Spreading information about the benefits of exercise – including how it reduces the risk of chronic diseases and improves mental health and wellbeing, from sleep quality to self-esteem – hasn’t been enough to change people’s behaviour. Only 30 to 40 per cent of adults in the UK say they get the recommended amount of physical activity per week, and this figure drops to just 5 per cent when using accelerometers to measure movement. It’s a similar story even for people who have made the effort to join a gym – in a recent poll, a third of members reported visiting their gym three times a year or less. It seems we need to get more creative to persuade people to get active.
To test out some innovative psychological approaches, a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics selected 181 infrequent gym-goers at the University of West Chester, who went on average less than once a week before the experiment. All students at the university have free access to the fitness centre, and their attendance is automatically recorded when they swipe in.
Surveys and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting election results, as a chain of rather unexpected events last year demonstrated. These instruments usually ask people about their explicit attitudes and opinions. Often, however, these “external” proxies are not entirely representative of what a person is really thinking. For example, severalstudies have shown that implicit attitudes – that is, subtle preferences or biases outside the realm of our consciousness – can be more useful in predicting our future choices.
As scary as this may sound, there is also mounting evidence that our physiological responses can be even more accurate in revealing how we’re likely to vote. In a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from Kingston University and the University of Essex have taken a closer look at a voting outcome in the UK that, last year, came as a surprise to a lot of people. Their findings suggest that people’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of they way they went on to vote in the Brexit referendum than their stated intentions.
Cast your mind back to your teenage maths lessons. Without a calculator, would you have been able to estimate the answer to the following sum?
12/13 + 7/8
Don’t worry about giving the precise number; just say whether it lies closest to 1, 2, 19, or 21*.
By the end of middle school, most American pupils have been studying fractions for a few years; these questions should be embarrassingly easy. But when Robert Siegler, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University posed the problem to a group of 8th graders (13 to 14 year olds), he found that they performed little better than if they’d simply guessed – with just 27 per cent choosing the right answer. In another test, around 50 per cent of 8th graders failed the arguably easier task of putting a series of simple fractions into size order, from smallest to biggest.
As if this dismal performance wasn’t depressing enough, it comes after decades of educational reforms. American educational psychologists first identified that teens often struggled to understand fractions in 1978, and since then various government commissions and teacher committees have attempted to address the issue, including thousands of educational studies and the introduction of widely used textbooks aimed specifically at deepening children’s understanding of fractions and decimals. These efforts may have amounted to billions of dollars’ worth of spending. Yet Siegler found next-to-no improvement in performance over the 40-year period.
Interestingly, students from other cultures – most notably, East Asian countries – do not face these problems. Siegler and his colleague Hugues Lortie-Forgues have explored the various potential explanations in their recent article for Current Directions in Psychological Science, including research that hints at a tantalizing link between language and mathematical reasoning.
As they point out, a basic understanding of fractions and decimals is essential for any further mathematical or science education – so finding a way to remove this stumbling block could have serious consequences for the pupils’ future careers.
As social creatures, accurately recognising and understanding the mental states of others (their intentions, knowledge, beliefs, etc.) is crucial to our social bonds and interactions. In fact, in today’s multi-cultural world and strongly divided political climate, this skill – known as Theory of Mind – is perhaps more important than ever. A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement proposes that an effective way to develop our Theory of Mind lies in learning to better understand ourselves.
Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
It sounds like a paradox – the idea that participating in aggressive sport can make people less aggressive. Yet this belief forms a core basis of many martial arts dating back thousands of years, and many famous practitioners (real and fictional) have preached the importance of self control.
Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee once noted that “emotion can be the enemy. If you give into your emotion, you lose yourself”. Or as Mr Miyagi said in The Karate Kid the “lesson is not just karate only, the lesson is for whole life”.
Previous research has demonstrated that this may well be the case, as participating in martial arts helps improve concentration and self-awareness, self-esteem, emotional stability and self-regulation.
But is it really true that martial arts also reduces aggression outside the dojo? Can participating in traditionally violent sports prove cathartic, helping young people develop self-discipline and in turn be less violent away from the sport? Writing in the journal of Aggression and Violent Behaviour researchers from Israel and America report their findings from the first meta-analysis on the impact of martial arts on violent behaviours in children and teenagers.
In most human societies those with a higher social status enjoy privileges beyond the reach of others. Such status can be obtained through dominance, using intimidation or force, or acquiring prestige by demonstrating knowledge and skill. To make best use of the benefits though, other people need to know that you are top dog.
On the other hand, if you’re of a lower status, there are probably times when it pays to avoid challenging those higher up the pecking order. In which case, you might want to convey your recognition of their authority.
Using body language, such as by taking up more space (adopting “power poses”) may be one of the most obvious, visible modes of asserting ourselves. But of course speech also conveys status, not only in its content, but in the characteristics of the voice itself. Indeed, according to a new study in PLOS One we adjust the pitch of our voice depending on who we are talking to. The research group at the University of Stirling found that the direction of this unconscious vocal tuning depends on the speaker’s perception of their social status relative to the listener.
Cognitive performance fluctuates throughout the day. Depending on their “chronotype” some people are sharpest in the morning (“larks”), while others generally prefer the later hours of the day (“owls”). For obvious reasons, this is mirrored in our preferred sleep routines: larks get tired in the evenings earlier and, as a consequence, also wake up earlier, while owls show the opposite pattern. Your chronotype is not something that you’re stuck with for the rest of your life, but it changes with age. In fact we’re most likely to show an owl-like chronotype during adolescence, which might at least partly explain why teenagers often stay up late and arrive at school with eyes bloodshot thanks to a hefty sleep debt.
But if late chronotypes are so common in adolescents, why does school start so early (usually well before 9am in the UK, Netherlands and Germany)? Doesn’t that mean that many students are likely to be constantly sleep-deprived and not assessed during their biological peaks? Yes, it does! In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that school kids who have a late chronotype score lower grades. But besides reduced sleep time, there are several alternative explanations for why a late chronotype could be associated with lower academic performance (such as absenteeism, for instance) as explored in a new paper in Scientific Reports. The researchers, led by Giulia Zerbini at University of Groningen, say their findings might help us understand the chronotype/school grade link and how we can fix it.
Pressure does interesting things to an athlete. For some, it leads to an increase in tension, nerves and anxiety. Others are able to channel this increased pressure into running faster, jumping higher and throwing further. What strategies do these “big game players” use to raise their game under heightened pressure – known as a “clutch performance”?
In the Journal of Sports Sciences, researchers from Australia and England recently reported the results of their interviews with sixteen athletes from around the world just a few days after they had delivered an excellent sporting performance in a competition when under pressure. The findings represent a step forward in our understanding of expert and skilled performances, showing how clutch performance is similar to, but distinct from, the related concept of “flow”.
Our autobiographical memory is fundamental to the development of our sense of self. However, according to past research, it may be compromised in autism, together with other skills that are also vital for self understanding, such as introspection and the ability to attribute mental states to others (known as mentalising).
For example, experiments involving autistic children have highlighted retrieval difficulties, “impoverished narratives”, and a greater need for prompting, while also suggesting that semantic recall (facts from the past) may be impaired in younger individuals.
Now a UK research team, led by Sally Robinson from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, has published the first attempt to assess the nature of – and relationships between – autobiographical memory, mentalising and introspection in autism. Reporting their findings in Autism journal, the group hope their results will shed more light on the way that autistic children and teens develop a sense of self.