Outrage: It’s absolutely everywhere. Today’s world, particularly the version of it blasted into our brains by social media, offers endless fodder, from big, simmering outrages (climate change and many powerful institutions’ refusal to do anything about it) to smaller quotidian ones (every day, someone, somewhere does something offensive that comes to Twitter’s attention, leading to a gleeful pile-on).
In part because of rising awareness of the adverse consequences of unfettered digital-age outrage, and of journalistic treatments like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (which I interviewed him about here), outrage has become a particularly potent dirty word in recent years. Outrage, the thinking goes, is an overly emotional response to a confusing world, and drives people to nasty excesses, from simple online shaming to death threats or actual violence.
But a new paper argues that the concept of outrage has gotten too bad a rap and that its upsides, especially as a motivator of collective action and costly helping, have been overlooked. Writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the psychologists Victoria Spring, Daryl Cameron and Mina Cikara detail important questions about outrage that have yet to be answered, and they highlight how certain findings – especially from the “intergroup relations” literature, in contrast to the mostly negative findings from moral psychology – suggest it can serve a useful purpose.
In 2016, the unexpected outcome of two votes shook the world: the UK voting to leave the European Union, and the US electing President Donald Trump. Even the pollsters got it wrong – for example, based on the latest polling data, the New York Times gave Clinton an 85 per cent chance of winning just the day before the election.
Accurate polling is important for a number of reasons. Poll results influence politicians’ campaign strategies and fundraising efforts; affect market prices and business forecasts; and they can impact voters’ perceptions and even turnout. So, when the polls are wide of the mark – as they were so badly in 2016 – many outcomes are being sent astray by misleading information.
But polling is not as simple as just asking a lot of people who they intend to vote for. Polls are often biased by who is motivated enough to respond, and people can be overly-optimistic about the likelihood they will actually vote.
Another factor, outlined by Andy Brownback and Aaron Novotny of the University of Arkansas in their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental and Behavioural Economics, is people feeling the need to conceal their true voting intentions.
Let’s start with a quick multiple-choice test about multiple-choice tests: when designing them, should you a) avoid using complex questions, b) have lots of potential answers for each question, c) all of the above or d) none of the above? The correct answer is (a), though as we’ll see, this was not a very well-crafted multiple-choice question.
The issue of how best to design multiple-choice questions is important since they have been popular in both education and business settings for many years now. This is due to them being quick to administer and easy to mark and grade. Furthermore, many students often report preferring them over other test formats.
As well as being a useful assessment tool, if they are well-designed they can also aid learning. This is because of the Testing Effect – the way that retrieving knowledge helps consolidate it in memory.
Thankfully in a recent paper in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition Andrew Butler of Washington University in St. Louis has reviewed the parallel literatures on how best to design multiple-choice tests for learning and assessment, and from this he’s recommended six evidence-based tips:
Psychology as a scientific field enjoys a tremendous level of popularity throughout society, a fascination that could even be described as religious. This is likely the reason why it is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in European and American universities. At the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter the firm opinion that psychology in no way qualifies for consideration as a science. Such extremely critical opinions about psychology are often borrowed from authorities – after all, it was none other than the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who, in a famous interview in 1974, compared the social sciences and psychology in particular to a cargo cult. Scepticism toward psychological science can also arise following encounters with the commonplace simplifications and myths spread by pop-psychology, or as a product of a failure to understand what science is and how it solves its dilemmas.
According to William O’Donohue and Brendan Willis of the University of Nevada, these issues are further compounded by undergraduate psychology textbooks. Writing recently in Archives of Scientific Psychology, they argue that “[a] lack of clarity and accuracy in [psych textbooks] in describing what science is and psychology’s relationship to science are at the heart of these issues.” The authors based their conclusions on a review of 30 US and UK undergraduate psychology textbooks, most updated in the last few years (general texts and others covering abnormal, social and cognitive psych), in which they looked for 18 key contemporary issues in philosophy of science.
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.
“How do you feel?” is a simple and commonly asked question that belies the complex nature of our conscious experiences. The feelings and emotions we experience daily consist of bodily sensations, often accompanied by some kind of thought process, yet we still know very little about exactly how these different aspects relate to one another, or about how such experiences are organised in the brain.
Now, reporting their results in PNAS, a team of researchers in Finland, led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa of the University of Turku, has produced detailed maps of what they call the “human feeling space”, showing how each of dozens of these subjective feelings is associated with a unique set of bodily sensations.
Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.
It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).
In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.
Being rich(er) may not guarantee happiness, as shown by ample evidence from the social sciences, but there are ways of spending money that will make you happier than others. Recent research has uncovered the “experiential advantage”: greater happiness from spending money on experiences (holidays, meals, theatre tickets) instead of material things (gadgets, clothes, jewellery). This could be for a number of reasons, such as experiences being more closely aligned with our values and being less likely to produce rumination and regret. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Studies have found that personality traits can influence whether experiences or things make a person happiest; for example, introverts are made much happier by spending vouchers in a bookshop than a bar.
Another likely exception, that hasn’t previously been studied, is how social class, and specifically access to resources, affects this experiential advantage. Indeed, most research in this area has been performed with college students, who are typically more affluent than the general population, and there are reasons to believe that those who are less well-off might prefer material goods. For them, buying things as opposed to experiences could be more practical: they last longer, can be used multiple times and potentially resold in the future. To put this reasoning to the test, a recent paper in Psychological Science investigated whether the experiential advantage is diminished or absent for people who can afford very little compared with those who can afford a lot.
The last time you and your class-mates or co-workers pulled an all-nighter before a deadline, you may have noticed:there are always those lucky individuals who seem to do just fine after a lack of sleep, while others feel drowsy and confused – almost like they had too much to drink.
New research conducted at the German Aerospace Center suggests this could be because alcohol intoxication and sleep deprivation are more similar than we once thought.
In their study published recently in PNAS, Eva-Maria Elmenhorst and David Elmenhorst and their colleagues show how both affect us via a shared mechanism. And what’s more, if you’re sensitive to one, you’re likely to cope poorly with the other as well.
“Update: On Twitter, some researchers argued, reasonably in my view, that I wasn’t quite sceptical enough in relating these findings. See the update at the end of this post for more details.”
If you wanted a poster child for the replication crisis and the controversy it has unleashed within the field of psychology, it would be hard to do much better than Fritz Strack’s findings. In 1988, the German psychologist and his colleagues published research that appeared to show that if your mouth is forced into a smile, you become a bit happier, and if it’s forced into a frown, you become a bit sadder. He pulled this off by asking volunteers to view a set of cartoons (paper ones, not animated) while holding a pen in their mouth, either with their teeth (forcing their mouth into a smile), or with their lips (forcing a frown), and to then use the pen in this position to rate how amused they were by the cartoons. The smilers were more amused, and the frowners less so – and best of all, they mostly didn’t discern the true purpose of the experiment, eliminating potential placebo-effect explanations.
This basic idea, that our facial expressions can feed back into our psychological state and behavior, goes back at least as far as Darwin and William James, but “facial feedback”, as it is known, had never been demonstrated in such an elegant and rigorous-seeming manner. Over time, this style of experiment was replicated and expanded upon, and soon it came to be considered a true blockbuster, so famous it found its ways into psychology textbooks, as well as popular books and articles citing it as an example of the unexpectedly subtle ways our bodies and environments can affect us psychologically. Often, facial feedback has been popularised along the lines of Maybe you can smile your way to happiness!, which added an irresistible self-help element that likely helped spread the idea. Either way, it seemed like a genuinely safe and solid psychological finding. That changed rather abruptly in 2016.