"Meaningless rituals" boost self-control

Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (paywalled, no Sci-Hub mirror) describes a fascinating experimental outcome in which subjects were asked to enact "meaningless rituals" ("knocking the table with their knuckles, closing their eyes and counting, among other things") before being confronted with a self-control challenge (eating two carrots, then deciding between a third carrot and a chocolate truffle). Read the rest

With the number of people living under dictatorships up by a billion, a reminder of dictators' deceptively humanizing traits

Stalin was an incredibly devoted father; Saddam Hussein was fantastically charming; Hitler was a streetfighter who risked his personal safety in the fray; and a surprising number of dictators, monsters and autocrats have careers in the arts, and are described by their childhood friends are not exceptionally cruel or sociopathic. Read the rest

Yale's most popular course ever: Happiness

When Yale psych professor Laurie Santos offered a course in how to be happy -- based on the latest peer-reviewed science -- she hoped that a reasonable number of students would sign up (after all, the literature suggested that there is an epidemic of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among US college students); the course was the most successful in Yale's history, with one in four students enrolling Read the rest

Eye tracking and fMRI confirm that we don't even perceive security warnings before clicking past them

A team of computer scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists used eye-tracking and fMRI to measure how users perceived security warnings, such as warnings about app permissions and browser warnings about insecure pages and plugin installations. Read the rest

Why these scientists are teaching robots to give good hugs

Five years ago, my artist/engineer pal Kal Spelletich drew at crowd at an Institute for the Future conference by demonstrating his "Huggerer," a pneumatic robot that delivers free hugs. Now robot hugs are the subject of new scientific research! At a recent human-robot interaction conference, researchers from Stuttgart, Germany's Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems presented their efforts to explore "how robots can be more effectively designed and taught to give the kinds of hugs that humans will love." From Evan Ackerman's fascinating interview with lead researcher Alexis Block in IEEE Spectrum:

IEEE Spectrum: Why is research on robot hugs important?

Alexis Block: Robot hugs are important because people love to give and receive hugs. Virginia Satir, a well-known family therapist, was famous for saying, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Sometimes, we are put in new or uncomfortable situations where we might not be near our loved ones, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need the support and calming effects that a hug provides. Research on robot hugs is important so we can one day use technology to provide the emotional support and health benefits of hugs to many people, wherever or whenever they need it.

What makes a good hug?

The results from our experiment suggest that to make a good hug whoever/whatever you hug should be compliant, warm, squeeze you, and release you immediately when you indicate you’re ready for the hug to end.

Read the rest

Dentists can smell fear and it may impair their performance

New research suggests that dentists may unconsciously smell fear and that their patients' anxiety can hurt their performance. How did the scientists control for the fact that a patient's anxiety in the dental chair is pretty obvious? First, Valentina Parma and her colleagues at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy collected t-shirts worn by students who had sat for a difficult exam or a calm lecture.

From New Scientist:

The team then doused the T-shirts with a chemical that masks body odour, so that it wasn’t possible to consciously smell any body odour on them. When the T-shirts were presented to a different group of 24 dental students, they said they couldn’t detect any difference between those taken from the stressful or the relaxed situations.

Next, mannequins were dressed in the donated T-shirts, and the second group of students had to perform dental treatments on them. Each student was graded on their performance by examiners – and they performed significantly worse when treating mannequins wearing T-shirts from people who’d been stressed. Mistakes included being more likely to damage neighbouring teeth, for example.

Parma thinks the scent of anxiety could be triggering the same emotions in those who subconsciously smell it. “It’s quite fascinating,” says Pamela Dalton at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It helps us understand how we can communicate without language.”

"Smelling Anxiety Chemosignals Impairs Clinical Performance of Dental Students" (Chemical Senses via Weird Universe)

image: David Shankbone, CC Read the rest

How Wim Hof, "The Iceman," withstands such extreme temperatures

Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof is known for chilly feats like the world's longest ice bath and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in just a pair of shorts. (Hof is the subject of the recent New York Times bestseller "What Doesn't Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength" by Scott Carney.) Now, researchers from Wayne State University’s School of Medicine recently used an MRI scanner to explore the science behind Hof's dangerous stunts. From Smithsonian:

Hof attributes his success to what he has dubbed the Wim Hof Method, a type of conditioning that involves a series of breathing exercises he says anyone can replicate. Rather than by luck or accident, Hof says he learned his technique by trial and error while going out into nature: “I had to find the interconnection of my brain together with my physiology...."

Musik found that, when exposed to cold, Hof activates a part of the brain that releases opioids and cannabinoids into the body. These components can inhibit the signals responsible for telling your body you are feeling pain or cold, and trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin. The result, Musik says, is a kind of euphoric effect on the body that lasts for several minutes.

“Your brain has the power to modify your pain perception,” he says, adding that this mechanism is particularly important for human survival. Pain, and the feeling of cold, are basically your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.

Read the rest

Secret history of classic TV's laugh tracks

When I watched the Brady Bunch as a youngster, there was one particular deep guffaw that always caught my attention. I knew the laughs were pre-recorded but always assumed that there was just a laugh track tape and they'd press play at the appropriate times. I liked (and still like) the faux communal experience that laugh tracks provide when watching the Bradys, Bewitched, the Beverly Hillbillies, and other great vintage sitcoms from the 1960s an early 1970s.

Turns out, that the rise of the laugh track was due to Charles Douglass (1910-2003), a Navy-trained electronics engineer/maker who went on to build a custom "Laff Box" of several dozen tape loops triggered by keys and dials. After its initial use on the Jack Benny Program, the machine, officially called the "Audience Reaction Duplicator," took the TV industry by storm. Douglass "played" the Laff Box like a proto-sampler and for years had the monopoly on TV laugh tracks. It was a process that the TV show producers and Douglass himself liked to keep secret.

It wasn't until 1992 that Douglass and his pioneering work at the intersection of media, psychology, and technology was recognized with a lifetime Emmy award for technical achievement.

For the whole story on Douglass and the Laff Box, don't miss this episode of the Decoder Ring podcast.

And here is an Antiques Roadshow segment appraising a Laff Box.

Read the rest

MDMA can help treat PTSD, yet another study shows

The active ingredient in Ecstasy, MDMA, is safe and can help to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, a new clinical psychotherapy trial shows. Read the rest

Why humans are so enchanted with cats

We think cats are our pets but we are mistaken. The New Yorker interviews Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World:

She explains how “cats domesticated themselves”—essentially by choosing proximity to people as their survival strategy—and then proceeded to infect one in three humans on Earth with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which affects our behavior in ways that are still not entirely understood, although there is speculation that one of the symptoms might be an attraction to cats. Scientists estimate that there could be as many as a billion cats in the world, and their number continues to grow. So, if you feel like you live under your cat’s paw, you might as well get used to it. As Tucker says, “We’re never going to get control over these animals.”

(The New Yorker) Read the rest

Why swearing can be a good fucking way to sound convincing

Emma Byrne, a science writer and artificial intelligence researcher, has just published a new book called Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language and it sounds fucking great. "If you ask people what they think about swearing, they tend to insist that it diminishes the speaker’s credibility and persuasiveness—-especially if the speaker is a woman," Byrne writes. But actually, a presenter's swears can sometimes make them damn more convincing. From Smithsonian:

In the book, Byrne cites one study that examined the rhetorical effects of swearing on an audience that was already sympathetic to the speaker’s message. For the study, psychologists Cory Scherer of Penn State University and Brad Sagarin from Northern Illinois University showed videotaped speeches to 88 undergraduate students. Participants listened to one of three different versions of a speech about lowering tuition rates at a university—one with no swearing, one that had a “damn” thrown in the middle, and one that opened with a “damn.” The rest of the speech was unchanged.

“The students who saw the video with the swearing at the beginning or in the middle rated the speaker as more intense, but no less credible, than the ones who saw the speech with no swearing,” Byrne summarizes in her book. “What’s more, the students who saw the videos with the swearing were significantly more in favor of lowering tuition fees after seeing the video than the students who didn’t hear the swear word.”

Byrne delineates between what she calls propositional swearing, which is deliberate and planned, and non-propositional swearing, which can happen when we’re surprised, or among friends or confidants.

Read the rest

What is the slowest music humanly possible?

While the typical answer is 33 beats per minute, musician Adam Neely's answer morphs into a great primer on the "perceptual present," a concept widely discussed in both the philosophy of music and of consciousness. Read the rest

Why incompetent people think they're amazing

People have a tendency towards "illusory superiority," that is, they imagine themselves to be better than others. Interestingly, the more incompetent you are, the more superior you feel. It comes down to the fact that people who are bad at something "lack the very expertise needed to recognize how badly they're doing." This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and is explained in this TED-Ed video.

[via Open Culture] Read the rest

Scientist builds remote-controlled collapsing chair to study fear in people

At the University of Chicago in the early 1920s, psychology grad student William Blatz built a remote-controlled trick chair that would collapse when he pressed a switch. (It was padded to avoid injury.) Then he had subjects sit in the chair while wearing electrodes to measure heart rate and other vital signs. Blatz's goal was to "study the physiology of fear under controlled, repeatable conditions." I think he also probably just wanted to build a remote-controlled trick chair. From Weird Universe:

Blatz offered this description of their reactions:

"The observations of the subjects after the fall, of course, varied, but they were sufficiently in agreement to indicate the arousal of genuine fear in naive subjects. Some examples of these remarks were, 'startled,' 'surprised,' 'frightened,' scared,' etc. In most cases the subjects cried out, and some called the experimenter by name. They all made some effort to escape, thinking an accident had happened. In all cases they acknowledged that they had not anticipated 'anything like it at all.' From these statements, it was concluded that the stimulus was wholly unexpected, and unsuspected."

The electrodes registered the effect of the fright. The hearts of the subjects began hammering, and their breathing rapidly increased. Blatz also observed "striking changes in the electrical conditions of the body in the nature of an increased development of the electromotive force."

"Dr. Blatz’s Trick Chair of Terror" (Weird Universe) Read the rest

Algorithms analyze brain scans to identify people with suicidal thoughts

In a small-scale study, researchers have shown that algorithms can analyze brain scans to determine whether an individual has suicidal thoughts. During the study, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University scientists mentioned words like "death," "trouble," and "carefree" to individuals undergoing fMRI scans of their brains. Apparently those kinds of words spur different brain activity in people who have suicidal thoughts compared to those who don't. The hope is that a better understanding of brain function in suicidal people could lead to better tests to assess risk of suicide and improved psychotherapy. From IEEE Spectrum:

For the study, the researchers recruited 34 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30—half of them at risk, and the other half not at risk, of suicide. They showed the participants a series of words related to positive and negative facets of life, or words related to suicide, and asked them to think about those words.

Then the researchers recorded, with fMRI, the cerebral blood flow in the volunteers as they thought about those words, and fed the data to the algorithms, indicating which volunteers were at risk of suicide and which weren’t. The algorithms then learned what the neural signatures in the brain of a suicidal person tend to look like.

Then they tested the algorithms by giving them new neural signatures to see how well they could predict, based on learning from other subjects, whether someone was suicidal or not. The classifier did it with 91% accuracy. Separately, the classifier was able to identify, with 94% accuracy, which volunteers had actually made an attempt at suicide, versus having only thought about it.

Read the rest

New gamblers who see a short video about slot-machine psychology don't get tricked

Video slot machines pull a lot of tricks to make it hard to tell how fair the game is; one of them is to ring up "wins" that are actually losses (you put in $1 and get $0.75 back, say), with a lot of fanfare and hoo-rah. These tricks are calculated to hook players into the game by stimulating their reward centers with intermittent stimulus, a powerfully addictive combination. Read the rest

Some thoughts on whether intelligence is linked to anxiety and depression

In High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities, a group of academic and industry neuroscientists survey a self-selected group of 3,715 MENSA members about their mental health history and find a correlation between high IQ and clinical anxiety and depression disorders, an effect they attribute to "overexitabilities" -- "the same heightened awareness that inspires an intellectually gifted artist to create can also potentially drive that same individual to withdraw into a deep depression." Read the rest

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