Most of us have a sense of what it means to be human. Research shows that we agree with each other that traits like friendly, jealous or impatient are more “human” than others like unemotional or selfless. What’s more, we like to see ourselves as human: we care more about human traits and claim to possess them more than other people. In other words, we “self-humanise”, laying claim to the good and the bad as long as they emphasise our own humanity.
But this research on self-humanising presents a conundrum. A different, abundant line of evidence shows that humans bitterly protect a highly positive self-image, supported by cognitive biases that attribute our own failings to circumstances and other people’s to their deficiencies. So, do we really overestimate the bad in ourselves, claiming to be more human, warts and all? According to a critique of the self-humanising field in The Journal of Social Psychology, this is an oversimplification: when it comes to undesirable human traits, we see ourselves as pretty similar to other people.
If you’re in need of some renewed faith in human nature, the research literature on altruism by toddlers is a great place to look. Charming studies have shown that little children will readily go out of their way to help you, such as picking up things you’ve dropped, or passing you stuff you can’t reach. They can even do “paternalistic helping” which is when they ignore your specific request to help you in a way that you’ll find even more beneficial.
There are some evolutionarily tinged theoretical explanations for why children have these instincts: we’re a highly social species so it makes sense that we’re naturally inclined to help each other as a way to gain status and receive reciprocal favours later. A new paper in Developmental Psychology has taken a slightly different approach, asking: what is it, in the moment, that motivates toddlers to help others? Robert Hepach and his colleagues, including Michael Tomasello who’s conducted a lot of the landmark work on the development of altruism, report that toddlers are helpful, at least in part, because, well, they enjoy it. In fact, based on a new body-language measure of their emotion, they seem to find helping someone else about as pleasurable as they find helping themselves.
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”.
Since she got back from her year abroad, there’s been something different about Sam. Once an avid rule-follower, now she’s breaking them – and when you raise it she explains that these things, after all, are just a matter of perspective.
Can exposure to other countries breed a flexible relationship to the rules, even moral relativism? According to new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Cognition, it can.
Columbia University’s Jackson Lu led an international team to explore this question through a range of studies. They knew living abroad has been associated with positive outcomes such as reduced judgment of other groups and, in particular, cognitive flexibility, which supports creativity. But Lu’s team theorised a possible downside: that this flexibility could extend to the domain of morality. Perhaps experiencing many moral codes can prompt us to question our own.
Work is getting stale, and you’ve recently been courted by an exciting new company for a great role, the one drawback being a slight pay cut. Before you’ve made up your mind, your manager asks you whether you have plans to go elsewhere. If you wanted to avoid showing your hand, you could lie blatantly. You could change the topic. Or, you could palter: use a truthful statement to create a misleading impression.
“Financially, you’re treating me really well and I don’t think there’s anything out there that could match that.”
Paltering is the topic of a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors, Todd Rogers and others at Harvard University, focused on negotiation situations, where access to accurate information had concrete consequences. They found that paltering is fairly common – real-life negotiators reported doing it more frequently then telling a lie, and as commonly as neglecting to share information – and that one reason for this is that they believed it wasn’t such a big deal as lying. In this, they were sadly mistaken.
When we feel ostracised, we’re more likely to behave aggressively. Previous research suggests that vengeance on those who we think have wronged us can be driven by a sense of justice, and may activate neural reward centres. But being ostracised can also lead to generalised aggression, even lashing out at unrelated people, so there seems to be more going on. In new research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall tested the idea that social rejection, by making us feel wounded and unwanted, triggers a need to repair our mood by whatever means available, including through the satisfaction of causing harm to those who have made us suffer. They found that aggression can indeed be a viable method of mood repair.
Television programs portraying ordinary people in unexpected situations are almost as old as the medium of television itself. First aired in 1984, Candid Camera is often seen as a prototype of the reality show. Its premise was simple – unsuspecting people were confronted with unusual, funny situations and filmed with hidden cameras. However, the genre exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and 2000s with the global success of such series as Survivor, Idol, and Big Brother, and to this day many people continue to abandon their own activities for the voyeuristic other.
Reality shows have not only amassed incredible popularity but have also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism. Among the most serious complaints is the allegation that the shows rely on viewers’ enjoyment of the humiliation and degradation of participants. It is quite difficult to find an individual who is indifferent to such programmes. We either hate reality shows or we watch them, quite often without considering why.
Up until now, scholarly opinion on the subject has been divided. Some maintain that the shows’ appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and is thus driven by positive feelings like empathy and compassion. Others claim that reality TV viewers are driven by a voyeuristic desire to intrude on others and to see them in their most private and embarrassing moments. Michal Hershman Shitrit and Jonathan Cohen from University of Haifa in Israel recently tested these contrasting perspectives for a study in the Journal of Media Psychology. Continue reading “Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation”→
“How did our politics get so poisonous? We drank too much of the poison. There’s a gentle high to the condemnation. And you know you’re right, right? You know you’re right.” Steven Colbert
Wrapping up his coverage of the US election, Colbert touched on something that may hold true even beyond partisan politics: most of us seem to think we’re more moral than other people. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has provided fresh evidence supporting Colbert’s observation. Our tendency to see ourselves as better than average – already well-established in psychology in relation to things like driving ability and attractiveness – applies to our sense of our own morality, more strongly than it does to other aspects of ourselves. And the new research shows just how irrational this really is.
You’re walking to work and spot a cyclist on the ground, next to his upturned bike, wincing in pain. Do you go and help? Of the many factors influencing your decision, psychological theory suggests that among the most important is your levels of empathy. If you feel the cyclist’s pain and misfortune, you’re more likely to be motivated to help. This might sound obvious, but there has been surprisingly little research to test whether measuring someone’s empathy levels in a questionnaire actually predicts the likelihood that they will show real-life altruism. That’s what Richard Bethlehem and his colleagues have done for a new open access study in Social Neuroscience, in which they staged a bicycle accident along a university footpath. The results provide some of the first evidence that empathy is correlated with altruism “in the wild”. Continue reading “Staged bike crash tests whether empathic people are more altruistic”→
Tom Tate’s second visit to the German town of Pforzheim was a return to somewhere he hadn’t seen in fifty years. After bailing from a burning plane, he and his RAF squad had landed there, been captured, and his comrades executed by a Hitler Youth group incensed by the bombing the town had suffered. Tate himself had only escaped by moments, and swore never to return to a place that he believed bore only hate against him. But spurred by a magazine article that mentioned an annual service held to commemorate the atrocity, he decided to make the journey. Once there, he found himself welcomed by a population who deeply regretted their actions.
This story opens a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates whether we underestimate how much our persecutors seek forgiveness. Relevant here is classic research that suggests a difference of perspective in how we judge people’s actions – we see our own actions as being strongly influenced by the situation we’re in, but when judging other another person’s actions we seem him or her as more directly responsible (sometimes described as the actor-observer bias). Researchers Gabrielle Adams and M. Ena Inesi thought that the same bias might be relevant to when one person harms another – that victims will typically assume the perpetrator intended his or her actions and will therefore remain unrepentant. Continue reading “Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard”→