Tag: featured

No “far transfer” – chess, memory training and music just make you better at chess, memory training and music

By Alex Fradera

Learning to ride a BMX obviously helps you handle a racing bike. How about a motorbike? A unicycle? A helicopter? The question of how far learning generalises beyond the original context has continued to vex psychologists. The answer has real-life implications for education and health. For instance, it bears on whether, by undertaking activities like brain training or learning chess, we can expect to boost our overall memory or intelligence – what’s known as “far transfer”. In a new review in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet of the University of Liverpool conclude that in fact the evidence for far-transfer is very weak.

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Thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition

By Alex Fradera

Operating in our second language can have some intriguing psychological effects. We swear more freely and linger longer on embarrassing topics than normal. We’re also less susceptible to cognitive biases. According to psychologist Constantinos Hadjichristidis at the University of Trento, this is because a second language discourages us from relying on intuitive thinking. In a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Hadjichristidis and his colleagues have shown another way that this manifests – when thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition.

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Very intelligent people make less effective leaders, according to their peers and subordinates

By Alex Fradera

Highly intelligent people tend to make good progress in the workplace and are seen as fit for leadership roles: overall, smarter is usually associated with success. But if you examine the situation more closely, as does new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, you find evidence that too much intelligence can harm leadership effectiveness. Too clever for your own good? Let’s look at the research.

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Moderate alcohol consumption improves foreign language skills

By Emma Young

Alcohol is not exactly known for its brain-boosting properties. In fact, it impairs all kinds of cognitive functioning, including working memory and the ability to ignore distractions. So it really should make it harder for someone to speak in a foreign language.

However, as Fritz Renner of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, point out in a new paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “contrary to what would be expected based on theory, it is a widely held belief among bilingual speakers that alcohol consumption improves foreign language fluency, as is evident in anecdotal evidence from numerous discussions in social and popular media.” And in welcome news for holiday drinkers (not to mention language students) everywhere, it turns out that, at least at moderate levels, this belief seems to be right.

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Ten-year study finds loneliness and self-centeredness appear to be mutually reinforcing

By Emma Young

We usually think of loneliness as a condition with no redeeming features. Certainly, chronic loneliness is linked to poorer physical and psychological health, as well as unfavourable effects on personality. But an evolutionary model of loneliness, pioneered by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, US, proposes that it has an adaptive function, in that it:

  1. makes people want to do something about absent or unsatisfactory social relationships, and
  2. encourages people to focus on their own interests and welfare

The second proposed motivational force is the focus of a new study, led John Cacioppo, and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers predicted that feelings of loneliness would make people more self-centred – and this is exactly what they found.

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The concept of “compensation” makes sense of several autism puzzles

By Alex Fradera

A process involved in neurodevelopmental disorders that we are only just beginning to understand is “compensation” – the way that a deficit can be partially or wholly masked by automatic mental processes and/or deliberate behavioural strategies. For instance, a person with dyslexia may achieve typical levels of reading ability after an earlier diagnosis, not because the disorder has gone away (subtle tests might show continuing problems in phonological processing, for example) but through the use of behavioural strategies, such as reverse-engineering a tricky word from the meaning of words around it. In a new review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews Lucy Anne Livingston and Francesca Happé, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, take us through what compensation might mean for autism.

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Pretending to be Batman helps kids stay on task

By Christian Jarrett

Do their homework or reach over there for the iPad and dive into a world of games? It’s the ever-present dilemma facing young children today. Here’s a simple technique that could tip the balance a little in favour of the homework. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. The challenge now is to nail down exactly why the technique works, and to see if over time it could improve children’s self-regulation skills without them needing to go through the ritual of pretending to be someone else.

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The Psychology of Sex Differences – 5 Revealing Insights From Our Primate Cousins

By Christian Jarrett

There are behavioural differences, on average, between the sexes – few would dispute that. Where the debate rages is over how much these differences are the result of social pressures versus being rooted in our biology (the answer often is that there is a complex interaction between the two).

For example, when differences are observed between girls and boys, such as in preferences for play, one possibility is that this is partly or wholly because of the contrasting ways that girls and boys are influenced by their peers, parents and other adults (because of the ideas they have about how the sexes ought to behave). Studying non-human primates allows us to identity sex differences in behavior that can’t be due to human culture and gender beliefs.

Learning more about the biological roots of behavioural sex differences should not be used as an excuse for harmful stereotyping or discrimination, but it can help us better understand our human nature and the part that evolved sex differences play in some of the most important issues that affect our lives, including around diversity, relationships, mental health, crime and education.

Earlier this year, as part of a special issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research – titled “An Issue Whose Time Has Come: Sex/Gender Influences on Nervous System Function” – Elizabeth Lonsdorf at Franklin and Marshall College published a useful mini-review detailing some of the sex differences observed among monkey and ape infants and juveniles.

“Many sex differences in behavioral development exist in nonhuman primates,” she writes, “despite a comparative lack of sex-biased treatment by mothers and other social partners”. Here is a digested account of five of these behavioural sex differences:   

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Children of today are better at delaying gratification than previous generations

By Christian Jarrett

If you believed the copious alarmist commentary in the newspapers, you’d fear for the future of our species. Today’s children, we’re told, are more hyperactive and technology addicted than ever before. They’ve lost any ability to sit still, instead craving constant stimulation from digital devices and exhausted parents.

What might this mean for their performance on the most famous psychological measure of childhood self-control, Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test? Surely, kids of today will struggle far more than previous generations to resist the lure of one marshmallow (or other treat) now for the promise of two in ten minutes or so, as the task requires? In a new survey, the majority of child development experts certainly believed so.

Yet based on his analysis of 50 years worth of performance data on the Marshmallow Test – released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework – John Protzko at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concludes that in fact children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years.

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Women know better than men what other women are thinking and feeling

By Emma Young

If you want to know what a woman is really thinking, ask another woman. That’s the message of a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which was designed to probe our ability to use other people’s posture, facial expressions and behaviours, as well our interpretations of ambiguous statements, to infer what’s going on in their mind – no matter what they’re actually saying.

The research team, led by Renata Wacker at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, recruited 304 women and 241 men, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The volunteers were put through possibly the most irritating – though potentially clinically useful – movie-watching experience imaginable.

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