This is the fifth in a series of posts reviewing last year’s stories, according to theme and topic. These are my favourites from a year of psychological research – quirky yet potentially important results that tell us about how susceptible our minds can be to small influences.
The properties we feel through touch – texture, hardness, weight – can all influence the way we think. Weight is linked to importance, so that people carrying heavy objects deem interview candidates as more serious and social problems as more pressing. Texture is linked to difficulty and harshness. Touching rough sandpaper makes social interactions seem more adversarial, while smooth wood makes them seem friendlier. Hardness is associated with rigidity and stability. When sitting on a hard chair, negotiators take tougher stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flexible.
People get used to the taste of food if they eat too much of it; now, we know that this works even if people just imagine themselves eating. People who think about themselves eating lots of candy will snack on less actual candy when given the chance. The mental exercise actually quells the desire for food and it’s another reminder that experiencing something in your mind often has the same effects as experiencing it in the flesh. Not only are these results interesting, they’re counter-intuitive. People typically think that eating lots of food in your head makes you eat more in real life.
Could the falling blocks of Tetris help to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Possibly. Emily Holmes found that people who watch unpleasant graphic films suffer from fewer flashbacks if they play Tetris for ten minutes within four hours. The idea is that Tetris uses up the same mental resources that the brain needs to firmly etch vivid memories after a traumatic event – including visual and spatial awareness skills. It could act as a “cognitive vaccine” against PTSD. There’s a lot of work to go before Tetris could be used in real-life clinical situations, but these results are a step in the right direction.
There’s more to metaphors like “clean consciences” and “shady behaviour” than we might imagine. This year, Chen-Bo Zhong found that the mere scent of a clean-smelling room can take people down a virtuous road, compelling them to choose generosity over greed and charity over apathy. Meanwhile, the darkness of a dimmed room or a pair of sunglasses can compel people towards selfishness and cheating. These are all examples of “embodied cognition“, where abstract concepts like virtue are related to concrete parts of our environment like smells.
We like to be in control of our own lives, and some of us have an automatic rebellious streak when we’re told what to do. We’re less likely to do a task if we’re ordered to do it than if we make the choice of our own volition. It seems that this effect is so strong that it even happens when the people giving the orders are… us. Ibrahim Senay found that people do better at a simple task if ask themselves whether they’ll do it than if they simply tell themselves to do so. Even a simple reversal of words – “Will I” compared to “I will” – can boost motivation and performance.
The placebo effect is a common feature of medical studies, where people who take “fake” treatments such as sugar pills can still feel better. But according to a new trial, patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) felt that their symptoms improved when they took placebo pills, even if they were told that the pills were inactive. The trial is only a pilot study, and it needs to be repeated in larger populations. Nonetheless, it has interesting implications for the debate about whether doctors can justifiably prescribe placebos to their patients.
Many businesses donate a proportion of their profits to charity. Others, from Radiohead to restaurants, invite people to pay what they like for their products. Both strategies appeal to a customer’s sense of charity, but Ayelet Gneezy found that the best strategy is to fuse the two approaches. Through experiments at a theme park, she found that both sales and profits went through the roof when customers could pay what they wanted in the knowledge that half of that would go to charity.
If you’re an incumbent candidate at an election, and there’s a big sporting event beforehand, you’d better hope that the home team wins. Andrew Healy found that the feel-good factor of a home-team victory in the 10 days before an election means that the incumbent candidate tends to get a slightly higher proportion of the vote. This advantage is particularly potent if the team has a strong fan-base and if they were the underdogs. Healy’s study provides yet more evidence that voting decisions aren’t just based on well-reasoned analysis; they can be influenced by completely irrelevant events.
A simple 15-minute writing exercise could help close the gap between male and female performance in university-level physics. The exercise involves picking values that are important to you and writing about them. It’s deceptively simple but it’s designed to affirm a person’s values, boosting their sense of self-worth and integrity and countering the negative effects of stereotypes. The same task helped to turn the fortunes of black high-school students and here, it virtually abolished the gender divide between female physicists and their male peers.