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.
If you are with someone who is ignoring you while they interact with their smartphone, you have been phone snubbed, or “phubbed”. Phubbing is common, at least in Western cultures – in a recent US survey, nine out of ten respondents said they had used their smartphone during their most recent social activity. There’s also evidence that it is socially harmful, leaving people less satisfied with their face-to-face interactions and generating feelings of resentment and jealousy. Now the Journal of Applied Social Psychology has published a new study exploring the reasons for these effects.
What leads some people to tyrannise others, as when guards abuse their prisoners? The US psychologist Philip Zimbardo would say it’s the corrupting power of the situation. Infamously, in the summer of 1971, his prison simulation study had to be abandoned when some of the volunteers playing the role of guards began mistreating the volunteers acting as prisoners.
The shock value of the aborted study derives in large part from the idea that the mock prison took on a life of its own; that otherwise “ordinary” folk began behaving in abhorrent ways simply because they’d been assigned a role with particular connotations. As Zimbardo put it, the guards’ brutality occurred “as a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard'”.
But not everyone buys this account. Critics of the Stanford Prison Experiment have long claimed that Zimbardo and his colleagues did not merely observe, but actively participated in the events that unfolded.
Now a team led by Alex Haslam at the University of Queensland has analysed a recently released recording of a conversation between one of the volunteer guards and Zimbardo’s collaborator David Jaffe, who acted as prison warden for the study. The findings of their analysis, released as a pre-print at PsyArXiv, suggest that one of psychology’s most famous studies was not so much an experiment but more a form of theatre. “We can no longer airbrush out the role of the experimenters in producing brutality,” write Haslam et al.