Imagine that you are a high-achieving student at a school which, overall, doesn’t perform that well. You know that your grades are better than most of your peers’, so you probably rate your academic ability quite high. You are, in other words, a big fish in a small pond.
Now you transfer to a school in which the other students consistently get top marks, perhaps even better than yours. You’re now the small fish in a big pond, and although your own ability has remained the same, you begin to doubt yourself and actually rate yourself lower than you had before.
This “big-fish-little-pond” effect shows that our academic self-concept can be profoundly shaped by how we compare ourselves to our peers. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has found that the size of this comparison matters: the effect is even more pronounced when people are extremely high achieving in very low ranked groups, or vice-versa.
It’s one of the best-known and also controversial experiments in psychology: in 1963, Stanley Milgram reported that, when instructed, many people are surprisingly willing to deliver apparently dangerous electrical shocks to others. For some researchers, this — along with follow-up studies by the team — reveals how acting “under orders” can undermine our moral compass.
Milgram’s interpretation of his findings, and the methods, too, have been criticised. However, the results have largely been replicated in experiments run in the US, Poland, and elsewhere. And in 2016, a brain-scanning study revealed that when we perform an act under coercion vs freely, our brain processes it more like a passive action rather than a voluntary one.
Now a new study, from a group that specialises in the neuroscience of empathy, takes this further: Emilie Caspar at the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and colleagues report in NeuroImage that when we follow orders to hurt someone, there is reduced activity in brain networks involved in our ability to feel another’s pain. What’s more, this leads us to perceive pain that we inflict as being less severe. This process could, then, help to explain the dark side of obedience.
This is Episode 21 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
What can we do to stay connected in the middle of a pandemic? We’ve all played our part in fighting COVID-19, and for many of us that has meant staying away from our friends and families. In this episode, our presenter Ginny Smith explores how this unprecedented period of separation has reinforced the importance of connection. Ginny looks at how video chats compare to in-person interaction, and how psychology could help improve virtual communication in the future. She also examines the importance of touch for reducing stress — and asks whether interactions with our furry friends could make up for a lack of human contact.
You were hoping to go out with friends on Saturday night, but your partner really wants to have a quiet night at home instead…
Your life’s going great, but then your partner is offered their dream job in a town you’d happily never visit, let alone live in…
So what do you do? Do you stand your ground? Or you do you sacrifice your own goals for the sake of your partner’s?
It’s a dilemma familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. It would seem reasonable, then, to assume that research could tell us what the likely impacts would be on individual wellbeing, and on the health of the relationship itself. However, as the authors of a new paper published in Psychological Bulletin point out, there are two conflicting hypotheses for how sacrifices should pan out.
Friendship tends to be based on some kind of shared experience: growing up with someone, working with them, or having the same interests. Politics is an important factor too, with research suggesting that we can be pretty intolerant of those with different political positions — not an ideal starting point for friendship.
This can have a significant and tangible impact. One Reuters/Ipsos poll, for example, found 16.4% of people had stopped talking to a family member or friend after Trump was elected, while 17.4% had blocked someone they care about on social media.
So what happens when you find out a trusted friend has different politics to you? They don’t fare well, according to a new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships authored by Elena Buliga and Cara MacInnis from the University of Calgary, Canada.
There will always be some people within a group who are more confident than others. But some groups as a whole tend towards modesty — as with the !Kung hunters of the Kalahari Desert, for example, who deliberately downplay their own achievements and efforts. However, the opposite can also occur — and widespread overconfidence can of course become a problem, as with the US energy company Enron, whose “culture of arrogance” ultimately led to its downfall.
These two examples are highlighted in a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which reveals a route by which a bias towards overconfidence can develop. In their paper, Joey T Cheng at York University and colleagues first propose and then provide evidence for the idea that if we’re exposed to people who are overconfident, this rubs off on us. In other words, we calibrate our self-assessments based on the confidence level of those around us. Overconfidence can, then, be transmitted socially — and this could help to explain how groups, teams and organisations form their own, sometimes drastically different, confidence norms.
Looking for the perfect gift can be a pleasure and a curse: the joy of picking exactly the right thing vs. the anxiety that you’ve completely missed the mark. Whether to get somebody something luxurious but impractical or something with utility is another common dilemma.
It’s also one that may have unintended consequences: while some practical gifts — those that save someone time, for example — can be appealing and well-received, others may fall short. If you were thinking of getting that special someone a gift with the intention of saving them money, for example, think again — you might end up making them feel ashamed, according to research recently published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
It feels bad to know that you’ve messed up, especially when other people have to pay a price for your actions. Unfortunately, this feeling is something that most of us end up experiencing at one point or another — when we’re placed on a team with other people at school or at a job, for instance, and make a mistake that forces our team members to do more work as a result.
However, recent research, published in Social Psychology by James Wirth at Ohio State University and his colleagues, shows that there is a trait that can reduce those negative feelings, called “self-compassion”.
How many secrets have your friends shared with you? The answer could reveal a lot about your relationships. We not only share secrets with people we’re close to, but swap secrets to strengthen relationships. In my new novel, Here Lie the Secrets, I do use the sharing of deeply personal secrets to advance the relationship of my two main characters… However, as we also all know, discovering that a friend goes on to share your secret can seriously damage your relationship.
Secrets, then, have an important role in our social lives. But, asks Zoe Liberman at the University of California Santa Barbara, when do we become aware of this? To what extent do children understand the significance of secrets — and the consequences of spilling them? Her results, published in Developmental Psychology, suggest be that it would be unwise to trust a four-year-old with any kind of secret — but with an 8-year-old, you’re much more likely to be safe.