New neuroscience-based technologies aim to improve decisionmaking under pressure. But solving systemic problems will take a lot more than that.
Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category
There’s rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: how children’s belief in Santa Claus is part of a hierarchical pantheon of real and non-real figures.
Do you believe in Santa Claus? If you’re over the age of eight, you probably don’t. We tend to think young children are simply more gullible due to their tender years. But their belief in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or similar cultural figures isn’t quite as simple as that, according to a June paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Rather, such figures fall into an ambiguous category between “real” and “nonreal” for many children, indicating that their belief structures are much more nuanced than previously believed. Rituals like writing letters to Santa, or leaving out milk and cookies on Christmas eve, reinforce their belief in these ambiguous figures. The fact that the milk and cookies are gone on Christmas morning serves as a form of indirect evidence, and when children interact with a Santa figure at the mall, it further reinforces that belief.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought incalculable suffering and trauma. But it also offers ways for people—and even societies—to change for the better.
Fear is typically viewed as a negative emotion, an adverse reaction to keep us on our toes with regard to potential dangers in our environment. But human beings also tend to seek out scary movies, horror novels, or haunted houses—and not just during the Halloween season. This tendency has been dubbed “recreational fear” in the academic literature: a “mixed emotional experience of fear and enjoyment.” But the scare factor has to be just right in order to achieve that mixed state, according to a new paper in the journal Psychological Science that correlates this “Goldilocks zone” of subjective enjoyment with a telltale range of heart-rate fluctuations.
“By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximized,” said co-author Marc Malmdorf Andersen, a researcher at the Interacting Minds Center at Denmark’s Aarhus University. “Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence on the relationship between fear, enjoyment, and physical arousal in recreational forms of fear.”
This is just the latest development in a course of research spearheaded by Mathias Clasen of Aarhus University, another co-author, and the author of Why Horror Seduces. For instance, Clasen has examined the dominant personality traits of horror fans. (They tend to score highly on openness to experience, also called intellect imagination.) And last year we reported on his investigation of two different fear-regulation strategies employed by subjects participating in a Danish haunted house: “adrenaline junkies,” who lean into the fear, and “white-knucklers,” who try to tamp down their fear. A third study still in progress will examine the relationship between fear and memory.
Pick a card, any card. It’s a staple of traditional magic tricks. But if you choose the three of diamonds, chances are you may have been “primed” by the magician to pick that card without even being aware of it. That’s because certain subtle verbal and gestural cues can unconsciously influence decision-making, according to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
There is a certain degree of well-founded skepticism surrounding studies of visual or verbal priming. There was, for instance, a famous “experiment” in 1957 by a market researcher named James McDonald Vicary, involving subliminal advertising. Vicary claimed to have conducted an experiment in which some 45,000 people attending screenings of the film Picnic at a Fort Lee, New Jersey, theater were repeatedly shown brief ads (“Drink Coca-cola” or “Hungry? Eat popcorn”) lasting just 1/3,000th of a second during the film—thanks to a tachistoscope Vicary said he installed in the projection booth. He reported an 18.1 percent increase in sales of Coca-Cola and a startling 57.8 percent increase in popcorn sales as a result.
The concept of subliminal advertising subsequently spread like wildfire, featuring in a 1973 episode of Columbo and even prompting the CIA to issue a cautionary report. There was just one problem: Vicary was a fraud. Nobody was ever able to reproduce those results—including Vicary himself—and Vicary eventually admitted he had falsified his data, and the story had been a gimmick to prop up his struggling marketing business. It’s possible he never even conducted the original experiment.
Back in March, we reported on the strange phenomenon of people scrambling to stockpile toilet paper as the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread adoption of shelter-in-place and social-distancing policies. Now German scientists have pinpointed a couple of key personality traits that appear to be linked to this kind of hoarding behavior, per a new paper in the journal PLOS ONE.
Consumer behavior researcher Kit Yarrow told Ars in March that toilet paper hoarding is at least partly an attempt to gain a sense of control when the world feels uncertain and dangerous. “When we feel anxious, which I think all of us do right now—it would be sort of abnormal to not feel a little anxious—the antidote to anxiety is always control,” she said. “And since we can’t really control the track of this disease, we turn to what we can control, and that’s why people are shopping. It’s like, ‘Well, I feel like I’m doing something, I feel like I’m preparing. I feel like I’m taking control of the thing I can control, which is stocking up.'”
As for why people hoarded toilet paper in particular, according to Yarrow, this kind of panic buying could be a case of our social primate brains reacting to newsfeeds full of striking but sometimes disorienting visual cues—like images of store shelves devoid of paper products. “Toilet paper sort of became the thing that the media in particular was really focused on, and that then cued people into thinking about [it],” she said.
There have been a surprising number of studies in recent years examining the effects of swearing, specifically whether it can help relieve pain—either physical or psychological (as in the case of traumatic memories or events). According to the latest such study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, constantly repeating the F-word—as one might do if one hit one’s thumb with a hammer—can increase one’s pain threshold.
The technical term is the “hypoalgesic effect of swearing,” best illustrated by a 2009 study in NeuroReport by researchers at Keele University in the UK. The work was awarded the 2010 Ig Nobel Peace Prize, “for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.” Co-author Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele, became interested in studying the topic after noting his wife’s “unsavory language” while giving birth, and wondered if profanity really could help alleviate pain. “Swearing is such a common response to pain. There has to be an underlying reason why we do it,” Stephens told Scientific American at the time.
For that 2009 study, Stephens and his colleagues asked 67 study participants (college students) to immerse their hands in a bucket of ice water. They were then instructed to either swear repeatedly using the profanity of their choice, or chant a neutral word. Lo and behold, the participants said they experienced less pain when they swore, and were also able to leave their hands in the bucket about 40 seconds longer than when they weren’t swearing. It’s been suggested (by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, among others) that it is a primitive reflex that serves as a form of catharsis.
Carrie Fisher had a psychedelic-induced encounter with a talking acorn. Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann recalls the time he dropped too much acid and his cymbals began melting mid-set, forcing him to leave the stage. Ben Stiller admits he only dropped acid once, and had such a bad trip that he called his parents, Jerry Stiller (who died just this week) and the late Anne Meara. These are just a few of the celebrity psychedelic experiences recounted in the entertaining new documentary film, Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics, now streaming on Netflix.
(Mild spoilers below.)
Psychedelics get their name from the Greek root words for “mind revealing,” since they can alter cognition and perception. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is perhaps the best known, along with its popular siblings psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms); 3,4-methyl
As the coronavirus spread rapidly around the world, and more people became aware of the serious threat it posed, the 2011 film Contagion experienced a sudden resurgence in popularity. The Steven Soderbergh-directed thriller moved from 270th place pre-pandemic on the most-watched list of Warnere Brothers movies, to second place in just a few months. The biggest spike in Google searches occurred on March 11, the same day President Trump announced a travel ban on Europe, peaking again three days later, when the ban was extended to the United Kingdom.
This struck Coltan Scrivner, a graduate student at the University of Chicago specializing in the study of morbid curiosity, as remarkable, especially when he noted a similar spike in popularity for the 1995 film Outbreak. Why would people seek out the very kinds of films and TV shows that someone feeling threatened by a pandemic might be expected to avoid? He conducted an online survey to learn more. The result is a forthcoming article in the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.
Scrivner’s hypothesis is that such “morbidly curious” behavior is an evolved response mechanism for dealing with threats by learning from imagined experiences. “We might reason that these search terms spiked in popularity because people were trying to learn more about the coronavirus outbreak in response to its recent impact on their daily life around that time,” he wrote in his paper. “The shutting of international borders may have signaled to the American consciousness that the coronavirus was, in fact, a real threat.” And part of the human impulse to prepare for said threat would be to learn more about it—including seeking out fictional representations of said threat.