To punch holes in a scientific claim, it’s legitimate to critique the supporting evidence, or query the way the evidence has been interpreted. More questionable is to throw dirt on the character or capability of the researcher making the claim. New research in PLOS One exploresthe effectiveness of ad hominem attacks against scientists and shows that some are more damaging than others.
A pre-registered mass replication attempt published in Perspectives on Psychological Science has raised doubts about another celebrated psychology finding. The collaboration between 40 laboratories found scant evidence for the so-called “Professor Prime”, undermining the famous finding that when people imagined themselves as a professor rather than a football hooligan it led them to perform better on a trivia quiz.
If you want to feel happier, avoid small talk and aim instead for profound conversations. That was the message the mainstream media took from a well-publicised paper published in Psychological Science in 2010 (e.g. Talk Deeply, Be Happy? asked the New York Times). But now an extension of that study, in press at the same journal (available as a pre-print), and involving two of the psychologists behind the original work, has found no evidence that how much – or little – time you spend chatting about the weather or what you’re having for dinner will affect your life satisfaction. “The failure to replicate the original small talk effect is important as it has garnered considerable scientific and lay interest,” note the authors.
“Lower your music, you’re upsetting other passengers.” Without social sanction, society frays at the edges. But what drives someone to intervene against bad behaviour? One cynical view is that it appeals to those who want to feel better about themselves through scolding others. But research putting this to the test in British Journal of Social Psychology has found that interveners are rather different in character.
Many millions of people around the world have taken the “implicit association test (IAT)” hosted by Harvard University. By measuring the speed of your keyboard responses to different word categories (using keys previously paired with a particular social group), it purports to show how much subconscious or “implicit” prejudice you have towards various groups, such as different ethnicities. You might think that you are a morally good, fair-minded person free from racism, but the chances are your IAT results will reveal that you apparently have racial prejudices that are outside of your awareness.
What is it like to receive this news, and what do the public think of the IAT more generally? To find out, a team of researchers, led by Jeffery Yen at the University of Guelph, Ontario, analysed 793 reader comments to seven New York Times articles (op-eds and science stories) about the IAT published between 2008 and 2010. The findings appear in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
Changing an unhealthy habit depends a lot on your belief that you can do it, something psychologists call self-efficacy. Take smoking, for example. Your belief that you are capable of quitting will influence the likelihood you will decide to quit in the first place, the amount your smoking reduces, and your chances of staying smoke-free in the long-term.
This self-belief doesn’t come out of nowhere. Besides seeing ourselves make progress (called “mastery”), health psychologists will tell you that one of the most important inspirations is seeing others successfully make the changes that you desire. To test how true this is, Lisa Warner from the Freie Universität Berlin and her colleagues looked at the impact on smokers of having a partner whose own attempt to quit is going well. Their findings, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, didn’t fit the expected pattern – but there’s news that co-quitting couples can help each other make a difference.
Compounding the difficulties they have liking themselves, people with low self-esteem also tend to have poorer relationships. Previous investigations into why this may be haven’t made easy reading for the self-doubters. For instance, while they tend to claim that their partners have more negative views of them and love them less (than do people with more typical self-esteem), studies of their partners simply haven’t backed this up. This suggests that the neurotic and needy are projecting their insecurities and imperilling their relationships in the process.
But that is not the end of the story. People with low self-esteem also tend to report that, when they need them most, their partners are poor at responding and being supportive. Is this all in their heads too? Not according to a series of studies in the Journal of Personality, by Kassandra Cortes and Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo.
“Until this point, researchers have pointed the finger at LSEs [those with low self-esteem] as the likely cause for their lower quality relationships … However, our data suggest that LSEs may not be the only culprits,” Cortes and Wood conclude.
“Microaggressions” are seemingly innocuous words or behaviour that supposedly communicate a bias toward minority groups, such as asking Asian Americans where they are from, implying that they are not really part of the USA. According to advocates of the usefulness of the concept, microaggressions cause real harm, even if unintended by the perpetrator. However, the theoretical and evidential support for the concept of microaggressions is far from clear, as detailed in Scott Lilienfeld’s recent thorough critique, which recommended the term be revised or at least re-examined. Now, Craig Harper, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, has published a study as a pre-print online at PsyArXiv that, he argues, reveals a further key problem with the concept of the microaggression.
Terror attacks by Muslim extremists tend to provoke hate crimes in response. After the London Bridge and Borough market attacks in 2017, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for example, there was a spike in the number of reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Muslims. Two weeks after the London Bridge attacks, a British non-Muslim man even drove his van into worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, killing one and injuring 11.
“People have a tendency to hold groups collectively responsible for the actions of individual group members, which justifies ‘vicarious retribution’ against any group member to exact revenge,” note the authors of a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that explores how to short-circuit this cycle of violence.
In what the researchers dub an “interventions tournament”, they tried out various methods of reducing the collective blaming of all Muslims for attacks by individual extremists. Most failed. But there was one clear winner: an intervention that encouraged non-Muslims to see the hypocrisy in blaming all Muslims for the appalling actions of a few individuals, but not all Christians for the violent actions of an extremist few.
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.