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.
As the first cohort of women leaders began pushing up against the glass ceiling, many hoped it would shatter… but it only cracked. Today fewer than 10 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are led by people from ethnic minority groups and women combined, and although the reasons are manifold, blame has been laid at the feet of the early pioneers themselves.
The accusation is that successful people from underrepresented groups act as gatekeepers, keeping out others to maintain their special status and to identify with the dominant majority (the most famous example being the Queen Bee syndrome where a female boss undermines other women). But new research from the Academy of Management Journal suggests a different and very understandable reason that minority members are cautious to show enthusiasm for increasing diversity – because they know it could spell disaster for their own career if they did.
Why do we screw up the good impressions we mean to make? In the extensive scientific literature on self-presentation, the most popular theory is that failures are due to a loss of control. We snap at someone, allow our voice to falter, or let our unlikeable side slip out from underneath the managed veneer. According to this theory, we know how we should behave, and only fall short because we’re distracted or drained of self-control.
But a new paper in Social and Personality Psychology Compass argues that people often make bad impressions, not because of a lack of self-control, but because they adopt counterproductive presentational tactics. Utrecht University’s Janina Steinmetz and her colleagues unpack several such tactics that many of us believe to be likely to impress but which psychology research shows are big mistakes. Their paper makes for a handy guide on how not to come across as a jerk.
The horrific killing of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York in 1964 inspired research into what’s known in social psychology as the Bystander Phenomenon – our increased disinclination to intervene when in the company of others. That’s because early reports told how 38 witnesses to Genovese’s murder did nothing to help. But in fact it’s now clear that several people did intervene. So the tragedy that inspired research into the Bystander Phenomenon is actually a bad example of that real phenomenon.
But it’s not time yet to leave the sad story alone. As psychologist Saul Kassin documents in Perspectives on Psychological Science, hidden in the story in plain sight all these decades is an example of another important psychological principle: the power of false confessions. Moreover, in another twist, details have emerged recently of how a few days after her murder, Genovese’s killer, Winston Moseley, was initially detained by members of the public – ironically, given how the Genovese case inspired research into bystander apathy, these bystanders chose to act.