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.
Write down the unfinished statement “I am …” twenty times. Now think to yourself “Who am I?” and complete as many of the “I am …” statements as you can in the next five minutes or less.
This is the Twenty Statements Test and it’s designed to assess how we see ourselves – our “self-concept”. For their new paper in the journal Memory, a team at the University of Reading, led by Emily Hards, gave this test to 822 teenagers (aged 13-18) from three schools in England, with the additional instruction “not to think too much about the responses and not to worry about the order/importance of the statements”.
While it’s widely recognised that adolescence is a crucial period for the establishment of our sense of self, little is actually known about how teenagers’ generally see themselves. Indeed, this is the first time that teenagers’ own self-generated descriptions of themselves (what the researchers call their “self-images”) have been gathered in a systematic way.
Political partisanship can be a major driving force behind many thoughts and behaviours, affecting obvious things like who to vote for, but also more tangential outcomes, such as how you interpret scientific evidence (liberals and conservatives alike tend to see evidence as more credible when it supports their ideological viewpoint).
But the situation is more complicated than that, as people’s actions are not always consistent with their political identity. What determines why about 8 per cent of Republicans voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, for example, rather than Donald Trump?
According to a paper published recently in Cognition, the answer may lie in how central an individual’s political affiliation is in the tangled web of features that make up their self-concept. A person’s identity contains a range of features, from characteristics like gender and age to political beliefs and moral principles. One feature can be caused by another: for example, someone might believe that they are an honest person as a direct result of the fact that they are also Christian. Previous research has suggested that the more “causally central” a feature is – that is, the more of these kinds of links that it has – the more fundamental it is to a person’s identity.
Stephanie Chen at London Business School and Oleg Urminsky at the University of Chicago wondered whether a person may be more likely to act in ways consistent with their political beliefs if they see their political identity as “causally central” to their self-concept, and they investigated this in an American and then a British context.