You may be best advised not to read this article late at night or before you eat. Psychologists at the National Institute of Mental Health and Charles University in the Czech Republic have surveyed a large sample of non-clinical volunteers to gauge their reaction to 24 creatures that are commonly the source of specific animal phobias.
The results, published in the British Journal of Psychology, not only contribute to our understanding of animal phobias, but could prove incredibly useful to horror writers. Among the key findings is that spiders were unique in being both intensely fear- and disgust-inducing in equal measure. The researchers said this may be due to their mix of disgusting properties – including their “quirky ‘too-many-legs’ body plan” – combined with the fact they are “…omnipresent in our homes, often lurking in the hidden dark places and capable of fast unpredictable movement.” In other words, the intense fear arises in part from the prospect of coming into physical contact with a creature perceived by many to be revolting.
Psychologists have noticed that aspiring leaders generally pursue one of two different approaches for getting to the top of the social food-chain. Some people exert influence by building up skills or knowledge that command respect and deference from their peers – known as the prestige strategy. Others prefer to rule by fear instead, forcing others to fall into line – the dominance strategy. This dichotomy has even been suggested to account for the vastly different leadership styles of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
But many of the studies that have looked at the dynamics of prestige and dominance have done so in artificial social situations, examining groups of strangers brought together for a short time in the lab. So in a new study published open-access in Royal Society Open Science, Charlotte Brand and Alex Mesoudi went out into the world and looked at how hierarchies based on prestige and dominance affected the behaviour of real social groups.
The power (or powerlessness) of parents to shape their children for good or ill continues to preoccupy psychologists and the public alike. Among evolutionary-minded developmental psychologists, one specific idea is that girls’ later attitudes to relationships is influenced by their fathers’ behaviour. For instance, US research has found that girls with disengaged, harsh, and often absent fathers are known to start having sex at a younger age, and to have more sexual partners. However many questions about these findings remain. For example: might other aspects of the girls’ childhoods be involved; what about genetic effects; and which aspects of poor-quality fathering are the most consequential?
A new study of pairs of sisters, published in Developmental Psychology, provides some specific answers, particularly that it is contact with a poor-quality father, not paternal absence, that affects their daughters’ later relationships, including their expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour.
When it comes to the heated subject of differences between how men and women behave, debate in psychology has centered on mate preferences and general interests. The available research shows that when it comes to (heterosexual) mating preferences, men are relatively more interested in physical beauty, while women are relatively more interested in earning capacity. As for general interests, men are more interested in physical things, while women are more interested in people.
Even the staunchest evolutionary psychologists would acknowledge these are partially overlapping bell curves: There are plenty of men who are fascinated by other people, and plenty of women looking for physical beauty in a partner above all else. Yet the findings have been met with fierce resistance in some quarters. One of the more sophisticated rejoinders is known as social roles theory: The differences do exist, but they’re entirely or largely the result of gender roles imposed by society on individuals. However, a new study released as a preprint at PsyArXiv and involving participants from 36 countries has failed to replicate a key finding that’s previously been cited in support of social roles theory.
A new survey of beliefs held by social psychologists (335 mostly US-based members of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology) has confirmed previous reports that the field is overwhelmingly populated by researchers of a left-wing, liberal bent. What’s more, David Buss and William von Hippel – the evolutionary social psychologists who conducted and analysed the survey – say their findings, published open-access in Archives of Scientific Psychology, suggest that some social psychologists may be opposed, for ideological reasons, to insights rooted in evolutionary psychology.
Buss and von Hippel add that compounding matters is an irony – the desire of some researchers to signal their ideological stance and commitment to others who share their political views, which is a manifestation of the evolved human adaptation to form coalitions. “Part of this virtue signalling entails rejecting a caricature of evolutionary psychology that no scientist actually holds,” they write.
Schadenfreude – which literally means “harm-joy” in German –is the sense of pleasure derived from others’ misfortune. It’s a “poorly understood” emotion, according to a group of psychologists at Emory University in the US, and in their review paper in New Ideas in Psychology they propose a new “tripartite” model of schadenfreude based on the idea that deep-seated survival concerns can motivate us to see others as less than human.
Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin, our hero’s love rival, the evil Jafar, discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp. Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth.
What follows next is a lingering, close-up of Jafar’s body. He leans forward, fists clenched, with an almost constipated look on his face. He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape. For many millennials growing up in the 1990s, it is an archetypical evil laugh.
A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in the Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this might be. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is well placed to provide an answer having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.
Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful?
The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good.
The effect of playing sport on men’s testosterone levels is well documented. Generally speaking, the winner enjoys a testosterone boost, while the loser experiences the opposite (though far less studied, competition unsurprisingly also affects women’s hormonal levels, though not in the same ways as men’s). The evolutionary-based explanation for the hormonal effects seen in men is that the winner’s testosterone rise acts to increase their aggression and the likelihood that they will seek out more contests, while the loser skulks off to lick their wounds. When it comes to vicarious effects of competition on men’s testosterone, however, the findings are more mixed. There’s some evidence that male sports fans show testosterone gains after seeing their teams win, but other studies have failed to replicate this finding.
A new, small study in Human Nature adds to this literature by examining the hormonal changes (testosterone and cortisol) in fathers watching their children play a football game – a situation in which you might particularly expect to see vicarious hormonal effects since it’s the men’s own kin who are involved.
Alongside the physical jostle, thrust and tug of sport there is a parallel contest involving words. Although this trash talking between players before, during and after games is well known, it is surprisingly unstudied by psychologists. Yet these exchanges play a major role, arguably swinging the outcome of games. Consider an infamous example: the 2006 football world cup final in which Italy’s Marco Materazzi insulted the sister or mother (depending on whose account you believe) of France’s star player Zinadine Zidane, who in turn responded by head butting Materazzi. Zidane was then sent off, with Italy going on to win the game on penalties.
Is trash talking more prevalent in some sports than others? What does trash talk tend to be about? A new exploratory paper in Human Nature is among the first systematic investigations of trash talking in sport, and certainly the first to examine the phenomenon through an evolutionary lens.