If you are with someone who is ignoring you while they interact with their smartphone, you have been phone snubbed, or “phubbed”. Phubbing is common, at least in Western cultures – in a recent US survey, nine out of ten respondents said they had used their smartphone during their most recent social activity. There’s also evidence that it is socially harmful, leaving people less satisfied with their face-to-face interactions and generating feelings of resentment and jealousy. Now the Journal of Applied Social Psychology has published a new study exploring the reasons for these effects.
What leads some people to tyrannise others, as when guards abuse their prisoners? The US psychologist Philip Zimbardo would say it’s the corrupting power of the situation. Infamously, in the summer of 1971, his prison simulation study had to be abandoned when some of the volunteers playing the role of guards began mistreating the volunteers acting as prisoners.
The shock value of the aborted study derives in large part from the idea that the mock prison took on a life of its own; that otherwise “ordinary” folk began behaving in abhorrent ways simply because they’d been assigned a role with particular connotations. As Zimbardo put it, the guards’ brutality occurred “as a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard'”.
But not everyone buys this account. Critics of the Stanford Prison Experiment have long claimed that Zimbardo and his colleagues did not merely observe, but actively participated in the events that unfolded.
Now a team led by Alex Haslam at the University of Queensland has analysed a recently released recording of a conversation between one of the volunteer guards and Zimbardo’s collaborator David Jaffe, who acted as prison warden for the study. The findings of their analysis, released as a pre-print at PsyArXiv, suggest that one of psychology’s most famous studies was not so much an experiment but more a form of theatre. “We can no longer airbrush out the role of the experimenters in producing brutality,” write Haslam et al.
A number of notable figures from psychology’s past held an interest in parapsychology or psi (the study of mental phenomena that defy current scientific understanding), including William James, Alexander Luria, Binet, Freud, and Fechner. But today the field is cordoned off; and when it encroaches into mainstream publications, as with the “Feeling the Future” experiments conducted by Daryl Bem in 2012, furore typically follows. To sceptics, the fact that these experiments produced positive results is ipso facto proof that psychology’s methodsmust be broken.
However, it’s only logical to take this view if you have already ruled out the existence of psychic phenomena and, at least among the US public, the majority haven’t.Even in the chronically suspicious British culture, one quarter of people have consulted a psychic. I too am personally quite open to the existence of such phenomena, so I’ve been eager for an accessible overview of the field of parapsychology as it currently stands. This is what parapsychology researcher Etzel Cardeña, Director of the Centre for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology at Lund University, attempts to provide in his new review in American Psychologist.
When you’re in the middle of a gruelling long-distance run and the pain and fatigue is becoming overwhelming, an obvious strategy is to try to force the subjective experience out of your mind, for example by thinking nice thoughts or focusing on the environment around you. The trouble is, as the physical struggle intensifies, the distraction strategy becomes harder and harder to pull off. According to a new paper in Motivation and Emotion, an alternative approach that holds promise is to practice “cognitive reappraisal” – don’t ignore the sensations as such, but try to view them in a dispassionate way, as if you are a scientist studying running or a journalist reporting on the experience.
Is sexting a good thing, because it’s sexually liberating, or a bad thing, because it’s objectifying? Separate research groups have put forward both arguments. But according to a new study of college students in Hong Kong, it’s both.
It’s estimated that roughly half of US college students (on which most research in this area has been done) send nude or sexually provocative images by phone or the internet. In the new study, reported in the Journal of Sex Research, the proportion was lower (13.6 per cent), perhaps because Chinese culture has a lower level of sexual permissiveness, but sexting was still relatively common, with almost one in five men and one in ten women saying they do it.
This is Episode 12 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Can psychology help us to be funnier? Our presenter Ginny Smith hears how a key ingredient of humour is “incongruity” and the surprise of unexpected meanings. Individual words too can be amusing, but actually most of the time we laugh not because we’ve seen or heard a joke, but as a natural part of friendly interaction.
Our guests, in order of appearance, are: Cardiff University neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of The Happy Brain; psychologist Tomas Engelthaler at the University of Warwick, who co-authored a paper on the funniest words in English; and “stand up scientist” Sophie Scott at UCL, who gave the 2017 Christmas lectures on the neuroscience of voices, speech and laughter.
Most of us are healthily deluded by memory biases that inflate our self-esteem. We remember more positive personal events than negative, for instance, and we selectively recall or even edit memories in a way that bolsters our favoured view of ourselves. A pair of psychologists at Lomonosov Moscow University propose that for people with persistent anxiety, this process goes awry. The worrier’s negative self-concept is instead reinforced by the selective recall of previous painful and awkward memories, harming their confidence and fuelling anxiety.
Imagine if it were possible to implant more positive autobiographical memories in these anxious individuals. This could boost their self-esteem, increase their confidence, thus dialling down their anxiety levels. In an intriguing new study published in Memory, Veronika Nourkova and Darya Vaslienko have provided preliminary evidence that such an approach could work, although they found that hypnosis was required to make the memory implantation convincing enough.
Aerobic exercise – any activity that gets your heart pumping harder – improves mood, anxiety and memory. It can help people with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. Now there’s evidence, from a randomised controlled trial published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, that a programme of regular aerobic exercise also reduces psychopathology in people diagnosed with schizophrenia. And it seems to have a particular impact on so-called “negative” symptoms, such as apathy and loss of emotional feeling, which are not improved by standard drug treatments.
“[W]hile antipsychotics [drug treatments] are essential in treating schizophrenia, interventions other than antipsychotic treatment…may be needed to achieve better outcomes,” write the authors of the new study, led by Peng-Wei Wang at Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taiwan.
If personality traits are a genuine concept and not merely an artefact of psychologists’ imagination, then how people choose to spend their time ought to correlate with their scores on personality questionnaires, notwithstanding the constraints of life that prevent us from doing what we want. In fact, there are relatively few studies that have looked at correlations between traits and everyday behaviour, and of those that have, many relied on student volunteers (see here for an overview).
A study published earlier this year in Collabra helps plug this research gap – Julia Rohrer and Richard Lucas analysed the “Big Five” trait personality scores of over 1,300 German volunteers (part of a nationally representative sample), average age 51 years, who on three successive years completed detailed diaries of what they had been up to the day before. Specifically, they indicated whether they had spent any time, and if so how much, on nine key activities the previous day, including socialising, work, chores and watching TV.
Psychology can help people one person at a time, but it also holds the promise of changing society at a mass scale, through campaigns to change attitudes and behaviour. One such endeavour is the development of programmes to reduce the rates of sexual assault of women on university campuses. But in a literature review in Aggression and Violent Behavior, researchers from the University of California make the case that such programmes may not just be ineffective, but counterproductive.