Skip navigation
All Places > The Psychology Community > Blog > 2018 > October
2018

Psychological science delights us with its occasional surprises. For example, who would have imagined that

  • electroconvulsive therapy—shocking the brain into mild convulsions—would often be an effective antidote to otherwise intractable depression?
  • massive losses in brain tissue early in life could have minimal later effects?
  • siblings’ shared home environment would have such a small effect on their later traits?
  • after brain damage, a person may learn new skills yet be unaware of such?
  • visual information is deconstructed into distinct components (motion, form, depth, and color), processed by distinct brain regions, and then reintegrated into a perceived whole?

 

The latest who-would-have-believed-it finding is that the microbiology of the gut may influence the moods of the brain. Digestive-system bacteria reportedly influence human emotions and even social interactions, perhaps by producing neurotransmitters. Moreover, we are told (such as here and here), healthy gut microbes can reduce anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

 

New articles on this supposedly “revolutionary” and “paradigm-shifting” microbiota-gut-brain (MGB) research are accumulating, report Katarzyna Hooks, Jan Pieter Konsman, and Maureen O’Malley in a forthcoming (yet-to-be-edited) review. By comparing rodents or humans with or without intestinal microbiota, researchers have indeed found “suggestive” effects on how organisms respond to stress and display emotions. Some researchers are exploring microbiota-related interventions (such as with probiotics versus placebos) as a possible treatment for depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa.

 

The findings are intriguing and worth pursuing but haven’t yet definitively demonstrated “the impact of the microbiota itself on behavior,” say Hooks, Konsman, and O’Malley. Nevertheless, the popular press, sometimes aided by university press offices, has hyped the research in more than 300 articles. People love the news of this research, say Hooks et al., because it lends hope that a natural, healthy diet can provide a simple DIY solution to troubling emotions.

 

Reading this analysis triggers déjà vu. This cycle of (a) an intriguing finding, followed by (b) hype, followed by (c) reassessment, is an occasional feature of our science’s history. Mind-blowing experiments on people with split brains yielded (a) believe-it-or-not findings, leading to (b) overstated claims about left-brained and right-brained people, which (c) finally settled into a more mature understanding of how distinct brain areas function as a whole integrated system.

 

Despite the “large helpings of overinterpretation” and the overselling of “currently limited findings,” the Hooks team encourages researchers to press on. “We see MGB research as a field full of promise, with important implications for understanding the relationship between the brain and the rest of the body.” The body (brain included) is one whole system.

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)

As I finished a recent presentation, “Thinking Smart in a Post-Truth Age,” a questioner’s hand shot up: “I understand the need to think with our heads as well as our hearts, by considering the evidence. But how can I persuade people such as the climate-change-denying folks meeting in my town next week?”

 

I responded by commending a gentle conversation that searched for common values. I also noted that advocates for any cause are wise to not focus on immovable folks with extreme views, but on the uncertain middle—the folks whose votes sway elections and shape history.

 

I should also have mentioned the consistent finding of nine new studies by University of Cologne psychologists Joris Lammers and Matt Baldwin: Folks will often agree with positions that are linked to their own yearnings. For example, might conservatives who tend to yearn for yesteryear’s good old days respond to messages that appeal to nostalgia? Indeed, say Lammers and Baldwin, that was the successful assumption of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message.

 

But the same appeal to nostalgia can also promote progressive ideas, they report. For example, liberals were much more supportive than conservatives of a future-focused gun-control message: “I would prefer to make a change, so that in the future people may own hunting rifles and pistols, but no one will have assault rifles.” When the researchers framed the same message with a past-focus: “I would like to go back to the good old days, when people may have owned hunting rifles and pistols, but no one had assault rifles,” conservatives pretty much agreed with liberals.

 

Likewise, contemporary Germans on the left and right expressed much less disagreement about an immigration message when it focused on their country’s past history of welcoming of immigrants.

 

In earlier research, Lammers and Baldwin also found conservatives more open to nostalgia-focused environmental appeals—to, for example, donating money to a charity focused on restoring yesterday’s healthy Earth, rather than a charity focused on preventing future environmental damage. “Make Earth Great Again.”

 

Ergo, I now realize I should have encouraged my questioner to market her message to her audience. If it’s a political message pitched by conservatives at liberals, it’s fine to focus on making a better future. But if she is appealing to conservatives, then she might take a back-to-the-future approach: Frame her message as support for the way things used to be.

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)

I’m often asked: “What is your favorite introductory psych chapter?” I reply that, when starting to write my text, I presumed that Sensation-Perception would be the dullest topic. Instead, I’ve found it to be the most fascinating. I’m awestruck by the intricate process by which we take in information, transform it into nerve impulses, distribute it to different parts of our brain, and then reassemble that information into colorful sights, rich sounds, and evocative smells. Who could have imagined? We are, as the Psalmist said, “wonderfully made.”

 

And then there are the weird and wonderful perceptual phenomena, among which is our surprising blindness to things right in front of our eyes. In various demonstrations of inattentional blindness, people who are focused on a task (such as talking on a phone or counting the number of times black-shirted people pass a ball) often fail to notice someone sauntering through the scene—a woman with an umbrella, in one experiment, or even a person in a gorilla suit or a clown on a unicycle.

 

 

As a Chinese tour guide wrote to a friend of mine (after people failed to notice something my friend had seen):

 

This looking-without-seeing phenomenon illustrates a deep truth: Our attention is powerfully selective. Conscious awareness resides in one place at a time.

 

Selective inattention restrains other senses, too. Inattentional deafness is easily demonstrated with dichotic listening tasks. For example, if people are fed novel tunes into one ear, while focused on to-be-repeated-out-loud words fed into the other ear, they will later be unable to identify what tune they have heard. (Thanks to the mere exposure effect, they will, however, later like it best.) Or, in an acoustic replication of the famed invisible gorilla study, Polly Dalton and Nick Fraenkel found that people focusing on a conversation between two women (rather than on two men also talking) usually failed to notice one of the men repeatedly saying “I am a gorilla.”

 

Now, in a new British experiment, we also have evidence of inattentional numbness. Pickpockets have long understood that bumping into people makes them unlikely to notice a hand slipping into their pocket. Dalton (working with Sandra Murphy) experimented with this tactile inattention:  Sure enough, when distracted, their participants failed to notice an otherwise easily-noticed vibration to their hand.

 

Tactile inattention sometimes works to our benefit. I once, while driving to give a talk, experienced a painful sting in my eye (from a torn contact lens) . . . then experienced no pain while giving the talk . . . then felt the excruciating pain again on the drive home. In clinical settings, such as with patients receiving burn treatments, distraction can similarly make painful procedures tolerable. Pain is most keenly felt when attended to.

 

Another British experiment, by Charles Spence and Sophie Forster, demonstrated inattentional anosmia (your new word for the day?)—an inability to smell. When people focused on a cognitively demanding task, they became unlikely to notice a coffee scent in the room. .

So what’s next? Can we expect a demonstration of inattentional ageusia—inability to taste? (That’s my new word for the day.) Surely, given our powers of attention (and corresponding inattention), we should expect such.

 

Like a flashlight beam, our mind’s selective attention focuses at any moment on only a small slice of our experience—a phenomenon most drivers underestimate when distracted by phone texting or conversation. However, there’s good news: With our attention riveted on a task, we’re productive and even creative. Our attention is a wonderful gift, given to one thing at a time.

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)

Nearly two-third of Americans, reports a recent PLOS One article, agree that “I am more intelligent than the average person.”

 

This self-serving bias—on which I have been reporting for four decades (starting here)—is one of psychology’s most robust and reliable phenomena. Indeed, on most subjective, socially desirable dimensions, most of us see ourselves as better-than-average . . . as smarter, more ethical, more vocationally competent, more charitable, more unprejudiced friendlier, healthier, and more likely to outlive our peers—which calls to mind Freud’s joke about the husband who told his wife, “If one of us dies, I shall move to Paris.”

 

My own long-ago interest in self-serving bias was triggered by noticing a result buried in a College Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors. In rating themselves on their “ability to get along with others,” 0 percent viewed themselves below average. But a full 85 percent saw themselves as better than average: 60 percent in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent as in the top 1 percent.

 

As Shelley Taylor wrote in Positive Illusions, “The [self-]portraits that we actually believe, when we are given freedom to voice them, are dramatically more positive than reality can sustain.” Dave Barry recognized the phenomenon: “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers.”

 

Self-serving bias also takes a second form—our tendency to accept more responsibility for our successes than our failures, for our victories than our defeats, and for our good deeds than our bad. In experiments, people readily attribute their presumed successes to their ability and effort, their failures to bad luck or an impossible task. A Scrabble win reflects our verbal dexterity. A loss? Our bad luck in drawing a Q but no U.

 

Perceiving ourselves, our actions, and our groups favorably does much good. It protects us against depression, buffers stress, and feeds our hopes. Yet psychological science joins literature and religion in reminding us of the perils of pride. Hubris often goes before a fall. Self-serving perceptions and self-justifying explanations breed marital conflict, bargaining impasses, racism, sexism, nationalism, and war.

 

Being mindful of self-serving bias needn’t lead to false modesty—for example, smart people thinking they are dim-witted. But it can encourage a humility that recognizes our own virtues and abilities while equally acknowledging those of our neighbors. True humility leaves us free to embrace our special talents and similarly to celebrate those of others.

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)