Psychological Science at Work


The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.


When Looking Like a Leader Derails the Group

This is a photo of chairs around a conference table.Just because someone looks and acts like a leader, doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. In a recent set of experiments, psychological scientists Connson Locke (London School of Economics and Political Science) and Cameron Anderson (University of California, Berkeley) found that people who displayed the powerful, confident body language associated with leadership tended to dominate decision making—even when their ideas were entirely incorrect.

“People interpret confident nonverbal behavior as a sign of competence and ability. Individuals’ actual competence resides within them and is hidden from others, and thus others are often forced to judge individuals’ abilities based on superficial cues such as nonverbal behavior, appearance, or speaking style,” explains Locke and Anderson. “It has been shown that groups systematically promote confident and even overconfident individuals into positions of power and status.”

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Effective Apologies Include Six Elements

PAFF_052416_SixElementsApology_Vectorguy_newsfeatureWhether you’re the company CEO or the summer intern, knowing how to say you’re sorry—and have people actually believe you—is an important business skill. If your subordinate is caught embezzling, or you’re the head of a company in the midst of a massive public safety scandal, simply saying “I’m sorry” probably isn’t going to cut it.

New research from psychological scientists Roy Lewicki (The Ohio State University), Beth Polin (Eastern Kentucky University), and Robert Lount Jr. (The Ohio State University) confirms that not all apologies are equally effective. Across two studies Lewicki and colleagues found that the most compelling apologies include six distinct elements:

Their results suggest that if you’ve really messed up, you’ll do best if you use as…

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Fear of Death Prompts Leaders to Look Towards the Future

PAFF_051916_LeadershipDeath_newsfeatureOne day in 1888, a wildly successful Swedish inventor came upon the obituary for his younger brother, Ludwig. He discovered that the newspaper had confused the two brothers–mistakenly reporting that the inventor had recently died. The obituary was harsh, dubbing the inventor, who had made his enormous fortune through manufacturing dynamite and weapons of war, the “Tradesman of Death.” Deeply troubled by the dark legacy he would have left behind, the inventor used his fortune to fund a prize to recognize those who had “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

The inventor, Alfred Nobel, is now internationally renowned for his positive legacy. Nobel’s brush with death illustrates a psychological theory called terror management theory: Awareness of our own mortality has a strong, measurable—and often prosocial—impact on our decision making.

“Humans are fearful of death and the sense of finality of who we…

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Successful Teams Get (Physiologically) in Sync

PAFF_051716_TeamsGetNSync_newsfeatureWhen people work together well, their physiological responses begin to sync up, according to new research from a team of psychological scientists from Aarhus University. The research showed that team members who had synchronized skin conductance and facial muscle activity tended to perform better together.

“People from the same team have higher synchrony that pairs of people from different teams, and this synchrony is positively associated with a team’s cooperation and positive feeling,” the researchers explain.

Previous research has shown that mimicry and synchronization between individuals often enhances prosocial behavior, cooperation, and rapport. A 2009 study published in Psychological Science showed that prompting synchrony within groups can spur greater cooperation, leading to greater financial gains in economic games.

Many studies on team dynamics rely on surveys and questionnaires that are filled out after team members complete a task. Physiological measures, like…

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Why Coffee Shops Boost Concentration

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New research might explain why many people who have the option of working from home readily swap out their pajamas for pants and their couch for a seat at the local coffee shop – sitting next to someone busily typing away can increase your own concentration and mental effort.

In two experiments, Belgian psychological scientists Kobe Desender, Sarah Beurms, and Eva Van den Bussche demonstrated that — under the right circumstances — concentration can be contagious.

“In the current study, we showed for the first time that the exertion of mental effort is contagious. Simply performing a task next to a person who exerts a lot of effort in a task will make you do the same,” the researchers write in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

For the first experiment, two participants (A and B) were seated next to each other at…

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