We’re taught from an early age that it is polite and assertive to look people in the eyes when we’re talking to them. Psychology research backs this up – people who make plenty of eye contact – as long as it’s not excessive – are usually perceived as more competent, trustworthy and intelligent. If you want to make a good impression, then, it’s probably a good idea to meet the gaze of the person you’re talking to. However, following this advice is not necessarily straight-forward for everyone. It’s well-documented that mutual gaze can be emotionally intense and distracting, even uncomfortably so for some.
If this is your experience, you may welcome a study published recently in the journal Perception that documents a phenomenon known as the “eye contact illusion” – put simply, we are not that good at telling whether an interlocutor is looking us in the eye or not. In fact, we tend to think they are, even when they’re not (a bias that is magnified after we’ve been rejected). Thanks to this illusion, you can give the impression of making eye contact simply by ensuring you are looking in the general direction of your conversant’s face.
Say you’re planning to run a marathon, and you have a target time in mind. Or you’re on a weight- loss diet, and your aim is to lose six kilos in six weeks. Or, there’s an exam coming up, and you want to score above 75 per cent. These are all individual goal pursuits. In theory, you’re not in direct competition with anybody else, though of course if you’re part of a running club, or a weight loss group, or an undergraduate class, you will be aware that others around you are striving to achieve their own goals.
There’s plenty of evidence that sharing your own goals and hearing about other people’s can be helpful – in providing mutual encouragement, emotional support and motivation. However, a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows how, in certain circumstances, we can’t help ourselves from competing with others – an effect that can be surprisingly counterproductive.The findings suggest that when we’re paired with an individual striving for a similar goal and who is similarly able, we begin to view this other person as an opponent – leading us to sabotage their efforts, ultimately to the detriment of our own performance.
“Pursuing individual goals together with others can at times lead to counter-productive behaviours that not only harm others but also harm oneself,” report Szu-chi Huang at Stanford University, and her colleagues.
Loneliness not only feels bad, experts have characterised it as a disease that increases the risk of a range of physical and psychological disorders. Some national prevalence estimates for loneliness are alarming. Although they can be as low as 4.4 per cent (in Azerbaijan), in other countries (such as Denmark) as many as 20 per cent of adults report being either moderately or severely lonely.
However, there’s no established way of identifying loneliness. Most diagnostic methods treat it as a one-dimensional construct: though it can vary in degrees, someone is either “lonely”, or they’re not. A new approach, outlined in a paper published recently in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, suggests that loneliness should in fact be divided into three sub-types, two of which are associated with poor mental health.
On the way to meet your friend at a cafe you’re confident about sticking to your resolutions for healthier living. It soon goes awry though – no, not because of your weak willpower, but due to your excess empathy.
Your friend orders first and plumps for the super indulgent Winter Warmer Chocca Mocha with added marshmallows. You follow suit, sensing that if you’d stuck with your original plans for a skinny coffee, you’d have made your friend feel awful. There is now a name for this behaviour: You just engaged in “altruistic indulgence”, the most appealing of excuses for a naughty lapse, described for the first time in a paper in Social Influence.
Stereotype threat is a very evocative, disturbing idea: Imagine if simply being reminded that you are a member of a disadvantaged group, and that stereotypes hold that members of your group are bad at certain tasks, led to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you performed worse on such tasks than you would otherwise.
That’s been the claim of stereotype threat researchers since the concept was first introduced in the mid-1990s, and it’s spread far and wide. But as seems to be the case with so many strong psychological claims of late, in recent years the picture has gotten a bit murkier. “A recent review suggested that stereotype threat has a robust but small-to-medium sized effect on performance,” wrote Alex Fradera here at the BPS Research Digest in 2017, “but a meta-analysis suggests that publication bias may be a problem in this literature, inflating the apparent size of the effect.” Adding to the confusion are some results which seem to run exactly opposite to what the theory would suspect, like the one Fradera was reporting on: In that study, female chess players were found to have performed better, not worse, against male opponents, which isn’t what the theory would have predicted.
Now, another study is poised to complicate things yet further. In a paper to be published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, and available as a preprint, a team led by Charlotte Pennington of UWE Bristol recruited female participants to test two mechanisms (reduced effort and working memory disruption) that have been offered to explain the supposed adverse performance effects of gender-related stereotype threat. They also compared different ways of inducing stereotype threat. Interesting questions, you might think, but in all cases the researchers came up empty.
If you Google “holding a warm cup of coffee can” you’ll get a handful of results all telling the same story based on social priming research (essentially the study of how subtle cues affect human thoughts and behavior). “Whether a person is holding a warm cup of coffee can influence his or her views of other people, and a person who has experienced rejection may begin to feel cold,” notes a New York Times blog post, while a Psychology Today article explains that research shows that “holding a warm cup of coffee can make you feel socially closer to those around you.”
These kind of findings are most often associated with John Bargh, a Yale University professor and one of the godfathers of social priming. In his 2017 book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, Bargh goes further, even suggesting – based on social priming studies and a small study that found two hours of “hyperthermia” treatment with an infra lamp helped depressed in-patients – that soup might be able to treat depression. “After all,” he writes, “it turns out that a warm bowl of chicken soup really is good for the soul, as the warmth of the soup helps replace the social warmth that may be missing from the person’s life, as when we are lonely or homesick.” He continues, “These simple home remedies are unlikely to make big profits for the pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries, but if the goal is a broader and more general increase in public mental health, some research into their possible helpfulness could pay big dividends for individuals currently in distress, and for society as a whole.”
Psychologists, philosophers and poets have devoted many years reflecting on the meaning of love for another. A less-explored question – the focus of a study to appear in the January 2019 issue of Journal of Social and Personal Relationships – is what makes us feel loved by others?
More specifically, the study investigated whether there is widespread agreement about the everyday experiences, romantic and non-romantic, that lead us (or US citizens, at least) to feel loved. Some of the results are obvious – many participants agreed that making love, being hugged, receiving compliments and gifts, make us feel loved. But there was even stronger agreement that mundane yet touching gestures make us feel loved, such as our pets being happy to see us, a child snuggling up to us, or someone showing us compassion.
It has been a long and bumpy road for the implicit association test (IAT), the reaction-time-based psychological instrument whose co-creators, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald — among others in their orbit — claimed measures test-takers’ levels of unconscious social biases and their propensity to act in a biased and discriminatory manner, be that via racism, sexism, ageism, or some other category, depending on the context. The test’s advocates claimed this was a revelatory development, not least because the IAT supposedly measures aspects of an individual’s bias even beyond what that individual was consciously aware of themselves.
As I explained in a lengthy feature published on New York Magazine’s website last year, many doubts have emerged about these claims, ranging from the question of what the IAT is really measuring (as in, can a reaction-time difference measured in milliseconds really be considered, on its face, evidence of real-world-relevant bias?) to the algorithms used to generate scores to, perhaps most importantly (given that the IAT has become a mainstay of a wide variety of diversity training and educational programmes), whether the test really does predict real-world behaviour.
On that last key point, there is surprising agreement. In 2015 Greenwald, Banaji, and their coauthor Brian Nosek stated that the psychometric issues associated with various IATs “render them problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination”. Indeed, these days IAT evangelist and critic alike mostly agree that the test is too noisy to usefully and accurately gauge people’s likelihood of engaging in discrimination — a finding supported by a series of meta-analyses showing unimpressive correlations between IAT scores and behavioral outcomes (mostly in labs). Race IAT scores appear to account for only about 1 per cent of the variance in measured behavioural outcomes, reports an important meta-analysis available in preprint, co-authored by Nosek. (That meta-analysis also looked at IAT-based interventions, finding that while implicit bias as measured by the IAT “is malleable… changing implicit bias does not necessarily lead to changes in explicit bias or behavior.”)
So where does this leave the IAT? In a new paper in Current Directions in Psychological Sciencecalled “The IAT Is Dead, Long Live The Iat: Context-Sensitive Measures of Implicit Attitudes Are Indispensable to Social and Political Psychology”, John Jost, a social psychologist at New York University and a leading IAT researcher, seeks to draw a clear line between the “dead” diagnostic-version of the IAT, and what he sees as the test’s real-world version – a sensitive, context-specific measure that shouldn’t be used for diagnostic purposes, but which has potential in various research and educational contexts.
Does this represent a constructive manifesto for the future of this controversial psychological tool? Unfortunately, I don’t think it does – rather, it contains many confusions, false claims, and strawman arguments (as well as a misrepresentation of my own work). Perhaps most frustrating, Jost joins a lengthening line of IAT researchers who, when faced with the fact that the IAT appears to have been overhyped for a long time by its creators, most enthusiastic proponents, and by journalists, responds with an endless variety of counterclaims that don’t quite address the core issue itself, or which pretend those initial claims were never made in the first place.
It feels selfish to fret – it’s the other person who is suffering – but agonising over what to say to a friend in need can be incredibly anxiety provoking. If you want to be supportive (and not make matters worse), what are the right words to say to someone who has experienced a relationship break-up, for instance, or lost their job? Should you express sympathy, downplay the situation, say you know how they feel, or something else entirely? A series of studies in Basic and Applied Social Psychology will offer relief to anyone who has ever agonised over this predicament – the findings suggest that in fact there are few, if any, “magic statements that, if spoken, would provide lasting comfort to the recipient.”
Shawna Tanner at Wayne State University and her colleagues propose that in all likelihood trying too hard to say the right thing could actually lead you to make “clumsy statements that do more harm than good”. They advise that as long as your friend or relative sees you as supportive, then your “mere presence and sympathy is likely enough”.
A new survey of beliefs held by social psychologists (335 mostly US-based members of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology) has confirmed previous reports that the field is overwhelmingly populated by researchers of a left-wing, liberal bent. What’s more, David Buss and William von Hippel – the evolutionary social psychologists who conducted and analysed the survey – say their findings, published open-access in Archives of Scientific Psychology, suggest that some social psychologists may be opposed, for ideological reasons, to insights rooted in evolutionary psychology.
Buss and von Hippel add that compounding matters is an irony – the desire of some researchers to signal their ideological stance and commitment to others who share their political views, which is a manifestation of the evolved human adaptation to form coalitions. “Part of this virtue signalling entails rejecting a caricature of evolutionary psychology that no scientist actually holds,” they write.