In 2016, the unexpected outcome of two votes shook the world: the UK voting to leave the European Union, and the US electing President Donald Trump. Even the pollsters got it wrong – for example, based on the latest polling data, the New York Times gave Clinton an 85 per cent chance of winning just the day before the election.
Accurate polling is important for a number of reasons. Poll results influence politicians’ campaign strategies and fundraising efforts; affect market prices and business forecasts; and they can impact voters’ perceptions and even turnout. So, when the polls are wide of the mark – as they were so badly in 2016 – many outcomes are being sent astray by misleading information.
But polling is not as simple as just asking a lot of people who they intend to vote for. Polls are often biased by who is motivated enough to respond, and people can be overly-optimistic about the likelihood they will actually vote.
Another factor, outlined by Andy Brownback and Aaron Novotny of the University of Arkansas in their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental and Behavioural Economics, is people feeling the need to conceal their true voting intentions.
The “Big Society” initiative – launched at the turn of this decade by the incoming British government – wasa call for politics to recognise the importance of community and social solidarity. It has since fizzled out, and for a while communitarianism fell out of the political conversation, but it has returned post-Brexit, sometimes with a nationalist or even nativist flavour. The US political scientist Robert Putnam’s research is sometimes recruited into these arguments, as his data suggests that racially and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have lower levels of trust and social capital, which would seem an obstacle to community-building. But an international team led by Jared Nai at Singapore Management University has published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that diverse neighbourhoods are in fact more likely to generate prosocial helpful behaviours.
A growth mindset – believing your capabilities can grow over time – can help us set self-improvement goals, consider mistakes as a step towards mastery, and remain upbeat when facing tribulation. Psychologists are excited by the ways we can help develop such mindsets, particularly towards creativity and intelligence, but some studies have found the impact less impressive than earlier research had suggested. Now researchers are hungry to understand the individual characteristics that might prevent these interventions making an impact on some people.
New research in the British Journal of Social Psychology has investigated one possible candidate – political ideology, specifically a perspective known as “social dominance orientation”. If you are invested in preserving the status quo, perhaps that encourages you to see social relations as inevitable, as “just the way things are” – an essentialist, fixed view of the world that seems to carry over to how you view human capability.
It’s timely, then, that a team of researchers, led by psychologist Emily Willoughby at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, recently surveyed over 1000 online US participants, asking them about their personal circumstances, education, political orientation, and also to estimate the relative contribution of genes and the environment to variation in 21 different human traits, from eye colour to intelligence. This is probably the most detailed study to date of people’s insights into behavioural genetics, and the findings have just been published as a pre-print at the Open Science Framework.
“Microaggressions” are seemingly innocuous words or behaviour that supposedly communicate a bias toward minority groups, such as asking Asian Americans where they are from, implying that they are not really part of the USA. According to advocates of the usefulness of the concept, microaggressions cause real harm, even if unintended by the perpetrator. However, the theoretical and evidential support for the concept of microaggressions is far from clear, as detailed in Scott Lilienfeld’s recent thorough critique, which recommended the term be revised or at least re-examined. Now, Craig Harper, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, has published a study as a pre-print online at PsyArXiv that, he argues, reveals a further key problem with the concept of the microaggression.
One reason why fake news is dangerous is that we don’t like giving up reassuring certainties, and once we have a take on things, it colours further information – hence the seeming bulletproof nature of conspiracy theories and partisan political hatreds. But new research in Intelligence suggests this is truer for some people than others. For mentally sharp people, the results suggest it’s relatively easy to jettison an outdated perspective, while for those of lower cognitive ability, the dregs remain.
One year ago today, Donald J Trump, a man with no political or military experience, defied expectations, winning the election to become the 45th president of the United States. Nearly 63 million voted for him, including, and in spite of his reputation for sexism, over half of all white women. In an open-access paper in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Dan McAdams, one of the world’s leading experts in personality psychology, proposes an explanation for Trump’s popular appeal that is grounded in evolutionary psychology, personality theory and the social psychology of leadership.
Imagine contemplating which treatment to undertake for a health problem. Your specialist explains there are two possibilities, and strongly endorses one as right for you. But when you discuss it with a friend, she suggests that based on what she’s heard, the other would be better. Another friend, the same. And another. Does there come a point where the friends outweigh the expert? Given enough information – the accuracy of the expert in the past, the degree to which the public have any insight on the issue – you can in theory mathematically “solve” this issue with a probabilistic model. In fact, according to new research published in Thinking and Reasoning, that’s exactly what we do intuitively and with a high degree of accuracy.
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.
Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in theirnew paper inNature Human Behaviour.