The idea that the language that you speak influences how you think about and experience the world (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has a long and storied history. A lot of research into the issue has focused on colour perception, and evidence has accumulated that people whose native languages have different colour categories don’t see the world in quite the same way.
Now in a new paper, published in Psychological Science, Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman at the Humboldt University of Berlin report that by affecting visual processing at an early stage, such linguistic differences can even determine whether someone will see a coloured shape – or they won’t. “Our native language is thus one of the forces that determine what we consciously perceive,” they write.
You’re in a packed food court, searching for somewhere to sit. Just as you spot a communal table with two free spaces, one much bigger and more comfortable-looking than the other, you realise there’s a person standing beside you with a tray and they are looking for somewhere to sit, too. What do you do? Rush to take the better seat – but appear selfish? Or let them have it, so seem generous – but eat your lunch in cramped discomfort?
A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that you should do neither. Instead, you should say something like, “Oh, go ahead – you choose a seat”, and the odds are that she or he will not only leave the better seat for you, but also think that you’re generous.
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.
Crap. Merde. Ibn sharmoota.* Swear words exist in most cultures (Japan is a notable exception), and many of us use them so casually and so frequently that by the time children start school, they have, according to one count, acquired a profanity bank of 30 to 40 words. (My own seven-year-old loves to whisper “fricking” in a friend’s ear, making them both giggle guiltily. My only defence is that he certainly didn’t get that one from me…)
Since even words like “fuck” are used conversationally, at least in the US and UK, surely they’ve lost the power to trigger a negative response in a listener – especially as far as younger adults are concerned? Not according to a new paper published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. Melanie DeFrank and Patricia Kahlbaugh, at Southern Connecticut State University, found that teenagers who swear casually were judged by college students as being less intelligent and less trustworthy.
Mental imagery helps us anticipate the future, and vivid mental pictures inject emotion into our thought processes. If operating in a foreign language diminishes our imagination – as reported by a pair of psychologists at the University of Chicago in the journal Cognition – this could affect the emotionality of our thoughts, and our ability to visualise future scenarios, thus helping to explain previous findings showing that bilinguals using their second language make more utilitarian moral judgments, are less prone to cognitive bias and superstition, and are less concerned by risks.
Operating in our second language can have some intriguing psychological effects. We swear more freely and linger longer on embarrassing topics than normal. We’re also less susceptible to cognitive biases. According to psychologist Constantinos Hadjichristidis at the University of Trento, this is because a second language discourages us from relying on intuitive thinking. In a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Hadjichristidis and his colleagues have shown another way that this manifests – when thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition.
Alcohol is not exactly known for its brain-boosting properties. In fact, it impairs all kinds of cognitive functioning, including working memory and the ability to ignore distractions. So it really should make it harder for someone to speak in a foreign language.
However, as Fritz Renner of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, point out in a new paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “contrary to what would be expected based on theory, it is a widely held belief among bilingual speakers that alcohol consumption improves foreign language fluency, as is evident in anecdotal evidence from numerous discussions in social and popular media.” And in welcome news for holiday drinkers (not to mention language students) everywhere, it turns out that, at least at moderate levels, this belief seems to be right.
By the time a terrorist attack has begun, the security services have already failed. But the challenge they face in detecting potential attacks is substantial, especially since the tactic of terrorism has increasingly been taken up by individual attackers inspired by, but not directly beholden to, formal movements. Spotting a lone wolf among the flock is no easy task, especially when it relies on a bottleneck of human analysis. A new paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior uses a test case of a real lone wolf attack to explore ways we may be able to deal with this in the future. Using online language analysis tools, it hunts within blocks of text for the warning signs we might otherwise miss, with the hope of helping us to more effectively detect the predator.
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.
Some brains struck by pathology seem to stave off its effects thanks to a “cognitive reserve”: a superior use of mental resources that may be related to the way we use our brains over a lifetime, for instance through high levels of education or, possibly, learning a second language.
Bilingual people certainly seem to use their brains differently. For example, practice at switching languages has been associated with enhanced mental control. It’s even been claimed that being bilingual can stave off dementia by up to four or five years.
If true, this would have serious implications for public policy – learning a second language would be as much a desirable health behaviour as it is an educational or cultural one. But are the brain benefits of bilingualism real? The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has published a systematic review and meta-analysis to establish the strength of the evidence base.