Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s – in which ordinary volunteers followed a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant – have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. Milgram’s own interpretation, his “agentic state theory”, was that we readily give up our own sense of responsibility when following instructions from an authority figure. However, his “obedience studies” have come in for recent criticism and re-interpretation (not that you’d know this from the textbooks). The most prominent contemporary theory is that the studies don’t demonstrate blind obedience at all, but rather “engaged followership” – people’s willingness to do bad things when they see them as morally good because they serve a grander cause, in this case science.
Now Matthew Hollander at the University of Wisconsin, and Jason Turowetz at the University of Siegen, have conducted the first in-depth analysis of the interviews that many of the participants gave immediately after taking part in the now infamous research. The new findings, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, provide little evidence for engaged followership. Instead most of Milgram’s participants showed scepticism that anyone had been seriously harmed at all.
Why should the “better-than-average” effect be so pronounced for moral traits? In new work, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay at Royal Holloway, University of London have found that it’s because we’re especially irrational when it comes to evaluating moral traits. Moral superiority appears to be “a uniquely strong and prevalent form of positive illusion,” they write.
makes people want to do something about absent or unsatisfactory social relationships, and
encourages people to focus on their own interests and welfare
The second proposed motivational force is the focus of a new study, led John Cacioppo, and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers predicted that feelings of loneliness would make people more self-centred – and this is exactly what they found.
Stereotype threat is one of those social psychology concepts that has managed to break out of the academic world and into everyday conversation: the idea that a fear of conforming to stereotypes – for example, that girls struggle at maths – can make those stereotypes self-fulfilling, thanks to the adverse effect of anxiety and excessive self-consciousness on performance.
A recent review suggested that stereotype threat has a robust but small-to-medium sized effect on performance, but a meta-analysis suggests that publication bias may be a problem in this literature, inflating the apparent size of the effect. Also, the majority of the work has been done under laboratory conditions, which may not reflect what happens in the wider world. So when a field study comes along, it’s worth paying attention to, and a paper published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv from Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield looks at a domain involving high pressure, clear success criteria, and a presupposition that’s it’s more a guy thing: chess.
If you want to know what a woman is really thinking, ask another woman. That’s the message of a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which was designed to probe our ability to use other people’s posture, facial expressions and behaviours, as well our interpretations of ambiguous statements, to infer what’s going on in their mind – no matter what they’re actually saying.
The research team, led by Renata Wacker at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, recruited 304 women and 241 men, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The volunteers were put through possibly the most irritating – though potentially clinically useful – movie-watching experience imaginable.
As social creatures, accurately recognising and understanding the mental states of others (their intentions, knowledge, beliefs, etc.) is crucial to our social bonds and interactions. In fact, in today’s multi-cultural world and strongly divided political climate, this skill – known as Theory of Mind – is perhaps more important than ever. A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement proposes that an effective way to develop our Theory of Mind lies in learning to better understand ourselves.
My wife and I were ridiculously excited about watching the recent season finale of Game of Thrones together – we’d watched all the previous 66 episodes together too, and the characters almost feel a part of our lives. Spending our time this way has always seemed like a guilty pleasure, but a team of psychologists led by Sarah Gomillion at the University of Aberdeen say that couples’ shared enjoyment of TV, movies and books can help foster feelings of closeness and a shared social identity.
They add that the benefits of consuming films and TV together may be especially apparent for couples who lack a shared world of real friends and family members, with the fictional characters serving a surrogate role. Writing in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, Gomillion and her colleagues said “Humans have created shared social experiences through narrative and performance long before the advent of modern media. Our findings support the growing evidence that like other forms of narrative, contemporary media benefits people by providing a rich, psychologically meaningful social world.”
Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
Smart people tend to perform better at work, earn more money, be physically healthier, and be less likely to subscribe to authoritarian beliefs. But a new paper reveals that a key aspect of intelligence – a strong “pattern-matching” ability, which helps someone readily learn a language, understand how another person is feeling or spot a stock market trend to exploit – has a darker side: it also makes that person more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes.
Previous studies exploring how a person’s cognitive abilities may affect their attitudes to other people have produced mixed results. But this might be because the questions asked in these studies were too broad.
In the new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, David Lick, Adam Alter and Jonathan Freeman at New York University decided to home in on social stereotyping. “Because pattern detection is a core component of human intelligence, people with superior cognitive abilities may be equipped to efficiently learn and use stereotypes about social groups,” they theorised.
In most human societies those with a higher social status enjoy privileges beyond the reach of others. Such status can be obtained through dominance, using intimidation or force, or acquiring prestige by demonstrating knowledge and skill. To make best use of the benefits though, other people need to know that you are top dog.
On the other hand, if you’re of a lower status, there are probably times when it pays to avoid challenging those higher up the pecking order. In which case, you might want to convey your recognition of their authority.
Using body language, such as by taking up more space (adopting “power poses”) may be one of the most obvious, visible modes of asserting ourselves. But of course speech also conveys status, not only in its content, but in the characteristics of the voice itself. Indeed, according to a new study in PLOS One we adjust the pitch of our voice depending on who we are talking to. The research group at the University of Stirling found that the direction of this unconscious vocal tuning depends on the speaker’s perception of their social status relative to the listener.