We tend to think of empathy as a wholly positive thing, a trait that’s not only favourable to possess but that we should actively foster. Books and courses promise to reveal secret wells of empathy and ways to channel them; some people even charge for “empathy readings”, a service that seems to sit somewhere between a psychic reading and a therapy session.
It would be easy to assume, therefore, that people who express empathy are generally well-liked. But a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that our feelings towards “empathisers” depends on who they are empathising with. While empathisers were considered warmer overall, participants judged people who expressed empathy for those with troubling political views more harshly — suggesting that we don’t always interpret empathy as a pure moral virtue.
It’s become somewhat of a truism that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on social media. Where someone’s life looks perfect, we’re often reminded, there are probably a handful of problems silently situated away from the camera. Nobody’s life is as shiny, flawless, or enviable as it might appear in their carefully curated feed.
But presenting ourselves more authentically on social media — ditching those things we want to believe are true about ourselves in favour of those that are — could be good for our wellbeing, according to a new paper in Nature Communications by Erica R. Bailey from Columbia University and colleagues.
Why do business people promise to “reach out to KOLs” when they could simply say that they will contact leading experts? How come judges sometimes remark that they will hear trials “in-camera” instead of just “in private”?
As infuriating as it can be, jargon actually performs a social function. By definition, jargon refers to language used by a particular group of people, in the place of more accessible words and phrases. And although that can make it frustrating and confusing for people not in that group, if you are a member then it can help signal to others that you belong. People may also use jargon as a way of displaying their expertise.
But according to a series of studies published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, those who are of low status within a group are also predisposed towards jargon-filled language. Zachariah Brown at Columbia University and colleagues found that these people appear to want to compensate for their lowly position by using language that is often associated with high status.
Artificial intelligence agents play ever more influential roles in our lives. As the authors of a new paper, published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, point out, they do everything from suggesting new friends and connections to recommending purchases and filtering the news that reaches us. They are even beginning to drive our cars. Another role that they are tipped to take over is negotiating on our behalf to sell a car, say, or resolve a legal dispute.
So, reasoned Jonathan Mell and colleagues at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, it’s important to know whether using a bot might affect how we negotiate —and it turns out that it does. One of the most striking findings from the team’s series of studies is that less experienced negotiators are more willing to be deceitful if they assign an AI agent to do their dirty work for them. The studies also illuminate how our stance on various negotiating tactics alters through experience — information that would be needed to program negotiating bots to accurately represent us.
Imagine that you live in a village which is threatened with rising sea levels. If you don’t do anything, your home is going to be flooded. You could pool your resources together with other villagers and build a large dam around the entire village to ensure that everyone’s property is safe. Or, if you have enough resources yourself, you could build a smaller dam around your own house, protecting your property — and leaving everyone else to either do the same or try and co-operate without you.
Human societies constantly face similar choices between public and private solutions to pressing issues: think about the provision of healthcare or education, for instance. But only some people can afford to build a dam around their own house, or send their child to a private school. Now a new study in Nature Communicationssuggests that when group members are able to be self-reliant in this way, the provision of public goods suffers.
Most people — even the non-psychologists among us — have at some point heard of the legendary marshmallow test, which measures the ability of preschool children to wait for a sweet treat. Researchers have found that the amount of time children are willing to wait for their marshmallow is surprisingly predictive of various life outcomes, such as educational attainment during adolescence, as well as social competence and resilience to stress throughout development. A recent fMRI brain scan study even found that people’s performance as kids is related to their ability to suppress their impulses, and is reflected in neurological signatures of cognitive control, 40 years later.
The test is clearly tapping into something crucial that shapes children’s futures to a considerable degree. But what exactly is it? Does the test capture an ability that is akin to intelligence or intrinsic cognitive control, or might performance be a marker of some other underlying factor — such as the privilege of living in a supportive home where children can develop the trust capacity that enables them to wait for a reward?
The list of potential explanations is long — and now it has received a surprising new addition from a study recently published in Psychological Science. Fengling Ma from Zhejiang Sci-Tech University and colleagues have discovered that children can radically improve their performance on the marshmallow test if they believe their social reputation might be at stake — an effect that begins to emerge as early as three years of age.
For its many flaws, it’s hard to deny that technology has improved our ability to communicate with one another. We now have a huge range of options when it comes to speaking to our friends and family, whether we’re texting, IMing, or sending them emails.
With such a smorgasbord of choices available to us, it can be easy to forget the humble phone call. And according to new work published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a reticence to pick up the phone might also be robbing us of stronger connections with those we love.
Imagine that you are a high-achieving student at a school which, overall, doesn’t perform that well. You know that your grades are better than most of your peers’, so you probably rate your academic ability quite high. You are, in other words, a big fish in a small pond.
Now you transfer to a school in which the other students consistently get top marks, perhaps even better than yours. You’re now the small fish in a big pond, and although your own ability has remained the same, you begin to doubt yourself and actually rate yourself lower than you had before.
This “big-fish-little-pond” effect shows that our academic self-concept can be profoundly shaped by how we compare ourselves to our peers. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has found that the size of this comparison matters: the effect is even more pronounced when people are extremely high achieving in very low ranked groups, or vice-versa.
It’s one of the best-known and also controversial experiments in psychology: in 1963, Stanley Milgram reported that, when instructed, many people are surprisingly willing to deliver apparently dangerous electrical shocks to others. For some researchers, this — along with follow-up studies by the team — reveals how acting “under orders” can undermine our moral compass.
Milgram’s interpretation of his findings, and the methods, too, have been criticised. However, the results have largely been replicated in experiments run in the US, Poland, and elsewhere. And in 2016, a brain-scanning study revealed that when we perform an act under coercion vs freely, our brain processes it more like a passive action rather than a voluntary one.
Now a new study, from a group that specialises in the neuroscience of empathy, takes this further: Emilie Caspar at the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and colleagues report in NeuroImage that when we follow orders to hurt someone, there is reduced activity in brain networks involved in our ability to feel another’s pain. What’s more, this leads us to perceive pain that we inflict as being less severe. This process could, then, help to explain the dark side of obedience.
This is Episode 21 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
What can we do to stay connected in the middle of a pandemic? We’ve all played our part in fighting COVID-19, and for many of us that has meant staying away from our friends and families. In this episode, our presenter Ginny Smith explores how this unprecedented period of separation has reinforced the importance of connection. Ginny looks at how video chats compare to in-person interaction, and how psychology could help improve virtual communication in the future. She also examines the importance of touch for reducing stress — and asks whether interactions with our furry friends could make up for a lack of human contact.