How do you measure the success of a child’s education? Test results are one thing, and according to a recent global survey, British children have risen in the league tables for both maths and reading. However, these same teens reported among the lowest levels of life satisfaction. They may be performing well academically, but they’re not thriving.
This isn’t a problem only in the UK, of course. At a recent conference that I attended, organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, research psychologists, education specialists, economists and philosophers from around the world met to discuss how to help individuals and societies flourish in the 21st century. One word hung in the air as key: “character”.
Over the last few years, so-called “fake news” — purposefully untrue misinformation spread online — has become more and more of a concern. From extensive media coverage of the issue to government committees being set up for its investigation, fake news is at the top of the agenda — and more often than we’d like, on top of our newsfeeds.
But how does exposure to misinformation impact the way we respond to it? A new study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that the more we see it, the more we’re likely to spread it. And considering the fact that fake news is more likely to go viral than real news, this could have worrying implications.
Last year we published a list of ten psychology findings that reveal the worst of human nature. Research has shown us to be dogmatic and over-confident, we wrote, with a tendency to look down on minorities and assume that the downtrodden deserve their fate. Even young children take pleasure in the suffering of others, we pointed out.
But that’s only half of the story. Every day, people around the world fight against injustices, dedicate time and resources to helping those less fortunate than them, or just perform simple acts of kindness that brighten the lives of those around them. And psychology has as much to say about this brighter side of humanity as it does the darker one. So here we explore some of the research that demonstrates just how kind and compassionate we can be.
What is it about social media that makes discussions about controversial topics so caustic and unpleasant? A variety of reasons have been put forward — such as the tendency for outrage to self-perpetuate, as we reported earlier this week. But now a new study, published in PLoS One, implicates a concept so far explored in philosophy rather than psychology. This is “moral grandstanding” — publicly opining on morality and politics to impress others, and so to seek social status.
Imagine that tomorrow a catastrophe wipes out 99% of the world’s population. That’s clearly not a desirable scenario — we would all agree that a peaceful, continued existence is preferable. Now imagine that the disaster kills everyone, wiping out the human race. Most of us would rate that as an even worse occurrence.
But how do we see the relative severity of these different possibilities? Is there a bigger difference between nothing happening and 99% of people dying, or between 99% and 100% of people being wiped out?
This thought-experiment was first posed by the philosopher Derek Parfit, who thought most people would believe the first difference is greater — after all, going from business-as-usual to almost total annihilation is a big step. He, on the other hand, felt the second difference was greater by far: even if just a tiny fraction of humans survive, civilisation could continue for millions of years, but if humanity is wiped from the face of the Earth, then it’s all over.
Now a new study in Scientific Reports has found that, like Parfit predicted, most people don’t seem to share his view of human extinction as a “uniquely bad” catastrophe — until they are forced to go beyond their gut feeling and reflect on what extinction really means in the long term.
If you saw a stranger break into someone’s house in the middle of the night, you’d probably call the police. But what if it was a friend or family member who was committing the crime? A new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at the tension between wanting to punish people who commit immoral acts and protecting those with whom we have close relationships. And it turns out that if someone close to us behaves immorally, we tend to err on the side of protecting them — even if their crime is especially egregious.
Imagine seeing a photograph of a suffering child in the war-torn region of Darfur, in Sudan. Most of us would feel compassion towards that child. Now imagine seeing a photo of a group of eight children in the same terrible predicament. You’d feel correspondingly more compassion towards this larger group… right?
Well, probably not. Plenty of studies have demonstrated what’s known as the “numeracy bias” in compassion — that people’s feelings of compassion do not tend to increase in response to greater numbers of people in distress. This “leads people frequently to experience a disproportionate amount of compassion towards a single suffering individual relative to scores of suffering victims that are part of a larger tragedy,” write Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University, in their new paper, published in the journal Emotion. However, they’ve now found that people who have experienced adversity in their own lives are resistant to this bias — and they have some suggestions for how the rest of us might avoid it.
Philosophers have long debated what constitutes genuine altruism. Some have argued that any acts, no matter however charitable, that benefit both the actor as well as the recipient, are altruistically “impure”, and thus can’t qualify as genuinely selfless. For example, volunteering at a soup kitchen would no longer be considered altruistic if we received a hot meal in return for our efforts.
However, other scholars have argued that the act remains altruistic if the benefits of prosocial behaviour are an unintended consequence. From this perspective, if the meal is unexpected, our actions are still deemed selfless.
For their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Ryan Carlson and Jamil Zaki have shed light on these questions by investigating what the general population thinks of different prosocial acts, depending on their motives and consequences.
Understanding popular perceptions of prosocial behavior can not only help resolve the altruism debate, but also provide information about how our behaviour might be viewed by others, and whether our personal opinions on selflessness match up with the general belief. For example, why might we perceive the supposedly altruistic behaviour of a public figure differently to our friends, and is social media really the right place to publicise prosocial acts?
Perhaps no concept has been more important to social psychology in recent years — for good and ill — than “social priming”, or the idea, as the science writer Neuroskeptic once put it, that “subtle cues can exert large, unconscious influences on human behaviour.” This subgenre of research has produced a steady drumbeat of interesting findings, but unfortunately, an increasing number of them are failing to replicate – including modern classics, like the idea that exposure to ageing-related words makes you walk more slowly, or that thinking about money increases your selfishness.
The so-called “Macbeth effect” is another classic example of social priming that gained mainstream recognition and acceptance from psychologists and laypeople alike. The term was first introduced by the psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, who reported in a 2006 paper in Sciencethat “a threat to one’s moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself”.
This claim is such an interesting, provocative example of the connection between body and mind that it’s little wonder it has spread far and wide — there aren’t a lot of social-priming findings with their own Wikipedia page (it was also covered here at the Research Digest). But is it as strong as everyone thinks? For a recent paper in Social Psychology the psychologists Jedediah Siev, Shelby Zuckerman, and Joseph Siev decided to find out by conducting a meta-analysis of the available papers on the Macbeth effect to date.
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.