Most of us tend to think we’re better than average: more competent, honest, talented and compassionate. The latest example of this kind of optimistic self-perception is the “invisibility cloak illusion”. In research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Erica Boothby and her colleagues show how we have a tendency to believe that we are incredibly socially observant ourselves, while those around us are less so. These assumptions combine to create the illusion that we observe others more than they observe us.
At least one in four readers of this post will die of cancer. This is a simple statistic that leads rationally thinking people to treat the possibility as very likely. And this is what many do: they try to adopt a lifestyle that minimises the risk to some degree. But how do we know what minimises and what increases this risk? Of course, by listening to experts, the best of whom are scientists who research these things. However, whenever there is disquiet brought about by uncertainty, self-titled experts come out of the woodwork. Discussion of factors increasing the risk of cancer is today not only the domain of medical doctors and psycho-oncologists, but is also engaged in by some alternative medicine proponents, pseudopsychologists, and fringe psychotherapists, whose opinions are disseminated by journalists, some more thorough than others (see myth #26 in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology for more background).
Among these opinions is the common claim that negative thinking, pessimism, and stress create the conditions for the cells in our body to run amok, and for cancer to develop. Similar declarations accompany therapeutic propositions for changing our way of thinking into a more positive one that will protect us from cancer, or even cure us of the disease. Should you, therefore, begin to fear the possibility of cancer if you are not prone to optimism, or – even worse – have bouts of depression?
Academically successful children are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke cannabis in their teenage years than their less academic peers. That’s according to a study of over 6000 young people in England published recently in BMJ Open by researchers at UCL. While the results may sound surprising, they shouldn’t be. The finding is in fact consistent with earlier research that showed a relationship between higher childhood IQ and the use in adolescence of a wide range of illegal drugs.
Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.
Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.
While autism is usually diagnosed in childhood, some people remain “off the radar” for a long time and only receive a diagnosis much later. One possible reason is that they have learned socially appropriate behaviours, effectively camouflaging their social difficulties, including maintaining eye contact during conversations, memorising jokes or imitating facial expressions.
This pattern of behaviour could have serious consequences for the lives of some people with autism. It is easy to imagine that camouflaging demands significant cognitive effort, leading to mental exhaustion over time, and in extreme cases perhaps also contributing to anxiety and depression.
If there are gender differences in camouflaging, this could also help explain the well-known male preponderance in autism spectrum disorders. At least part of the gender imbalance may, in fact, stem from an under-diagnosis of autism in girls because they are better at “masking” symptoms.
Before now, autism camouflaging has not been studied in a systematic and standardised manner: a recent open-access study in the journal Autism, by Meng-Chuan Lai and his colleagues, is the first to offer an operationalisation of camouflaging, which they define as the discrepancy between internal and external states in social-interpersonal contexts. For instance, if an autistic person maintains eye contact during a conversation because they have learnt that this is socially appropriate, even though this clashes with how they really want to behave, this would be an example of camouflaging.
Coming up with the perfect recipe for crisps or the ideal marketing strategy for a soft drink used to depend on explicit measures. In focus groups and surveys, consumers were asked which product tasted best or which commercial was most appealing. But these measures are imperfect: consumers may choose to hide their true opinions or they might not be fully aware of their own preferences. Food and drinks companies need more objective measures. Currently their best hope is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The idea is that somewhere in the brain, a “buy button” is hidden away: a region (or combination of regions) that influence your purchase decision. The promise of neuromarketing is that one day, we will be able to find this region, record its activity when you watch an ad or sample a product, and then predict how well this product will sell. So far, the success has been limited. But in a recent study in NeuroImage, Simone Kühn from the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf and her colleagues claim to have found “multiple ‘buy buttons’ in the brain”.
It would be very concerning if “girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait”, as The Guardian reported last week, especially if “this view has consequences”, as was argued in The Atlantic. Both stories implied girls’ beliefs about gender could be part of the explanation for why relatively few women are found working in fields such as maths, physics, and philosophy. These news stories, widely shared on social media, were based on a new psychology paper by Lin Bian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues, published in Science, entitled “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests”. The paper reported four studies, which at first appear to have simple, clear-cut conclusions. But a closer look at the data reveals that the results are rather weak, and the researchers’ interpretation goes far beyond what their studies have shown.
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” the French author and philosopher Albert Camus stated. But it is not only philosophers who are moved by this issue. Psychologists are seeking ways of preventing this tragic death, and health care organisations are sounding the alarm. Around a million people die at their own hand every year, which makes suicide the tenth most common cause of death. Additionally, for every completed suicide, there are 10 to 40 survived attempts, which means that in the USA alone 650,000 people each year are taken to emergency rooms following an attempt on their own life. Yet what is most disturbing is that the number of suicides is continually rising. The WHO reports that since the 1960s this number has grown over 60 per cent.
Is psychology capable of identifying the risk factors that can push people to take their own lives? Joseph Franklin at Florida State University and his research team at the Technology and Psychopathy (TAP) Lab have provided an answer, but it is a disappointing one. Our capacity to predict whether someone will make a suicide attempt is no better than chance. What is worse, we have not made any progress in this area in the last half-century. These striking conclusions come as the result of a meta-analysis of 365 studies into suicide risk conducted over the last 50 years and published recently in Psychological Bulletin (pdf).
Glastonbury 1997, the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the pilgrimage to Lourdes in 2008: what do they have in common? All three were the backdrop to outbreaks of communicable disease, and so of interest to doctors working in mass gathering medicine. The goal of this relatively young field is to address the specific health problems associated with mass events, but two British psychologists now claim that this can only be done effectively by understanding the psychological transformation that people undergo when they join a crowd.
If you want to maximise a person’s intellectual potential, the general consensus for a long time has been that you need to start young. According to this traditional view, early childhood offers a precious “window of opportunity” or “sensitive period” for learning that closes slowly as we reach adolescence. It’s the reason that toddlers find it easier to master the accent of a foreign language, for instance.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at University College London has spent the last decade over-turning some of these assumptions, showing that the adolescent brain is still remarkably flexible as it undergoes profound anatomical changes. “The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” she told Edge in 2012. The transformation is particularly marked in the prefrontal lobes (located behind the forehead) and the parietal lobes (underneath and just behind the top of your head): two regions that are involved in abstract thought.
The upshot is that teenagers may go through a second sensitive period, in which they are particularly responsive to certain kinds of intellectual stimulation. A new paper from Blakemore’s lab, published in Psychological Science, builds on this idea, showing that our ability to learn certain kinds of analytical skills doesn’t diminish after childhood, but actually increases through adolescence and into early adulthood.