To many, the statement “Religion causes violence” seems intuitively true. After all, one can easily summon to mind a huge number of examples, from the Crusades to warfare connected with early Islam, to the September 11th attacks and sectarian warfare in the Middle East, and on and on and on. Some liberal-minded people, particularly those of an atheist bent, will rattle off these examples as clear proof that religion is a force for evil in the world.
But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if there’s less evidence than one might think that religion causes violence? That’s the provocative thesis of an upcoming new article in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations, a journal launched in April of 2018 (available as a preprint), authored by Joshua Wright and Yuelee Khoo at Simon Fraser University.
Attachment theory, which was first proposed in the 1950s by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, is one of the most influential in psychology. It argues for the importance of our earliest relationships with our caregivers, and predicts that these formative bonds will shape the nature of our connections with other people for the rest of our lives. Remarkably, however, psychologists still know relatively little about how people’s attachment style – essentially their characteristic style of relating to other people – typically varies through life. “How do attachment orientations change across the life span? Unfortunately … this critical question has eluded researchers,” write William Chopik and colleagues in their recently published paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Their research is the first to document how attachment style varies, on average, through decades of the lifespan, from age 13 to 72. The results suggest that, like other aspects of personality, attachment style is relatively stable through life, but that it is not entirely fixed, and in particular that it may be shaped by our relationship experiences, as well as the varied social demands of different life stages. “The current study is one of the first truly longitudinal investigations into life span changes in attachment orientation and the antecedents of these changes,” write Chopik and his team.
We all know the movie scene: a nervous aide has to deliver bad news to his villainous boss, stumbling over his words and incessantly apologising. For a second, it looks like he will be OK – until the boss turns around and summarily executes him.
But it turns out this phenomenon of “shooting the messenger” is not just restricted to fiction. A new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has demonstrated that we do tend to take a dim view of the bearers of bad news – even when these people are simply innocent messengers.
Diversity trainings are big business. In the United States, companies spend about £6.1 billion per year, by one estimate, on programmes geared at making companies more inclusive and welcoming to members of often-underrepresented groups (British numbers aren’t easy to come by, but according to one recent survey, over a third of recruiters are planning to increase their investment in diversity initiatives).
Unfortunately, there’s little evidence-backed consensus about which sorts of diversity programmes work, and why, and there have been long-standing concerns in some quarters that these programmes don’t do much at all, or that they could actually be harmful. In part because of this dearth of evidence, the market for pro-diversity interventions is a bit of a Wild West with regard to quality.
For a new paper in PNAS, a prominent team of researchers, including Katherine Milkman, Angela Duckworth, and Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, partnered with a large global organisation to measure the real-world impact of the researchers’ own anti-bias intervention, designed principally to “promote inclusive attitudes and behaviors toward women, whereas a secondary focus was to promote the inclusion of other underrepresented groups (e.g., racial minorities).” The results were mixed at best – and unfortunately there are good reasons to be sceptical that even the more positive results are as positive as they seem.
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.”