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Originally posted on September 28, 2016. 


We social psychologists have reeled on a couple recent occasions over news reports of unreplicated studies, including one of my favorites—the pencil-in-the-teeth versus mouth of how manipulated facial expression affects mood. But then we also revel in the visible discussions of one of our bigger ideas: implicit bias, which Hillary Clinton obviously understands:


Debate moderator Lester Holt: Secretary Clinton, last week, you said we’ve got to do everything possible to improve policing, to go right at implicit bias. Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?


Hillary Clinton: Lester, I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, you know, why am I feeling this way?


In some of the many experiments that reveal implicit bias, people are challenged to do as police sometimes must—to make a split-second decision whether to fire a gun, depending on whether a pictured person is holding a gun or, say, a phone. In these experiments, Blacks more than Whites are misperceived to be gun-holding. Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence apparently is unconvinced (if aware) of these experiments: “Donald Trump and I believe there's been far too much of this talk of institutional bias or racism within law enforcement.”

Originally posted on September 23, 2016.


As the current U.S. presidential campaign richly illustrates, “motivated reasoning” powerfully sways how we view reality.


Researchers have long known that people’s gut-level liking or disliking of a candidate channels their perceptions and beliefs. When a Democrat is President, Democrats have said presidents can’t do anything about high gas prices. Republicans have said the same when a Republican is president. But when the president is from the opposing party, both believe presidents can affect gas prices.


In the late 1980s, most Democrats believed inflation had risen under Republican president Ronald Reagan (it had dropped). In 2016, reports Public Policy Polling “Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that [under Obama] unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.” Actually, the stock market has nearly tripled and unemployment (shown below) has plummeted. Alas, politics trumps facts. Big time. As an old Chinese proverb says, “Two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes.”


Originally posted on September 15, 2016.


With thanks to Christopher Platt (NIDCD Director of Hearing and Balance programs), here’s a simple demonstration of our super-speedy vestibular system. As you have surely noticed, if you slip, your vestibular sensors automatically, in a microsecond, direct your skeletal response—well before you have consciously decided how to right yourself.


Our vestibular sense is even faster than our visual sense. Try this, suggests Platt: Hold one of your thumbs in front of your face, then move it rapidly right to left and back. Notice how your thumb blurs. (Your vision isn’t fast enough to track it.)


Now hold your thumb still and swivel your head from left to right. Voila! Your thumb stays in focus, because your vestibular system, which is monitoring your head position, speedily moves the eyes. Head moves right, eyes move left. Vision is fast, but the vestibular sense is faster.

Originally posted on September 8, 2016.


San Bernadino. Paris. Nice. Orlando. Munich. Dallas. The recent cluster of horrific events make us wonder: Is such violence socially contagious?


Or do killings come in clusters merely for the reason that streaks pervade hospital births and deaths, or basketball shots and baseball hits—because random data are streakier, with more clusters, than the human mind expects? World War II Londoners noticed seeming patterns to where German bombs hit. Were the East Enders receiving more than their share because the Germans were trying to alienate the poor from the rich? After the war, a statistical analysis revealed that the bomb dispersion was actually random.


But some social happenings are contagious. Airplane hijackings and suicides occur in nonrandom bunches. After Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in 1962, 303 more people than average took their lives that month. When the suicide is well-publicized (if it’s a celebrity and is reported on television), copycat suicides become especially likely.


Media experiments, from the Bandura Bobo Doll experiments to the present, indicate that violence-viewing also evokes imitation. So, in some cases, have real-life murders and mass killings, as happened with the rash of school shootings during the eight days following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting rampage. Every U.S. state except Vermont experienced threats of copycat attacks. Some mass killers also are known to have been obsessed with previous mass killings.


Albert Bandura


We can hope that mass killings, like school shootings, may subside over time. But given a possible terrorist motive—to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, by driving support toward an authoritarian law-and-order candidate—I am apprehensive.

Originally posted on August 24, 2016.


In an earlier post, I mentioned a report that says “that narcissists make good first impressions, but over time, their arrogance, bragging, and aggressiveness gets old.” This finding replicated an earlier study showing that, in the laboratory, people’s initially positive impressions of narcissists eventually turn negative.


People’s general dislike of narcissistic, egotistical people is also explored in a 1997 chapter by Wake Forest University social psychologist Mark Leary and three others—one of whom (fun fact) was Leary’s student collaborator, Tim Duncan . . . who just retired after an acclaimed 19-year National Basketball Association career with the San Antonio Spurs.

I earlier wondered: “Will this [narcissists don’t wear well] phenomenon hold true for Trump and eventually deflate his popularity during this U.S. presidential campaign season?”


The presidential horse race isn’t over until it’s over. The New York Times projects that Hillary Clinton’s current chance of losing equals an NFL field goal kicker’s chance of missing a 20-yard-line attempt (which happens). But so far in polls, betting markets, and statistical projections (below), Trump’s inferred narcissism seems to be playing out much as the research would predict.



Originally posted on August 16, 2016.


In Psychology, 11th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I illustrate brain plasticity with a 6-year-old girl who had most of her right hemisphere removed to end life-threatening seizures. In one of the most astonishing neuroscience findings, her remaining hemisphere compensated by putting other areas to work, enabling her to function well.


One medical team, reflecting on other child hemispherectomies, reported being “awed” by how well the children had retained their memory, personality, and humor. The younger the child, the greater the chance that the remaining hemisphere can take over the missing hemisphere’s functions.


Only recently did I become aware—thanks to a delightful new article by Scott Lilienfeld and Steven Jay Lynn—of a review of 52 hemispherectomy cases by Benjamin S. Carson and six of his Johns Hopkins colleagues. Nearly half of the 52, the Carson team reported, were living successful independent lives—at their age level in school or working productively.


And, yes, for the rest of the story, “Carson” is that Benjamin Carson . . . or as he later became known to millions of Americans, 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, Ben Carson.

Originally posted on August 2, 2016.


News flash . . . from the current New Yorker (July 24, 2016), Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2016), and Time (August 8, 2016) . . . “In the most rigorous study to date, researchers pitted different types of cognitive training head-to-head and concluded that one strategy in particular—a kind of computerized brain training that helps the mind to process information more quickly—can significantly lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia.”


So impressed is Time (from which those words come) that it promotes, at the article’s conclusion, a smartphone app available for $96 annually that the researcher recommends “for everyone over 50. . . . There’s now evidence that this type of training has multiple benefits, the risk is minimal, and it’s not even expensive.”


Money can’t buy advertising that credible-seeming. And the study is, indeed, impressive-sounding. It reportedly trained nearly 3000 people for five weeks and then followed them for 10 years.


But is this a case of premature hyping of research (via a University of South Florida press release)? Other prominent researchers with whom I have corresponded raise two caution flags.


First, a 2014 scientific consensus statement found “no compelling scientific evidence” that brain games can reduce or reverse cognitive decline and warned against “exaggerated and misleading claims.” Researcher Zach Hambrick summarizes: “Play a video game and you’ll get better at that video game, and maybe at very similar video games,” but not at driving a car or filling out your tax return. What is more, new research reviews—here and forthcoming in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (“Do ‘Brain Training’ Programs Work?”)—confirm that brain training appears not to produce any lasting, meaningful change apart from the training task.


Second, the newly reported findings, though presented at a convention, have not yet been published. As the New Yorker writer acknowledged, the “findings may not stand up to peer review, or they may turn out to be a fluke that cannot be replicated by others. Perhaps her central conclusion—that a dozen hours of training cuts the risk of dementia nearly in half, ten years later—will have to be walked back.”


With this level of publicity (including other outlets) there’s no easy walking back the public message. Will this big new study point us toward a brain-training program that does work? Stay tuned. And until such evidence is published and replicated, I’d suggest that we psychological educators not over promise.

Originally posted on July 25, 2016.


We’ve heard the name-calling over and again: “Low energy Jeb.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” If repeated often enough, do such smears, independent of facts, shape public opinion?


In his 60 Minutes interview with Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine (July 24, 2016), Scott Pelley recalled talking with a man who said he would vote Clinton, “‘except for that corruption problem.’ As I talked to him further, he didn't quite know what he meant by that. But that was his impression and concern.”


Clinton’s reply: “There's been a concerted effort to convince people like that young man of something, nobody's quite sure what, but of something.”


Persuasion researchers understand how mantras such as “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary” might come to be believed based on repetition alone. In experiments, mere repetition tends to make things believable. Repeated statements—“The Cadillac Seville has the best repair record”—become easy to process and remember, and thus to seem more true.


Social psychologists have found such findings “scary.” And for good reason. The mere repetition effect is well understood by political manipulators. Easy-to-remember lies can overwhelm hard truths. Even repeatedly saying that a consumer claim is false can backfire. When the discounting is presented amid other true and false claims, it may lead older adults later to misremember it as true. As they forget the discounting, their lingering familiarity with the claim can make it seem believable.


In the political realm, correct information may similarly fail to discount implanted misinformation. Thus, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, false rumors—that Obama was Kenyan born, that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years—resisted efforts at disconfirmation, which sometimes helped make the falsehood seem familiar and thus true.


George Orwell’s world of Nineteen Eighty-Four harnessed the controlling power of mere repetition. “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” Is the mind-shaping world of Nineteen Eighty-Four akin to the world of 2016? What say you?

David Myers

Three Guys with Guns

Posted by David Myers Expert Oct 4, 2016

Originally posted on July 13, 2016.


“America is not as divided as some have suggested,” observed President Obama in the aftermath of recent shootings by and of police officers.


The President, who has previously displayed a deft understanding of behavioral science concepts, perhaps had in mind the availability heuristic—our tendency to estimate the likelihood of events based on their mental availability. Dramatic, vivid events—often those we can picture from news reports—come to mind more readily than statistical facts. Thus risks that easily pop into mind we exaggerate.


Some examples: Seeing Jaws caused many folks to fear shark attacks (despite being vastly more at risk from a car accident when driving to the beach). With images of air disasters in mind, many people fear one of the safest modes of travel—commercial flying. And with graphic videos of the seemingly senseless shootings by two police officers (among the more than 900,000 U.S. law enforcement officers), it is understandable that some people are now feeling heightened fears of all police, and that the ensuing slaughter of five police officers has further heightened our sense of racial division.


Post-Dallas, some folks also are worried about police officers increasingly being killed, allegedly due to President Obama’s rhetoric feeding a “war on cops” . . . although, actually, assault-caused police fatalities have declined under Obama (compared to his four predecessors).


These horrific incidents—committed by but three guys with guns—are likely, as the President implies, being overgeneralized. Yet there is real evidence that racial bias and injustice are, indeed, a continuing social toxin. In a case reminiscent of Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo in 1999 was riddled with 19 bullets while pulling out his wallet, which police misperceived as a gun. Not content to stop with this anecdote, social psychologists have repeatedly asked research participants to press buttons quickly to “shoot” or not shoot men who suddenly appeared on screen, while holding either a gun or a harmless flashlight or bottle. Compared to White men holding a harmless object, Black men were "shot" more frequently (by all viewers, regardless of race).


So Minnesota’s governor was probably right to suggest that, had Castile been White, he would be alive today. Acknowledging implicit, ingrained racial bias, FBI Director James Comey, in his 2015 report on “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race,” said this “is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all.”


Moreover, while Castile’s being pulled over last week by police is merely a single data point—no basis for generalizing about law enforcement disproportionately targeting Black drivers—the FBI-reported fact is that Black drivers in the U.S. are about 30 percent more likely than White drivers to be stopped by police. And they are three times more likely to be searched. For Philando Castile, who had reportedly been stopped 52 times by police since 2002, this statistic was a lived experience.


So, yes, horrific events that kill people dramatically do distort our fears. And we are, as the President suggested, prone to overgeneralize from such. Three guys with guns are not the best basis for drawing wholesale conclusions about race in America.


Yet, as studies of implicit bias in the laboratory and the real world remind us, the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation is unfinished business. And if it takes shocking events to make White folks see this, my race-expert colleague Charles Green (who blogs here) wonders: is it because of an unavailability heuristic? For those living in a nearly all-White world, are the everyday economic and social stresses of Black American life largely invisible? And is Green right to conclude that “White Americans are UNDER-concerned about racism” because, apart from dramatic happenings, there are so few memorable examples of racism available in their minds?

Originally posted on July 7, 2016.


In authoring textbooks (and this blog) I seek to steer clear of overtly partisan politics. That’s out of respect for my readers’ diverse views, and also because my calling is to report on psychological science and its application to everyday life.


But sometimes psychology speaks to politics. Recently, more than 750 psychotherapists have signed “A Public Manifesto: Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism.” Its author, University of Minnesota professor William Doherty, emphasizes that the manifesto does not seek to diagnose Trump, the person. Rather it assesses Trumpist ideology, which it sees as “an emerging form of American facism” marked by fear, scapegoating, and exaggerated masculinity.


An alternative statement, drafted by public intellectual David Blankenhorn of the bipartisan “Better Angels” initiative (and signed by 22 of us), offers “A Letter to Trump Supporters”—some arguments for rethinking support of Donald Trump. Social psychologists will recognize this as an effort at “central route” persuasion (offering reasons for rethinking one’s position). But in this presidential season, are rational arguments or emotional appeals more likely to sway voters—or some combination of both? What do you think?