only evidence of such adaptation. The patterns found for high conscientiousness and agreeableness make sense in terms of people with these traits thriving in challenging circumstances.
Links between extraversion and neuroticism and happiness did not vary by neighbourhood. But these were the traits with the strongest links with happiness. This fits past research – for example, it’s well established that extraverts tend to be happier than average.
This research leaves many questions unanswered – for example, because the data were taken from a single point in time, we can’t know whether people’s personalities influence the neighbourhoods they move to, or if their neighbourhoods shape their personalities. Likely it’s both. However, the study breaks new ground in the new field of “geographical psychology”, exploring interactions between personality, place and neighbourhood. Where previous results have focused on which personality traits or neighbourhood characteristics influence happiness, the new findings begin to uncover the messy reality – our happiness depends not just on where we live and the kind of person we are, but on the complex interaction of the two.
_________________________________ Jokela, M., Bleidorn, W., Lamb, M., Gosling, S., & Rentfrow, P. (2015). Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1415800112