Talking to someone new can be daunting, but such conversations “have the power to turn strangers into friends, coffee dates into marriages, and interviews into jobs,” note the authors of a new paper, published in Psychological Science, which has found that perhaps we shouldn’t feel so anxious about them. Across five studies, the researchers explored what strangers thought about each other after chatting, and they found consistent evidence for what they call a “liking gap” – other people like us more than we think. Though in other areas of life many of us have a rosy-tinted view of our abilities, it seems that we tend to under-estimate how we come across socially.
From an evolutionary perspective, altruistic behaviour is still a bit of mystery to psychologists, especially when it comes with a hefty cost to the self and is aimed at complete strangers.
One explanation is that altruism is driven by empathy – experiencing other people’s distress the same way as, or similar to, how we experience our own. However, others have criticized this account – most notably psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Their reasons are many, but among them is the fact that our empathy tends to be greatest for people who are most similar to us, which would argue against empathy driving the kind of altruism that involves the giver making personal sacrifices for strangers.
Hindering research into this topic is the challenge of measuring empathy objectively and devising a reliable laboratory measure of altruism (including one that overcomes most volunteers’ natural inclination to want to present themselves as morally good).
A new study in Psychological Science overcomes these obstacles by using a neural measure of empathy and by testing a rare group of people whose altruistic credentials are second to none: individuals who have donated one of their kidneys to a complete stranger.
The phrase “sexual objectification” began popping up only 50 years ago, but it’s now ubiquitous, reflecting our concern that seeing someone sexually amounts to perceiving them as eye candy or a piece of meat. More recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have gathered evidence that sexualisation can literally lead us to perceive people less as whole humans and more as an assemblage of parts – the same way that the mind normally processes objects.
But the picture is complicated by new work published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from a team mainly drawn from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Their experiments on the impact of various forms of sexualisation on the perception of the body find that objectification does not necessarily follow.
Now a team led by Sarah Ketay at the University Hartford have shown how this absorption of friends into our self-concept can manifest at a visual level, affecting our ability to distinguish their faces from our own. Writing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Ketay’s team said “The present research supports the idea that close others are processed preferentially and may overlap with the self.”
Admitting mistakes, seeking help, apologising first, confessing one’s romantic feelings – all these kind of situations involve intentional expressions of vulnerability, in which we may fear being rejected or being judged negatively, yet we grit our teeth and go ahead anyway. According to a team of psychologists writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology contrary to our worst fears, having the courage to show our vulnerability in these ways will often be rewarded. That’s because there is an intriguing mismatch in the way we take a more negative view of our own vulnerability than we do of other people’s – the researchers call this “the beautiful mess effect”.
The idea that we prefer desirable objects – and people – that are physically closer to us has been around for decades. All other things being equal, a potentially dangerous animal that’s close is known to seem scarier than one that’s further away, and it’s been suggested that, in a mirror effect, a nearby desirable person or object is more enticing or attractive than the same one positioned at some distance.
But although this propinquity effect “continues to be a popular topic in introductory social psychology courses, there are surprisingly few works that offer compelling experimental evidence that distance itself influences affective reaction to an object,” note the authors of a new paper, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, that plugs that gap. Their main finding: men tend to prefer women who are physically closer to them.
Years ago, my wife and I were window shopping in the Brighton lanes when we decided to enter a posh perfume store to take a closer sniff. A smiling sales woman approached and, to our delight, offered us each a complimentary glass of sparking wine and some nibbles. Soon though, our glee turned to discomfort: could we really just walk out having enjoyed the freebies? Conspiring like thieves, we decided that although we wouldn’t buy anything (not that we could have afforded to), we had better stay and look interested a while longer; we even dropped a false hint to the woman at our likely return.
According to a team of researchers led by Xiling Xiong at Zhejiang University in China, my wife and I were suffering from an acute bout of reciprocation anxiety. In their new paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Xiong and his colleagues propose that this is not just a state, but a trait – a specific kind of social anxiety – that some of us are more prone to than others, and what’s more, they’ve created a new questionnaire to measure it.
We’ve all been there: feeling so grateful to a friend or colleague that we hatch the idea of sending them a thank-you message. But then we worry about how to phrase it. And then we figure it probably won’t mean much to them anyway; if anything it could all be a bit awkward. So we don’t bother.
Does this sound familiar? According to a pair of US psychologists, a common failure of perspective means that a lot of us underestimate the positive impact on others (and ourselves) of expressing gratitude, meaning that we miss out on a simple way to improve our social relations and wellbeing. Based on their series of experiments in Psychological Science, Amit Kumar at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago conclude that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect”.
Part of my role at the Digest involves sifting through journals looking for research worth covering, and I’ve sensed that modern social psychology generates plenty of studies based on questionnaire data, but far fewer that investigate the kind of tangible behavioural outcomes illuminated by the field’s classics, from Asch’s conformity experiments to Milgram’s research on obedience to authority. A new paper in Social Psychological Bulletin examines this apparent change systematically. Based on his findings, Dariusz Doliński at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland asks the bleak question: is psychology still a science of behaviour?
As well as their cost-saving appeal, the rationale for large open-plan offices is that they are expected to act as a crucible for human chemistry, increasing face-to-face encounters between colleagues to the benefit of creativity and collaboration. Unfortunately it’s well-established that most workers don’t like them, such is the fundamental human need for privacy and control over one’s environment. Now a pair of quasi-experimental field studies published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B suggest that the supposed collaborative advantage of open-plan offices also doesn’t pass muster.