Tag: featured

Adopting a more active lifestyle today could have benefits for your personality decades from now

By Christian Jarrett

According to statistics published by the British Heart Foundation, we spend 76 days per year, on average, sitting. The World Health Organisation describes physical inactivity as a “global public health problem” that contributes to millions of deaths each year.

You might not be surprised to hear about the harmful health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, but perhaps less obvious is that physical inactivity is also associated with unwelcome changes in personality over time. Previous research has documented these effects over periods of four and ten years. A new paper in the Journal of Research in Personality has extended this, finding that greater physical inactivity at baseline is associated with deterioration in personality two decades later, even after accounting for any differences in initial personality.

As the researchers, led by Yannick Stephan at Université de Montpellier, point out, there is an upside: the findings suggest that even a moderate increase in your activity levels today could have positive implications for your personality decades from now.

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Your childhood best friend’s intelligence probably rubbed off on you

By Christian Jarrett

Picture yourself aged 11: who was your best friend and how smart were they? The answer may have shaped your life more than you think. A new study published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv reports that participants’ IQ at age 15 was correlated with the IQ of whomever was their best friend years earlier, when that friend was aged 11, even after factoring out the participants’ own earlier intelligence, as well as a host of other potentially confounding variables.

We already know, thanks to previous research, that our school-age peers shape our personalities, our powers of self-control, and the chances that we’ll get into trouble, so it’s to be expected that they also affect our intelligence (and we theirs). Surprisingly, however, this possibility had not been studied before now. “Our findings add … another layer of evidence for the important and pervasive influence of peers on a host of traits during adolescence,” the researchers said.

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Is death still frightening if you believe the self is an illusion? An astonishing study of Tibetan Buddhists

By Christian Jarrett

Imagining ourselves as no longer existing is, for most of us, terrifying. Buddhism may offer some reassurance. A central tenet of the religion is that all is impermanent and the self is actually an illusion. If there is no self, then why fear the end of the self?

To find out if the logic of the Buddhist perspective eliminates existential fear, Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of monastic Tibetan Buddhists (monks-in-training) in exile in India, as well as lay Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhists from Bhutan, Indian Hindus and American Christians and atheists.

To their astonishment, the researchers report in Cognitive Science that fear of the annihilation of the self was most intense among the monastic Buddhists, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to sacrifice years of their own life for a stranger.

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Self-control and cognitive control are not the same thing

By Christian Jarrett

It’s common for psychologists to use the terms “self-control” and “cognitive control” interchangeably. Consider the introduction to a review paper published recently in Trends in Cognitive Sciences on whether our self-control is limited or not (I’ve added the emphases): “Whereas cognitive control relies on at least three separate (yet related) executive functions – task switching, working-memory, and inhibition – at its heart, self-control is most clearly related to inhibitory cognitive control …”

When scholars do make a distinction, they mostly use self-control to refer to the ability to delay immediate gratification in the service of a longer-term goal, whereas they use the term cognitive control to refer to the related ability to ignore distracting information or stimuli. Defined this way, do self-control and cognitive control essentially involve the same mental processes? According to a new study by Stefan Scherbaum at Technische Universität Dresden and his colleagues in Acta Psychologica, they do not.

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Researchers say this 5-minute technique could help you fall asleep more quickly

By Christian Jarrett

You’ve had all day to worry, but your brain decides that the moment you rest your weary head upon your pillow is the precise instant it wants to start fretting. The result of course is that you feel wide awake and cannot sleep. Two possible solutions: (1) spend five minutes before lights out writing about everything you have done. This might give you a soothing sense of achievement. Or (2) spend five minutes writing a comprehensive to-do list. This could serve to off-load your worries, or perhaps it will only make them more salient? To find out which is the better strategy, a team led by Michael Scullin at Baylor University, invited 57 volunteers to their sleep lab and had half of them try technique 1 and half try technique 2. Their findings are published in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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New “Highly Sensitive Child” test identifies three groups: orchids, dandelions and tulips

By Christian Jarrett

It’s widely accepted children’s development reflects an interaction between their genes and the environment they are raised in. More tentative is the intriguing idea that the role of the environment is more consequential for some children than others. According to this view, a minority of children are environmentally sensitive “orchids” who suffer disproportionately in adversity, but who especially thrive in positive conditions.

To date, research into this idea has been stifled by the lack of a short, reliable test of children’s Environmental Sensitivity. As reported in Developmental Psychology, a team led by Michael Pluess at Queen Mary University of London has now developed a 12-item scale for this purpose. Preliminary work using the test supports the importance of the Environmental Sensitivity concept and suggests children fall into three groups: orchids; dandelions, who are relatively unaffected by the environment; and tulips, who are midway between the two.

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Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression

By Alex Fradera

There’s a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative. But is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?

Scientific attempts to resolve this question, which have mainly focused on disorders of mood, have so far struggled to reach a definitive answer. However, in a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Christa Taylor of Albany State University has applied surgical precision to open up the existing body of research and lay out what we currently know.

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“Strongest evidence yet” for ego depletion – the idea that self control is a limited resource

By Christian Jarrett

For years, “ego depletion” has been a dominant theory in the study of self control. This is the intuitive idea that self control or willpower is a limited resource, such that the more you use up in one situation, the less you have left over to deploy in another. It makes sense of the everyday experience of when you come home after a hard day at the office, abandon all constructive plans, and instead binge on snacks in front of the TV.

The trouble is, the theory has taken some hard knocks lately, including a failed joint replication attempt by 23 separate labs. Critics have pointed out that most supportive studies – and there are over 200 of them – are small and underpowered. A meta-analysis that corrected for a positive bias in the existing literature concluded that ego depletion is not real. A study in India – where there’s a cultural belief that exercising self-control is energising – even found evidence for “reverse ego depletion“.

It’s not easy to weigh the evidence for and against, but perhaps the science is tipping back in favour of ego depletion. Two new studies, made publicly available on the PsyArXiv preprint website, provide what the researchers at Texas A&M University, led by Katie Garrison, describe as “the strongest evidence yet of the ego depletion effect”.

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New analysis suggests most Milgram participants realised the “obedience experiments” were not really dangerous

By Christian Jarrett

Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s – in which ordinary volunteers followed a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant – have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. Milgram’s own interpretation, his “agentic state theory”, was that we readily give up our own sense of responsibility when following instructions from an authority figure. However, his “obedience studies” have come in for recent criticism and re-interpretation (not that you’d know this from the textbooks). The most prominent contemporary theory is that the studies don’t demonstrate blind obedience at all, but rather “engaged followership” – people’s willingness to do bad things when they see them as morally good because they serve a grander cause, in this case science.

Now Matthew Hollander at the University of Wisconsin, and Jason Turowetz at the University of Siegen, have conducted the first in-depth analysis of the interviews that many of the participants gave immediately after taking part in the now infamous research. The new findings, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, provide little evidence for engaged followership. Instead most of Milgram’s participants showed scepticism that anyone had been seriously harmed at all.

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Fake news leaves a lasting impression on the less smart

By Alex Fradera

One reason why fake news is dangerous is that we don’t like giving up reassuring certainties, and once we have a take on things, it colours further information – hence the seeming bulletproof nature of conspiracy theories and partisan political hatreds. But new research in Intelligence suggests this is truer for some people than others. For mentally sharp people, the results suggest it’s relatively easy to jettison an outdated perspective, while for those of lower cognitive ability, the dregs remain.

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