Category: Social

Do social psychologists have an ideological aversion to evolutionary psychology?

GettyImages-171584273.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

A new survey of beliefs held by social psychologists (335 mostly US-based members of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology) has confirmed previous reports that the field is overwhelmingly populated by researchers of a left-wing, liberal bent. What’s more, David Buss and William von Hippel – the evolutionary social psychologists who conducted and analysed the survey – say their findings, published open-access in Archives of Scientific Psychology, suggest that some social psychologists may be opposed, for ideological reasons, to insights rooted in evolutionary psychology.

Buss and von Hippel add that compounding matters is an irony – the desire of some researchers to signal their ideological stance and commitment to others who share their political views, which is a manifestation of the evolved human adaptation to form coalitions. “Part of this virtue signalling entails rejecting a caricature of evolutionary psychology that no scientist actually holds,” they write.

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“National narcissism” is rife, finds survey of 35 countries

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Students from 35 nations estimated their countries were, in sum, responsible for 1,156.4 per cent of human history

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

How important is your country, really? It’s a pointed question, especially with Brexit looming and the reinvigoration of nationalistic movements in the U.S. and EU. So it feels like a fitting time to look at a creative study that evaluated differences in, well, national self-importance.

In “We Made History: Citizens of 35 Countries Overestimate Their Nation’s Role in World History”, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, a team led by Franklin M. Zaromb of Israel’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education surveyed thousands of students across the world to better gauge their beliefs about world history and their countries’ place in it. (You can view the survey itself here.)

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Another social psychology classic bites the dust – meta-analysis finds little evidence for the Macbeth effect

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Figure from Siev et al, 2018. The effect of unethical primes on cleansing preference – positive effect sizes denote greater cleansing preference for the unethical condition than the ethical condition.

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

Perhaps no concept has been more important to social psychology in recent years — for good and ill — than “social priming”, or the idea, as the science writer Neuroskeptic once put it, that “subtle cues can exert large, unconscious influences on human behaviour.” This subgenre of research has produced a steady drumbeat of interesting findings, but unfortunately, an increasing number of them are failing to replicate – including modern classics, like the idea that exposure to ageing-related words makes you walk more slowly, or that thinking about money increases your selfishness.

The so-called “Macbeth effect” is another classic example of social priming that gained mainstream recognition and acceptance from psychologists and laypeople alike. The term was first introduced by the psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, who reported in a 2006 paper in Science that “a threat to one’s moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself”.

This claim is such an interesting, provocative example of the connection between body and mind that it’s little wonder it has spread far and wide — there aren’t a lot of social-priming findings with their own Wikipedia page (it was also covered here at the Research Digest). But is it as strong as everyone thinks? For a recent paper in Social Psychology the psychologists Jedediah Siev, Shelby Zuckerman, and Joseph Siev decided to find out by conducting a meta-analysis of the available papers on the Macbeth effect to date.

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Why the polls keep getting it so wrong; and a solution – ask people who their friends and family are voting for

GettyImages-1057350054.jpgBy guest blogger Juliet Hodges

In 2016, the unexpected outcome of two votes shook the world: the UK voting to leave the European Union, and the US electing President Donald Trump. Even the pollsters got it wrong – for example, based on the latest polling data, the New York Times gave Clinton an 85 per cent chance of winning just the day before the election.

Accurate polling is important for a number of reasons. Poll results influence politicians’ campaign strategies and fundraising efforts; affect market prices and business forecasts; and they can impact voters’ perceptions and even turnout. So, when the polls are wide of the mark – as they were so badly in 2016 – many outcomes are being sent astray by misleading information. 

But polling is not as simple as just asking a lot of people who they intend to vote for. Polls are often biased by who is motivated enough to respond, and people can be overly-optimistic about the likelihood they will actually vote.

Another factor, outlined by Andy Brownback and Aaron Novotny of the University of Arkansas in their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental and Behavioural Economics, is people feeling the need to conceal their true voting intentions. 

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How to give up your cake – and eat it, too

By Emma Young

You’re in a packed food court, searching for somewhere to sit. Just as you spot a communal table with two free spaces, one much bigger and more comfortable-looking than the other, you realise there’s a person standing beside you with a tray and they are looking for somewhere to sit, too. What do you do? Rush to take the better seat – but appear selfish? Or let them have it, so seem generous – but eat your lunch in cramped discomfort? 

A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that you should do neither. Instead, you should say something like, “Oh, go ahead – you choose a seat”, and the odds are that she or he will not only leave the better seat for you, but also think that you’re generous. 

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Dutch study finds minorities are more prone to belief in conspiracies

GettyImages-870287834.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Psychologists have already established that minority groups are particularly likely to endorse conspiracy theories that involve them. For instance, the idea that AIDS was concocted in a lab to plague black people or that birth control is black genocide have been shown to have particular traction within African-American communities. It’s thought this is because members of disadvantaged groups find comfort in explanatory frameworks that appear to account for the various factors that beleaguer them. But new research from VU Amsterdam and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that belonging to a minority identity, in this case being Muslim in the Netherlands or a member of an ethnic minority in that country, doesn’t merely lead to a belief in conspiracy theories related to that specific minority identity, but stokes an appetite for conspiracies in general. 

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The “liking gap” – we tend to underestimate the positive first impression we make on strangers

GettyImages-878429512.jpgBy Emma Young

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. 

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Super altruists (who’ve donated a kidney to a stranger) show heightened empathic brain activity when witnessing strangers in pain

GettyImages-160194832.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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Brainwave study suggests sexual posing, but not bare skin, leads to automatic objectification

By Alex Fradera

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.

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Close friends become absorbed into our self-concept, affecting our ability to distinguish their faces from our own

GettyImages-941413016.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

When we say that our close friends have become a part of us, we’re usually talking metaphorically. Yet prior research has shown there is a literal sense in which this is true. For instance, we’re slower at judging whether given personality traits apply to us or our friends, compared with when judging whether traits belong to us or someone we’re not close to – it’s as if our friends’ traits and our own have somehow become shared, which makes the judgment trickier. Similarly, in terms of brain activity, we respond to mistakes made by friends in a similar way to how we respond to our own mistakes.

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.”

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