Category: Social

New studies suggest liberals are as blinkered and biased as conservatives

The march for science in RomeBy Christian Jarrett

Officially at least, last week’s global March for Science was politically neutral. However, there’s a massive over-representation of people with liberal, left-leaning views in science, and much of the science community is unhappy, to put it mildly, with the way politics is going, such as the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts to science funding, and here in the UK, the impact of Brexit on British science.

Against the backdrop of these anxieties, many of the banners on display – such as “Alternative hypotheses, not alternative facts” and “Science reveals the truth” – conveyed a barely concealed message: if only right-wing conservatives could be a little more objective, less biased, more open-minded – you might say a little more “scientific” – then the world would be a better place.

Plenty of past psychology research lends some credence to this perspective: for instance conservatives tend to score lower on the trait of open-mindedness than liberals, and of course conservatives, more often than liberals, are sceptical toward the scientific consensus that human activity has had a significant impact on climate change. But it’s also easy to find psychological evidence of liberals’ bias, and liberals too are often in denial of unwelcome scientific theory, such as evolutionary accounts of sex differences in behaviour.

Now two new articles, published at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) and in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, respectively, provide further compelling evidence that liberals, as much as conservatives, are prone to partisan bias – that is, showing rapid, easy acceptance of evidence that supports their existing beliefs – and that they are just as motivated to avoid hearing viewpoints that differ from their own. Whether we’re liberal or conservative, a first step toward combating our political prejudices, the paper in SSRN concludes, is “to recognize our collective vulnerability to perceiving the world in ways that validate our political beliefs”.

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Introducing the Invisibility Cloak Illusion: We think we’re more observant (and less observed) than everyone else

Agent icon. Spy sunglasses. Hat and glassesBy guest blogger Juliet Hodges

Most of us tend to think we’re better than average: more competent, honest, talented and compassionate. The latest example of this kind of optimistic self-perception is the “invisibility cloak illusion”. In research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Erica Boothby and her colleagues show how we have a tendency to believe that we are incredibly socially observant ourselves, while those around us are less so. These assumptions combine to create the illusion that we observe others more than they observe us.

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Why more highly educated people are less into conspiracy theories

Moon Landing Conspiracy ConceptBy Christian Jarrett

In this era of “fake news” and rising populism, encountering conspiracy theories is becoming a daily phenomenon. Some people usually shrug them off – they find them too simplistic, biased or far-fetched – but others are taken in. And if a person believes one kind of conspiracy theory, they usually believe others.

Psychologists are very interested in why some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially since the consequences can be harmful: for example, by avoiding getting their kids vaccinated, believers in vaccination conspiracies can harm wider public health; in other cases, a belief in a conspiracy against one’s own ethnic or religious group can foment radicalism.

One of the main differences between conspiracy believers and nonbelievers that’s cropped up in multiple studies is that nonbelievers tend to be more highly educated. For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam has conducted two large surveys to try to dig into just what it is about being more educated that seems to inoculate against belief in conspiracy.

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You’re in my space! How preferred interpersonal distance varies across the world

Obama Meets With European Leaders In Berlin
Compared with English participants, Germans were comfortable with a smaller interpersonal space when chatting to an acquaintance

By Christian Jarrett

It’s really awkward when you’re chatting to someone whose sense of appropriate interpersonal space is way too close. There’s the option of performing a subtle backward shuffle, but what if they simply close the gap again?

Our judgments about such things obviously vary with individual personality – people with more social anxiety tend to prefer a greater distance – and also on the nature of the relationship we have with the other person. But culture must surely play a part too.

To find out how preferred interpersonal distances vary across the world, the authors of a new study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology approached – not too close, presumably – nearly 9,000 participants in 42 countries and asked them to indicate on a simple graphic how close another person – either a stranger, friend or more intimate relation – could get to them during a conversation for things to remain comfortable.

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More human than thou … or just better? Our motivation to think we’re good trumps our desire to feel human

The dark side of human. The mirror concept. vector illustration
A new critique challenges the claim that we’re so motivated to believe in our essential humanness that we happily endorse ugly parts of our human natures

By Alex Fradera

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.

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The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author

Synagogue Walls Desecrated With Anti-Semitic Graffiti
Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti, but Scott Lilienfeld argues there is nothing “micro” about these

By Alex Fradera

Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the “microaggression”, a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness – prompting last month’s decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it’s hard to tell between friend and foe.

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New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop

The London 2012 Olympic VolunteersBy Alex Fradera

Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.

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Attractive people have shorter relationships and are more interested in alternative partners

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Scarlett Johansson announced her split from Romain Dauriac this January

By Christian Jarrett

You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.

The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.

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5 Studies That Help Explain Why Social Drinking Is So Rewarding

David Cameron And Chinese President Xi Jinping Visit Princes Risborough PubBy Christian Jarrett

For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.

A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.

The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.

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Feeling authentic in a relationship comes from being able to be your best self, not your actual self

Couple Hero SilhouetteBy Christian Jarrett

Feeling authentic in a relationship – that is, feeling like you are able to be yourself, rather than acting out of character – is healthy, not just for the relationship, but for your wellbeing in general. This makes sense: after all, putting on a fake show can be exhausting. But dig a little deeper and things get more complicated because there are different ways to define who “you” really are.

Is the real you how you actually think and behave, for instance? Or, taking a more dynamic perspective, is it fairer to say that the true you is the person you aspire to be: what psychologists call your “ideal self”?

For a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Muping Gan and Serena Chen asked members of the public about this and 70 per cent of them thought that the ability to be your actual self was more important for feeling authentic in a relationship than being able to be your ideal self.

But contrary to this folk wisdom, across several studies, the researchers actually found evidence for the opposite – that is, feelings of authenticity in a relationship seem to arise not from being our actual selves in the relationship, but from feeling that we can be our best or ideal self.

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