The American aversion for psychological complexity

Dahlia Lithwick writes:

The launch of the 2020 presidential contest has triggered yet another round of uniquely American anxiety around the stability of character.

We’re only a few weeks into the nascent primary campaign, and already the public discourse is mired in a debate that seems to be consumed with which of the Democratic candidates is in fact tricking us.

Amy Klobuchar appears to be a sweet Minnesota girl, but is she secretly a crazed, potentially abusive harpy? Elizabeth Warren holds herself out to be a wonky economic populist … so then why did she dabble in all that bonkers Native American ancestry stuff? Kamala Harris says she’s a genuine liberal, but she was also a brutally tough prosecutor. Cory Booker is trying too hard to be an Obama reboot. Beto O’Rourke seems like he could be the real thing, except that he also seems like he was hatched in an underground lab to simply seem like the real thing. Kirsten Gillibrand says she’s a feminist but she was for gun rights before she was against them, and Julián Castro is Hispanic but he also might be too Hispanic, but then is Kamala Harris really black enough and don’t get me started on Sherrod Brown and whether he’s a folksy blue-collar guy or just a rumpled blue-collar guy.

It is deeply strange, this American fixation with political “authenticity.” We would rather have a flat, one-dimensional stick figure run for office than sit with the possibility that human beings are multifaceted and evolving and—by necessity and design—apt to show different faces to different people over the course of a political lifetime. This transcends the much-ballyhooed American proclivity to prefer presidents whom they can have a beer with. It’s not so much that we want a president who is like us; it’s that we abhor the notion that our politicians may appear to be one thing sometimes but are something totally different at other times. [Continue reading…]

People who are moved by sad music may be better at feeling the pain of others

Amy X. Wang writes:

While research into human cognition has long noted that music—chords, harmonies collections of sound comprising something of a universal language—has a profound relationship to the thoughts and emotions of people all over the world, a study published in the scientific journal Frontiers of Psychology peers into qualities and effects specifically associated with sad music.

Think somber, angsty, tugging-at-your-heartstrings type of melodies. According to the study, appreciation for such melancholy tunes is intriguingly linked to one particular trait: empathy.

People who report being “moved” by sad songs demonstrate higher levels of empathy than their peers, say the study’s three academic authors, who asked 102 participants to listen to a particular piece of music and answer detailed questions about their experience. Those who were barely affected by the music scored low on questions measuring emotional responsiveness to other people, while the opposite held true for people who felt strongly about the music. [Continue reading…]

Why do people fall for fake news?

Gordon Pennycook and David Rand write:

What makes people susceptible to fake news and other forms of strategic misinformation? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

These questions have become more urgent in recent years, not least because of revelations about the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 United States presidential election by disseminating propaganda through social media platforms. In general, our political culture seems to be increasingly populated by people who espouse outlandish or demonstrably false claims that often align with their political ideology.

The good news is that psychologists and other social scientists are working hard to understand what prevents people from seeing through propaganda. The bad news is that there is not yet a consensus on the answer. Much of the debate among researchers falls into two opposing camps. One group claims that our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions: that is, we’re prone to rationalization. The other group — to which the two of us belong — claims that the problem is that we often fail to exercise our critical faculties: that is, we’re mentally lazy.

However, recent research suggests a silver lining to the dispute: Both camps appear to be capturing an aspect of the problem. Once we understand how much of the problem is a result of rationalization and how much a result of laziness, and as we learn more about which factor plays a role in what types of situations, we’ll be better able to design policy solutions to help combat the problem. [Continue reading…]

The fallacy of obviousness

Teppo Felin writes:

Scientific experiments don’t generally attract widespread attention. But the ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ (1999) experiment of visual attention by the American psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris has become a classic. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman highlights this experiment and argues that it reveals something fundamental about the human mind, namely, that humans are ‘blind to the obvious, and that we also are blind to our blindness’. Kahneman’s claim captures much of the current zeitgeist in the cognitive sciences, and arguably even provides a defining slogan of behavioural economics: in turn, as the economist Steven Levitt put it, ‘that one sentence summarises a fundamental insight’ about the life’s work of Kahneman himself. The notion of prevalent human blindness also fuels excitement about artificial intelligence (AI), especially its capacity to replace flawed and error-prone human judgment.

But are humans truly blind to the obvious? Recent research suggests otherwise. It suggests that this claim – so important to much of the cognitive sciences, behavioural economics, and now AI – is wrong. So, how could such an influential claim get it so wrong? [Continue reading…]

Strangers smile less to one another when they have their smartphones, study finds

PsyPost reports:

New research suggests that phones are altering fundamental aspects of social life. According to a study published in Computers in Human Behavior, strangers smile less to one another when they have their smartphones with them.

“Smartphones provide easy access to so much fun and useful content, but we wondered if they may have subtle unanticipated costs for our social behavior in the nondigital world. Smiling is a fundamental human social behavior that serves as a signal of people’s current emotions and motivations,” said study author Kostadin Kushlev, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

In the study, pairs of strangers were assigned to wait together in a room for 10 minutes either with or without their smartphones. The room was videotaped, and the participants were positioned so that both of their faces were visible to cameras.

Participants with their smartphones were less likely to initiate conversations. Thirty-two participants who had their phones never ended up interacting with the other person in the waiting room. In comparison, just 6 people without their phones never interacted with the stranger. [Continue reading…]

How Donald Trump appeals to men secretly insecure about their manhood

Eric Knowles and Sarah DiMuccio write:

From boasting about the size of his penis on national television to releasing records of his high testosterone levels, President Trump’s rhetoric and behavior exude machismo. His behavior also seems to have struck a chord with some male voters. See, for example, the “Donald Trump: Finally Someone With Balls” T-shirts common at Trump rallies.

But our research suggests that Trump is not necessarily attracting male supporters who are as confidently masculine as the president presents himself to be. Instead, Trump appears to appeal more to men who are secretly insecure about their manhood. We call this the “fragile masculinity hypothesis.” Here is some of our evidence.

Research shows that many men feel pressure to look and behave in stereotypically masculine ways — or risk losing their status as “real men.” Masculine expectations are socialized from early childhood and can motivate men to embrace traditional male behaviors while avoiding even the hint of femininity. This unforgiving standard of maleness makes some men worry that they’re falling short. These men are said to experience “fragile masculinity.”

The political process provides a way that fragile men can reaffirm their masculinity. By supporting tough politicians and policies, men can reassure others (and themselves) of their own manliness. For example, sociologist Robb Willer has shown that men whose sense of masculinity was threatened increased their support for aggressive foreign policy.

We wanted to see whether fragile masculinity was associated with how Americans vote — and specifically whether it was associated with greater support for Trump in the 2016 general election and for Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. [Continue reading…]

You can’t characterize human nature if studies overlook 85 percent of people on Earth

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By only working in their own backyards, what do psychology researchers miss about human behavior?
Arthimedes/Shutterstock.com

By Daniel Hruschka, Arizona State University

Over the last century, behavioral researchers have revealed the biases and prejudices that shape how people see the world and the carrots and sticks that influence our daily actions. Their discoveries have filled psychology textbooks and inspired generations of students. They’ve also informed how businesses manage their employees, how educators develop new curricula and how political campaigns persuade and motivate voters.

But a growing body of research has raised concerns that many of these discoveries suffer from severe biases of their own. Specifically, the vast majority of what we know about human psychology and behavior comes from studies conducted with a narrow slice of humanity – college students, middle-class respondents living near universities and highly educated residents of wealthy, industrialized and democratic nations.

Blue countries represent the locations of 93 percent of studies published in Psychological Science in 2017. Dark blue is U.S., blue is Anglophone colonies with a European descent majority, light blue is western Europe. Regions sized by population.

To illustrate the extent of this bias, consider that more than 90 percent of studies recently published in psychological science’s flagship journal come from countries representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population.

If people thought and behaved in basically the same ways worldwide, selective attention to these typical participants would not be a problem. Unfortunately, in those rare cases where researchers have reached out to a broader range of humanity, they frequently find that the “usual suspects” most often included as participants in psychology studies are actually outliers. They stand apart from the vast majority of humanity in things like how they divvy up windfalls with strangers, how they reason about moral dilemmas and how they perceive optical illusions.

Given that these typical participants are often outliers, many scholars now describe them and the findings associated with them using the acronym WEIRD, for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

[Read more…]

How reliable are the memories of sexual assault victims?

Jim Hopper writes:

Incomplete memories of sexual assault, including those with huge gaps, are understandable–if we learn the basics of how memory works and we genuinely listen to survivors.

Such memories should be expected. They are similar to the memories of soldiers and police officers for things they’ve experienced in the line of fire. And a great deal of scientific research on memory explains why.

I’m an expert on psychological trauma, including sexual assault and traumatic memories. I’ve spent more than 25 years studying this. I’ve trained military and civilian police officers, prosecutors and other professionals, including commanders at Fort Leavenworth and the Pentagon. I teach this to psychiatrists in training at Harvard Medical School.

As an expert witness, I review videos and transcripts of investigative interviews. It’s like using a microscope to examine how people recall – and don’t recall – parts of their assault experiences. I’ve seen poorly trained police officers not only fail to collect vital details, but actually worsen memory gaps and create inconsistences.

Ignorance of how memory works is a major reason why sexual assault is the easiest violent crime to get away with, across our country and around the world.

Yet when I teach military service members and police officers, it’s mostly about making light bulbs go on in their heads and helping them connect the dots from their own traumatic memories to those of sexual assault survivors.

Soldiers and police know that traumatic memories often have huge gaps. They know it can be difficult or impossible to recall the order in which some things happened. They know they’ll never forget some things from that alley in Ramadi where their best friend died—even though they can’t remember many details of the battle, or which month of their third Iraq rotation it was.

That’s why soldiers and police often approach me after trainings to say, “You get it,” or “now I understand how it’s no different for people who’ve been sexually assaulted.” [Continue reading…]

Octopuses on ecstasy reveal genetic link to evolution of social behaviors in humans

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine:

By studying the genome of a kind of octopus not known for its friendliness toward its peers, then testing its behavioral reaction to a popular mood-altering drug called MDMA or “ecstasy,” scientists say they have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between the social behaviors of the sea creature and humans, species separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree.

A summary of the experiments is published Sept. 20 in Current Biology, and if the findings are validated, the researchers say, they may open opportunities for accurately studying the impact of psychiatric drug therapies in many animals distantly related to people.

“The brains of octopuses are more similar to those of snails than humans, but our studies add to evidence that they can exhibit some of the same behaviors that we can,” says Gül Dölen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead investigator conducting the experiments. “What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviors are evolutionarily conserved.”

Octopuses, says Dölen, are well-known to be clever creatures. They can trick prey to come into their clutches, and Dölen says there is some evidence they also learn by observation and have episodic memory. The gelatinous invertebrates (animals without backbones) are further notorious for escaping from their tank, eating other animals’ food, eluding caretakers and sneaking around.

But most octopuses are asocial animals and avoid others, including other octopuses. But because of some of their behaviors, Dölen still thought there may be a link between the genetics that guide social behavior in them and humans. One place to look was in the genomics that guide neurotransmitters, the signals that neurons pass between each other to communicate. [Continue reading…]

Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.

Tudor’s ice tale contains an important point about human affairs. Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition.

What is hypocognition? If you don’t know, you’ve just experienced it.

Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea. The Martinique islanders were hypocognitive because they lacked a cognitive representation of refrigeration. But so are we hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss.

In financial dealings, almost two thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from Type II diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition is about the absence of things. It is hard to recognize precisely because it is invisible. To recognize hypocognition requires a departure from the reassuring familiarity of our own culture to gain a grasp of the unknown and the missing. After all, it is difficult to see the culture we inhabit from only within. [Continue reading…]