“The sense of self is a hallmark of human experience. Each of us maintains a constellation of personal memories and personality traits that collectively define ‘who we really are'”.
So begins a new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which reveals that who you “are” can easily be manipulated. Just imagining somebody else can alter all kinds of aspects of how you see yourself, even including your personality and memories.
As humans we all have psychological needs that we are driven to fulfil, be they companionship or safety, a sense of belonging or personal growth. And we often meet these needs through our relationships with others: they care for us, make us feel secure, and help us develop as individuals.
When we are in romantic relationships, our partners are commonly the main source for fulfilling those needs. But sometimes they are away, or are simply not equipped to meet our particular needs. In those cases we turn elsewhere, to friends, family and others in our lives. This may benefit us personally — but how does it affect our relationship?
With increased concern about the impact of meat on our health and the environment, and an ever-expanding selection of meat-free products available to buy, popular interest in vegetarianism and veganism has steadily grown.
But for those who want to cut down but aren’t quite ready to give up their burgers, there is a third way: flexitarianism. As a 2019 study from the University of Nottingham on red meat and heart health put it, you “don’t have to go cold turkey on red meat to see health benefits”, finding that halving the amount of red and processed meat eaten can have significant health benefits.
A flexitarian tries to cut down their consumption as much as they can, but still eats the occasional meal or snack containing meat. One recent piece of market research found that 14% of the UK consider themselves flexitarian, and though more formal research would clearly be needed to paint a more critical and comprehensive picture, these figures do seem to suggest something of a cultural preoccupation with how much meat we’re eating.
Now new research, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, has taken a look at how such an approach impacts identity as well as health. The choice to be vegetarian can be a significant source of social identity — but how do flexitarians see themselves?
The rise of automation has already had a significant impact on the work lives of millions of people — and it shows no signs of stopping. In a study released earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics found 1.5 million workers in Britain at “high risk of losing their jobs to automation”, with women and low-paid workers bearing the brunt of the risk. And another paper published in Social Science and Medicine found that exposure to automation risk exacerbated poor health: higher risk of automation meant higher job uncertainty and subsequently a greater chance of physical and mental health problems.
All of which makes the findings of a new Nature Human Behaviourstudy on almost 2,000 North American and European participants even more surprising. While most people prefer it when workers are replaced by humans, not robots, the majority of those surveyed said that if their job was at risk, they would find it less upsetting for it to be handed to robots rather than other employees.
Imagine seeing a photograph of a suffering child in the war-torn region of Darfur, in Sudan. Most of us would feel compassion towards that child. Now imagine seeing a photo of a group of eight children in the same terrible predicament. You’d feel correspondingly more compassion towards this larger group… right?
Well, probably not. Plenty of studies have demonstrated what’s known as the “numeracy bias” in compassion — that people’s feelings of compassion do not tend to increase in response to greater numbers of people in distress. This “leads people frequently to experience a disproportionate amount of compassion towards a single suffering individual relative to scores of suffering victims that are part of a larger tragedy,” write Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University, in their new paper, published in the journal Emotion. However, they’ve now found that people who have experienced adversity in their own lives are resistant to this bias — and they have some suggestions for how the rest of us might avoid it.
The placebo effect is a curious phenomenon. A wealth of literature has shown that inert treatments can not only produce medical benefits like pain relief, but also have cognitive effects like boosting creativity and learning. And while many of those studies involve misleading people into thinking that they are receiving an effective intervention, a new study in Scientific Reports shows that this deception is not always necessary. Researchers have found that taking a placebo can reduce people’s anxiety before a test — even when they know they are taking an inactive pill.
Throughout our lives, we set ourselves goals — to pass an exam, run a marathon, lose 10 kilograms of excess weight or gain a promotion. Given the importance of such goals to our physical and psychological wellbeing, it’s not surprising that there’s has been a wealth of research into how best to set, work towards, and achieve them.
But let’s say you succeed — what then? Psychologists have paid less attention to people’s behaviour after they’ve achieved their goals. And although it’s generally good for us to continue to study, exercise, eat healthily, work hard, and so on, this doesn’t always transpire. For example, one follow-up of contestants who’d won the weight-loss TV show The Biggest Loser found that six years on, most weighed even more than they had at the start of the show.
However, a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition offers a solution. People are more likely to maintain good behaviours, the researchers find, if instead of thinking about achieving a goal as “arriving at a destination,” they view it as “completing a journey.”
The question is an old favourite – if you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? Yet despite the popularity of this thought experiment, no one has, until now, actually studied what people would tell themselves.
Reporting their findings in The Journal of Social Psychology Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord at Clemson University have done just that in two surveys of hundreds of participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. Their findings show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth, echoing similar results derived from research into people’s most common regrets in life. Moreover, participants who said they had followed the advice they would give to their younger selves were more likely to say that they had become the kind of person that their younger self would admire. “…[W]e should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves,” the researchers said. “The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.”
We move house, change jobs, begin new relationships, yet most of the time, most of us still experience a thread of inner continuity – a constant feeling of me-ness that transcends the various chapters of our lives. Indeed, there’s evidence that having a stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing. However, this thread can rupture, leading to an uncomfortable disconnect between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be – a state that psychologists recently labelled “derailment”.
Now in a paper in Clinical Psychological Science a group led by Kaylin Ratner at Cornell University has explored the possibility that derailment both precipitates, and is a consequence of, depression. After all, people with depression often struggle with motivation, losing the will to pursue goals they previously held dear. They also frequently withdraw from their relationships and social roles. All of these changes could trigger sensations of derailment. Or perhaps derailment comes first, with the inner disorientation leaving one vulnerable to depression. Surprisingly these questions have been little studied before now. “We nominate derailment as a new feature of the depressive landscape and underscore the need for greater empirical and practical attention at the crossroads of mental health and human development,” Ratner and her team write.