One of the best-known but also most contentious ideas in psychology has to be that there are “universal” expressions of at least some human emotions. According to this idea, which was pioneered by Paul Ekman, particular patterns of facial muscular movements are reliable indicators of anger, disgust, fear, surprise, happiness, sadness and contempt, no matter where you are in the world. In other words, these expressions are a fundamental part of being human.
The idea of universal emotional expressions has been challenged, however. Some psychologists argue that even within the US or UK, say, facial movements that we routinely associate with certain emotions — such as a smile with feeling happy — don’t reliably match in that way. Others think that facial “expressions” are better understood as social signals. According to this model, when someone smiles, it doesn’t mean that they’re happy but rather that they want to be sociable and cooperative, while a frown doesn’t mean “I’m angry” but rather “I want you to bend to my will”. Physical social signals, beyond facial movements, have been identified, too. And now a new paper in Scientific Reports enters this field, with the claim that a downwards head-tilt is a “possibly universal” signal of dominance.
“But they won’t hurt you! They eat bugs. They’re our friends!” I’ve tried telling my now-12-year-old all these things many times over the years, but his fear of spiders persists. It’s hardly a rare fear; an estimated 6% of the general population suffer from full-blown arachnophobia. The leading explanation is that our ancestors evolved to fear spiders, and this has been passed on to us. But there are a few problems with this, point out the authors of a new paper in Scientific Reports.
Firstly: only 0.5% of spider species are potentially dangerous to humans. Secondly: these species are mostly found not in Africa, where modern humans evolved, but rather Australia and South America, the two continents that have been most recently colonised by people. Given this, the idea of an evolved, generalised fear of spiders doesn’t seem that compelling. Daniel Frynta at Charles University, Prague, and colleagues had another idea: perhaps we evolved to fear not “essentially harmless” spiders but a dangerous close relative with a similar body body plan: scorpions — and our brains over-generalise, reacting to spiders in the same way. To investigate this, they ran a study that would have left my 12-year-old with nightmares for months…
We’re all familiar with the “Big Five” model of personality, which measures the traits of conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness. But what drove the evolution of these personality domains? And how do animal personalities compare with ours? Answers to the second question can help to answer the first. And now a major new study of personality in bottlenose dolphins, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, has found that in some key ways, dolphin personality is like ours; in others, though, it is not.
Introduce a single man to a single woman and the odds are that he will over-estimate how sexually interested she is in him, while she will under-estimate his sexual interest in her. This sex difference in misperceptions has been found by researchers time and again. The conventional explanation is that these are evolved adaptions — that’s it’s more evolutionarily costly for a man to miss a chance to mate with an interested partner than it is for a woman, and more costly for a woman to engage in sex with an uncommitted man than vice versa. But now a new study, published in Psychological Science, challenges this notion, and provides some alternative explanations.
Break-ups are always hard, with love and companionship giving way to feelings of resentment and the souring of once treasured memories. Yet people often continue to harbour positive feelings towards their exes long after the relationship is over. And that may be particularly the case if you’re a man, according to a recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Researchers have found that, in heterosexual relationships at least, men tend to view their exes more positively than do women.
Going home from dinner out with a friend or a Sunday family lunch, you may notice you feel slightly more full than you normally do after eating. And while some of this may have to do with how many potatoes your mum insists you eat, new research seems to suggest that there could be something else going on. Researchers analysing dozens of past studies on the “social facilitation” of eating have confirmed that people do tend to eat more when eating in groups than alone — and have come up with several social and psychological mechanisms that could explain our increase in consumption in company.
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.