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It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are we humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or deep down are we wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but this feature post aims to shine some evidence-based light on the matter. Here in the first part of a two-part feature – and deliberately side-stepping the obviously relevant but controversial and already much-discussed Milgram, Zimbardo and Asch studies – we digest 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:
In what feels like an increasingly polarised world, trying to convince the “other side” to see things differently often feels futile. Psychology has done a great job outlining some of the reasons why, including showing that, regardless of political leanings, most people are highly motivated to protect their existing views.
However a problem with some of this research is that it is very difficult to concoct opposing real-life arguments of equal validity, so as to make a fair comparison of people’s treatment of arguments they agree and disagree with.
To get around this problem, an elegant new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has tested people’s ability to assess the logic of formal arguments (syllogisms) structured in the exact same way, but that featured wording that either confirmed or contradicted their existing views on abortion. The results provide a striking demonstration of how our powers of reasoning are corrupted by our prior attitudes.
By guest blogger Mo Costandi
“How do you feel?” is a simple and commonly asked question that belies the complex nature of our conscious experiences. The feelings and emotions we experience daily consist of bodily sensations, often accompanied by some kind of thought process, yet we still know very little about exactly how these different aspects relate to one another, or about how such experiences are organised in the brain.
Now, reporting their results in PNAS, a team of researchers in Finland, led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa of the University of Turku, has produced detailed maps of what they call the “human feeling space”, showing how each of dozens of these subjective feelings is associated with a unique set of bodily sensations.
If you wanted to ensure your mind was in top gear, which do you think would provide the better preparation – 15 minutes of calm relaxation, or a 15 minute jog?
A study involving 101 undergrad students suggests you’d be better off plumping for the latter.
Evidence had already accumulated showing that relatively brief, moderate aerobic exercise – like going for a brisk walk or a jog – has immediate benefits for mental functioning, especially speed and attentional control. A parallel literature has also documented how brief, aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on your mood, including making you feel more energetic, even when you don’t expect it to. In their new paper in Acta Psychologica, Fabian Legrand and his colleagues bridged these findings by looking to see if the emotional effects of exercise might be at least partly responsible for the cognitive benefits.
They asked their participants to rate how energetic and vigorous they were feeling and then to complete two cognitive tests (versions of the Trail Making Test, which involves drawing lines between numbers and letters as fast and as accurately as possible).
Next, they allocated half their student participants to go for a 15 minute group jog around the campus and the others to spend the same time following group relaxation exercises. Finally, two minutes after the jog/relaxation session, the students answered the same questions as before about their feelings of energy, and then they repeated the cognitive tests.
The students who went for a jog, but not the relaxation students, subsequently showed significant improvement on the version of the Trail Making Test that measures mental speed and attentional control (but not the other that taps memory and cognitive switching). Moreover, this improvement in cognition was fully mediated by their increased feelings of energy and vigour, implying – although not proving conclusively – that the jog boosted cognition through its effects on their subjective sense of having more energy (in contrast, the relaxation group actually felt dramatically less energetic).
Among the study limitations was the fact the relaxation session took place inside, while the jog was outside. Notwithstanding this issue and some others, and while recognising the need for more research, Legrand and his team said that their findings “add weight to recent suggestions that increased feelings of energy may mediate the relationship between aerobic exercise and some aspects of cognitive functioning.”
By Emma Young
You’re in a packed food court, searching for somewhere to sit. Just as you spot a communal table with two free spaces, one much bigger and more comfortable-looking than the other, you realise there’s a person standing beside you with a tray and they are looking for somewhere to sit, too. What do you do? Rush to take the better seat – but appear selfish? Or let them have it, so seem generous – but eat your lunch in cramped discomfort?
A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that you should do neither. Instead, you should say something like, “Oh, go ahead – you choose a seat”, and the odds are that she or he will not only leave the better seat for you, but also think that you’re generous.
Why do some people go to great lengths to have the chance to spend time by themselves, while others find solitude painful and forever crave company? The most obvious answer would seem to be that it relates to differences in social aspects of personality, and specifically that extraverts will find solitude painful while introverts will enjoy their own company more than anyone else’s. However, a new paper, published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv (not yet peer-reviewed), and involving three diary studies with hundreds of undergrad volunteers, suggests the truth is more complicated.
In fact, there was no evidence that introverts enjoyed solitude more than extraverts. Rather, the most important trait related to liking one’s own company was having strong “dispositional autonomy”. This is a concept from self-determination theory and the researchers, led by Thuy-vy T. Nguyen at the University of Rochester, said that people strong in this trait have alignment between their behaviour, values and interests, are “resistant to pressure from others”, and “are interested in learning more about their personal experiences and emotions”. High scorers in autonomy enjoyed solitude more than others and sought it out for its own sake.
By Alex Fradera
We all differ in how much empathic brain activity we experience in response to witnessing somebody else in pain. For instance, hospital physicians, who are regularly exposed to other people’s suffering, tend to show a dampened response – perhaps a pragmatic necessity to cope in the job, and might along the way explain the blasé gallows humour seen in the profession. If these differences are found within a job, perhaps they also occur within a lifestyle choice, such as one that involves playing with and consenting to painful activities, such as bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism, typically abbreviated to BDSM.
As they report in Neuropsychologia, Siyang Luo at Sun Yat-Sen University and Xiao Zhang at Jinan University explored this issue by first running a preliminary online study on a Chinese BDSM web forum, finding that across genders and BDSM roles, female submissives showed the clearest differences from controls in terms of their having a diminished response to other people’s pain and lower scores on aspects of an empathy questionnaire. (Female doms didn’t show a reliably different response to pain, and male BDSM practitioners barely differed from controls.)
By guest blogger Juliet Hodges
Being rich(er) may not guarantee happiness, as shown by ample evidence from the social sciences, but there are ways of spending money that will make you happier than others. Recent research has uncovered the “experiential advantage”: greater happiness from spending money on experiences (holidays, meals, theatre tickets) instead of material things (gadgets, clothes, jewellery). This could be for a number of reasons, such as experiences being more closely aligned with our values and being less likely to produce rumination and regret. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Studies have found that personality traits can influence whether experiences or things make a person happiest; for example, introverts are made much happier by spending vouchers in a bookshop than a bar.
Another likely exception, that hasn’t previously been studied, is how social class, and specifically access to resources, affects this experiential advantage. Indeed, most research in this area has been performed with college students, who are typically more affluent than the general population, and there are reasons to believe that those who are less well-off might prefer material goods. For them, buying things as opposed to experiences could be more practical: they last longer, can be used multiple times and potentially resold in the future. To put this reasoning to the test, a recent paper in Psychological Science investigated whether the experiential advantage is diminished or absent for people who can afford very little compared with those who can afford a lot.
By Emma Young
That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… It’s an adage that’s backed up in part by studies of people who’ve been through a trauma, such as a car accident or a robbery. While it’s true that around 7-8 per cent of trauma survivors develop chronic PTSD and experience persistent intrusive, unwanted memories of the event, most people recover quickly, and some even report better mental health than they had before (generally when the trauma has been moderate, rather than severe). But what underpins so-called “post-traumatic growth?” A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, argues that it has to do with trauma triggering a form of mental training that increases some survivors’ control over their own minds.