Science of the Spirit


Seeing Black and White Makes People More Judgmental

Black n White Thinking
© Alta Oosthuizen | Shutterstock
Participants who read vignettes on a background of black and white became more judgmental than when reading the story on a plain background.
Chicago - Black-and-white judgments may be more literal than you might expect. A new study finds that people who view information on a black-and-white background are less likely to see gray areas in moral dilemmas than those who get the information alongside other colors.

The background, which participants weren't aware was of interest in the experiment, did not push people to become either more lenient or more severe, researchers reported Friday (May 25) here at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. Instead, it took people's natural tendencies toward leniency or severity and intensified them - in other words, their judgments became more black-and-white.

The findings add to a number of studies that find metaphors can often translate to literal, real-world behavior. For example, people who are holding a warm beverage view strangers as warmer. And when people remember a time they got the cold shoulder, they feel, you guessed it, physically colder.

"We now find that judgment style can also be influenced by metaphors such as black-and-white thinking," said study researcher Simone Schnall, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge.

Moral dilemmas

Schnall and her colleagues conducted a series of five experiments investigating both the black-and-white metaphor and the effect of "balance." In the first, they recruited 111 participants online through Amazon's crowd-sourcing website Mechanical Turk. Each participant read the fictional story of Heinz, a man forced to steal life-saving medication for his wife's cancer because he couldn't afford the drugs. After reading the story, the participants rated how moral Heinz's actions had been.

In some cases, participants saw this tale bordered by a black-and-white checkerboard. Others say a gray border. A third group saw a yellow-and-blue checkerboard.

The results revealed that people reported stronger judgments - both on the moral and immoral sides of the rating scale - when they had read the story against a black-and-white background. There was no difference between the gray and the colorful checkerboard.

"People gave more polarized judgments when they saw some black-and-white checkered background that was in principle irrelevant and incidental," Schnall said.

In a second study, the researchers used the same checkerboard backgrounds and asked questions about the morality and immorality of various behaviors, such as smoking. A new group of 130 online volunteers participated. They, too, made stronger judgments when they answered the questions against a black-and-white background.
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Major Discovery: Evolutionary Psychology Confirms that Many Men Are Cads

Woman on Bench
© sekundo/Flickr
When the age-blighted bricks that hold up House Darwin start to topple, it may look a bit like what's happening now to the Darwinian sub-specialty of evolutionary psychology. This pseudo-science attracts skepticism and eye-rolling -- albeit usually tempered and mild -- even from many Darwinists.

At Slate, psychologist Jesse Bering writes about a new study in Evolution and Human Behavior that would sure seem to be predictable media catnip, a confection of evolutionary storytelling about the human past spiced with large doses of cynicism about male and female sexuality.

The study used the customary small sampling of students from the local college whose preference in a sexual partner was the subject of inquiry. It discovered a tendency among the males to prefer photos of women who appeared vulnerable to being sexually exploited, including if the women appeared close to being unconscious. The young men disclosed that the pictures they found enticing disproportionately showed women who looked sleepy, inebriated, or simply stupid.

When asked about choosing a woman as a girlfriend or spouse, however, the men were drawn to ladies who seemed more alert, lively, and intelligent.

What in the world is surprising about this? Many men -- most men? -- have a bit of the cad in them, or worse, or much worse. That sleep or intoxication makes people vulnerable is no news either. The insight goes back back to the Bible and no doubt well beyond that. (Though interestingly all the stories of it in Scripture that I can think of involve men, not women, being victimized or taken advantage of when asleep or drunk.)

Why You Should Smile at Strangers

© AISPIX by Image Source | Shutterstock
C'mon, smile, it may make others feel more connected.
Chicago - Next time you're out walking about, you may want to give passers-by a smile, or at least a nod. Recent research reveals that these tiny gestures can make people feel more connected.

People who have been acknowledged by a stranger feel more connected to others immediately after the experience than people who have been deliberately ignored, according to study reported here today (May 24) at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Motivation.

"Ostracism is painful," said study researcher Eric Wesselmann, a social psychologist at Purdue University in Indiana. "Sometimes, colloquially, I like to say ostracism sucks. It's not a pleasant experience."

Isolation and connection

The pain is psychological, but it can also extend to the physical. Studies have linked loneliness to a weakened immune system and a hardening of the arteries, for example. And a variety of laboratory experiments have shown that when a person is excluded, even if for a brief time in something as inconsequential as a silly computer game, they feel worse about themselves and experience an all-around sour mood.

Researchers suspect that this response is evolutionary. Humans are social animals, adapted for group living, Wesselmann said.

"If you depend upon others for your survival, if you are culled from that group, you are as good as dead," he said.

If that's the case, people should be very tuned-in to clues about social acceptance and rejection. Wesselmann and his colleagues decided to conduct a subtle experiment to find out. Their participants, 239 pedestrians in a busy campus area, didn't even know they were part of a study. They simply passed by someone who acknowledged them politely, acknowledged them with a smile or stared straight through them as if they weren't even there. The researchers were aiming to create a feeling the Germans call "wie Luft behandeln," or "to be looked at as though air."

(Psychology has also explained another German expression, "schadenfreude," or the joy we sometimes get when others fail.)

Immediately after this encounter, the unknowing participants got waylaid by another person who asked them to fill out a survey on social connectedness. The participants had no idea that the stranger who had just passed them was part of this study. A fourth group of participants filled out the survey without ever encountering the stranger at all.

Strong emotions synchronize peoples' brains

© Lauri Numminmaa
Emotions synchronize brain activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and emotional processing.
Experiencing strong emotions synchronises brain activity across individuals, research team at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre in Finland has revealed.

Human emotions are highly contagious. Seeing others' emotional expressions such as smiles triggers often the corresponding emotional response in the observer. Such synchronisation of emotional states across individuals may support social interaction: When all group members share a common emotional state, their brains and bodies process the environment in a similar fashion.

Researchers at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre have now found that feeling strong emotions makes different individuals' brain activity literally synchronous.

The results revealed that especially feeling strong unpleasant emotions synchronised brain's emotion processing networks in the frontal and midline regions. On the contrary, experiencing highly arousing events synchronised activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and sense of touch.

Well-connected brains make you smarter in older age

© Reuters
Brains that maintain healthy nerve connections as we age help keep us sharp in later life, new research funded by the charity Age UK has found

Brains that maintain healthy nerve connections as we age help keep us sharp in later life, new research funded by the charity Age UK has found.

Older people with robust brain 'wiring' - that is, the nerve fibres that connect different, distant brain areas - can process information quickly and that this makes them generally smarter, the study suggests.

According to the findings, joining distant parts of the brain together with better wiring improves mental performance, suggesting that intelligence is not found in a single part of the brain.

However a loss of condition of this wiring or 'white matter' - the billions of nerve fibres that transmit signals around the brain - can negatively affect our intelligence by altering these networks and slowing down our processing speed.

The research by the University of Edinburgh shows for the first time that the deterioration of white matter with age is likely to be a significant cause of age-related cognitive decline.

The research team used three different brain imaging techniques in compiling the results, including two that have never been used before in the study of intelligence.

These techniques measure the amount of water in brain tissue, indicate structural loss in the brain, and show how well the nerve fibres are insulated.

Babies Know What's Boring, Study Finds

Baby Psychology
© University of Rochester
Lead author Celeste Kidd (shown here) says it's easier to study babies than adults, who know they are taking part in a psychology experiment.
Babies may be sponges for learning new information, but they are indeed active sponges, with new research showing that babies as young as 7 months are able to parse out the too-complex and downright boring, homing in on situations with just the right amount of "wow, how interesting" learning potential.

The study results, detailed this week online in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, provide evidence for an idea about baby cognition that makes intuitive sense, said lead study author Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

The thinking goes that babies organize their search for information in the world in a way that makes the most sense for efficient learning.

If a baby looks at something and it seems too simple, suggesting there's not much learning value, he or she won't pay attention to that situation or object, Kidd told LiveScience during a phone interview.

The same seems to play out for stuff that's too complex, which would seemingly hold a trove of learning potential, but which is actually not an efficient use of their brain time.

Perspective-Taking: A Strategy for Overcoming Bias

© Pryere
What would this guy do? Perspective-taking offers a way around the egocentric bias.
Most people are pretty bad at taking advice from others. People don't mind hearing the advice, they just hate to take it. This is one facet of what psychologists call the 'egocentric bias': the general rule that we think we know better.

The egocentric bias strikes in the boardroom, in schools, in hospitals and everywhere where two or more people are gathered together and one turns to the other and says: "What do you think?"

It's the reason why every person and every generation has to make its own mistakes. People have a tendency not to listen until after it's too late.

This is a real shame because a lot of the time other people have really important insights or experience that we don't have ourselves (e.g. The Impressive Power of a Stranger's Advice). We can't hope to know everything ourselves.

Recovery from Pathological Relationships: Let Go or Be Dragged

© Unknown
'Let Go or Be Dragged' - I don't know who wrote that slogan, but I loved it so much I bought it on a magnet. My first thought was, 'Oh, I LOVE that saying for the women!' But in a flash, I realized it's a slogan for everyone. A friend of mine in recovery said she loved it for her 'A.A.' recovery slogan. Another person told me she loved it as a spiritual theme - to hold with an open hand - OR - face the consequences. But, I do love it for all of you, here's why....

Pathological attachments are gorilla glue. The pathological partners have a vibe, a come-hither, bonding vortex that sucks you in and holds you there in a hypnotic-like trance. It's a powerful, seductive, subconscious attachment that mirrors the worst addictive feeling you could ever have. It vibrates throughout your body with a message and sensation that you will literally 'die' if you are disconnected from the source. Letting go never feels like an 'option,' it feels like sure death, death by disconnection, death by umbilical severing, death by life-force loss.

New research shows bodily responses can govern how we think and feel

If you want to know how ethical your broker is, give them a moral dilemma and see how much they sweat before deciding what to do.

It's quite a jump from the laboratory to real-world decisions about asset management but British researchers have found that gut feeling can override rational thought when people are faced with financial offers that look unfair.

Even when we could benefit, a physical response like sweating can make people reject a financial proposition they consider to be unjust. The key is how tuned in they are to their own bodies.

Date Rape: A Mother's Story Of Survival For Our Daughters

© Unknown
"The thing about being murdered," writes William Langewiesche in May's issue of Vanity Fair, "it usually comes as a surprise."

The same can be said of date rape. When I awoke that bright spring morning of March 21st, 1986 in a pensione in Venice, Italy, I didn't expect the day to end on a dark, deserted beach with a boy I'd just met pinning me to the ground hissing in my ear that he had "un coltello" (a knife) and that "ho intenzione di ucciderti" (he'd kill me) if I didn't "f--k" him.

Getting dressed that morning I didn't know I'd have an out-of-body experience where I seemed to float above the scene, looking down at the two bodies grappling on the sand below feeling profoundly sad that my mom might never know what happened to me after I died on that beach so far from home.

I'm a mother now. My daughters are 8 and 9. The thought of them ever being in a similar situation is intolerable. Bad things can happen no matter how prepared and careful we are. But when my girls are old enough I'm going to share this story with them and hope they'll see the warning signs I missed.