For years, scientists have debated where humanity’s sense of fairness came from. Some proposed it was a glitch in the brain’s wiring that causes people to be kind and fair to strangers, while others said it was a remnant of Stone Age thinking--that deep in our brains we see everyone we meet as part of our tiny family, and can’t imagine encountering someone who won’t ever be seen again [Wired]. But now, in a new study published in Science, scientists studying groups of people from different societies have suggested that our sense of fairness may depend on the type of society we live in.
The researchers found evidence that the more complex the society, the more developed those people’s sense of fairness. You can’t get the effects we’re seeing from genes,” said Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia evolutionary psychologist and co-author of the study.” These are things you learn as a consequence of growing up in a particular place” [Wired].
For this study, scientists observed 2,100 people from different societies–from African herders, Colombian fishermen, and Missouri wage workers. The groups varied in size, and researchers also evaluated the people’s involvement in organized social activities like markets and religion–a common marker, scientists say, of the presence of a moral code that extends beyond kin. They then administered a series of games to study how group members viewed selfish behavior and how willing they were to punish it.
Contagiousness: It’s contagious! Happiness was contagious in 2008, then loneliness last year, and don’t forget being fat. Now it’s generosity that spreads like the flu across social networks, according to James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis (who were both behind the happiness study). Their new study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To test out whether generosity spreads, the scientists devised a game. In groups of four, each person had 20 “credits,” some of which they could decide to toss into a common fund for all the players. The scoring was set up so that giving to the fund was costly unless the other players did it too: If everyone kept their money, they’d have the 20 credits, but if everyone put all they could into the fund, each player would end up with 32. However, the players had no way to know how generous the others were being. The best payoff would come if everyone gave all their money — but without knowing what others were doing, it always made sense to keep one’s money and skim from the generosity of others [Wired.com].
Sure, Botox can banish crows feet, smooth those wrinkles, and lift those frown lines, making the client look more youthful–and somewhat expressionless. But the treatment may have effects that are more than skin deep. A new study suggests that by paralyzing the frown muscles that ordinarily are engaged when we feel angry, Botox short-circuits the emotion itself [Newsweek].
In the now-common cosmetic treatment, a doctor injects botulinum toxin, sold under the brand name Botox, under the skin. The toxin kicks in, temporarily paralyzing facial muscles, smoothing skin out, and making a person look less wrinkly as a result. That paralysis, however, seems to interfere with a known feedback loop, in which smiling adds to your happiness and frowning multiplies your sadness [LiveScience]. And tamping down a person’s emotions seems to interfere with the ability to read emotions in others. Says study leader David Havas: “Botox [also] induces a kind of mild, temporary cognitive blindness to information in the world, social information about the emotions of other people” [Discovery News].
Whether your fear is panicked, like in a life-or-death situation, or deliberative, like a decision about whether to take a big risk on game show, it all comes back to the amygdala. And a new study of patients with lesions on the amygdala, reported by Caltech scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that damage to our brain’s fear center might turn people into reckless gamblers.
The researchers found two women with Urbach-Wiethe disease, which results in damage to the almond-shaped amygdala. Benedetto De Martinoa and his team paired those two with 12 people with undamaged brains, and presented everyone with a series of gambling tests. The study found that healthy volunteers would only opt to gamble if the potential gains were one and a half to two times the size of the potential losses [BBC News]. The women with Urbach-Wiethe, however, would keep rolling the dice as the odds got worse, and in some cases would even play if the potential loss was greater than the potential gain.
When people breathe in carbon dioxide, they start to panic. It happens in mice and other animals, too, as the body responds to the threat of suffocation. Now, in a study in Cell, researchers have connected a particular gene to that response in the brain.
The gene, called ASIC1a, is connected to a protein found in abundance in the amygdala, the area scientists believe to be the brain’s fear center. In their new study … the researchers show that mice lacking this gene don’t freeze in place–a commonly used indicator of rodent fear–to the extent that normal mice do when the team pumped CO2 into their enclosure. But when Wemmie and colleagues injected a virus containing the ASIC1a gene into the amygdala of the mice, they acted like normal mice, freezing up when exposed to elevated CO2 [ScienceNOW Daily News].
One single difference in the human genome may play a role in behaviors such as empathizing and responding to stress. The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on a single gene, called OXTR, which carries the design and production blueprint for cells scattered throughout the heart, uterus, spinal cord and brain that serve as docking stations for a chemical called oxytocin [Los Angeles Times]. Oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy when we interact with others in a nurturing or bonding way; it has also been shown to help mice stay calm when under stress.
The researchers decided to investigate a region on the OXTR gene associated with decreased social interaction in humans to see if small changes correlated to a person’s sociability and ability to handle stress. They put 192 college students through experiments to measure empathy and stress. One in four of the subjects had a particular variation of that gene region, and those subjects were significantly better at accurately reading the emotions of others by observing their faces than were the remaining three-quarters of subjects [Los Angeles Times]. The people in this subset were also less likely to startle during the stress test, and reported that they were generally chill folks.
In an Italian court, a murderer has just had his sentence reduced because the judge agreed that the man’s genes predisposed him to violent behavior.
Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian immigrant to Italy, admitted to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez, a Colombian, when the two men got in a fight over the kohl eye make-up that Bayout was wearing. At trial, the defense team argued that Bayout was mentally ill at the time of the murder; the judge agreed that his psychiatric condition was a mitigating factor, and gave him a reduced sentence of 9 years. But at an appeal hearing, Bayout’s lawyers argued that his sentence should be shortened further based not just on psychiatric evaluations, but also brain scans and genetic testing.
Here’s some gratifying news for any employees out there who are feeling bullied by a tyrannical boss: That aggressive behavior may have little to do with you, and a lot to do with your boss’s feelings of incompetence. A new study in Psychological Science found that when managers are made to feel insecure about their job performance, their aggressiveness skyrockets. “Power holders feel they need to be superior and competent. When they don’t feel they can show that legitimately, they’ll show it by taking people down a notch or two” [New Scientist], says study coauthor Nathanael Fast.
The researchers got 410 volunteers from various workplaces to fill out questionnaires about their position in the workplace hierarchy, how they felt about their job performance, and their aggressive tendencies. They also conducted a series experiments on the volunteers. In one, they manipulated the subjects’ sense of power and self-worth by asking them to write about occasions when they felt either empowered or impotent and then either competent or incompetent. Previous research has suggested that such essays cause a short-term bump or drop in feelings of power and capability [New Scientist]. Next they asked the volunteers to set the level of punishment for (imaginary) university students who got wrong answers on a test. Those people who felt more powerful and more incompetent picked the harshest punishments, the study found.
So what’s to be done with a bullying boss? Coauthor Serena Chen says a little ego stroking may make life easier for everyone. “Make them feel good about themselves in some way,” Chen said, suggesting this might mean complimenting a hobby or nonwork activity provided it is “something plausible that doesn’t sound like you’re sucking up” [San Francisco Chronicle].
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Humans typically feel uneasy when they see a very realistic human-looking robot or computer avatar, a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley” response. According to a new study performed with monkeys, that reaction might have an evolutionary basis.
Researchers hypothesize that the response stems from almost realistic images that signal HUMAN! to us, but then fail to live up to the initial excitement. The uncanny valley response has been documented in humans since the 1970s, and has been blamed for the unpopularity of some CGI films with realistic characters [like The Polar Express and Final Fantasy], and it is touted as the reason Pixar stuck to characters with cartoonish features [New Scientist].
Kids suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have altered brain chemistry that prevents them from experiencing motivation and rewards like other people, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Lead researcher Nora Volkow suggests that faulty transmission of the brain chemical dopamine may be to blame for the difficulty people with ADHD experience trying to finish tasks that have no immediate payoff — the difference between doing homework, for instance, and playing a video game [CBC News].
The researchers used PET brain scans to determine how the brains of people with and without ADHD handled the neurotransmitter dopamine, a versatile chemical that is involved in regulating mood, attention, and learning. In particular they measured levels of two proteins – dopamine receptors and transporters – without which dopamine cannot function effectively to influence mood. ADHD patients had lower levels of both proteins in two areas of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens and midbrain. Both form part of the limbic system, responsible for the emotions, and sensations such as motivation and reward [BBC News].