Psychology’s “Big Ideas” in 2007

As the new year gets underway, take a look back on the research that you started, finished, or trashed in ‘07. If you aren’t inspired, then pick up an issue of The New York Times Magazine’s “7th Annual Year in Ideas.” The magazine grouped some of the most “curious, inspired, perplexing and sometimes outright illegal innovations of the past 12 months” into a special issue published on December 9, 2007. Psychological research was well represented throughout the issue and three articles from Psychological Science received mention.

Ara Norenzayan, University of British Columbia, and his student Azim F. Shariff explored how thinking about God and notions of a higher power influenced positive social behavior, specifically generosity to strangers. The study, titled “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game” in the September 2007 issue of Psychological Science, showed that participants, no matter what their religious beliefs, were significantly more generous when they were primed with thoughts of God. “When news of these findings made headlines, some atheists were appalled by the implication that altruism depends heavily on religion,” wrote Marina Krakovsky in the “The God Effect.” However, the researchers also found that priming participants with secular moral institutions (i.e. civic, contract, police) also increased generosity.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Ellen Langer and Alia Crum at Harvard University reported that we may increase the health benefits of exercise simply by believing that we are working out. In the study, “Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect,” Langer and Crum told hotel maids that their daily jobs involved extensive exercise. “A month later, Langer and Crum checked back with the women to find, as they reported in the February 2007 issue of Psychological Science, remarkable results” Chris Shea wrote in “Mindful Exercise.” The maids had slimmed down, trimmed body fat, and lowered their blood pressure, even though they had not changed their diet or added any exercise in addition to the cleaning.

A study in the September 2007 issue of Psychological Science (“You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: Goal Disengagement and Systemic Inflammation in Adolescence” by Gregory E. Miller and Carsten Wrosch) reports that giving up on unattainable goals may be beneficial for your health. The researchers found that “teenage girls who are unable to disengage themselves from trying to attain hard to reach goals exhibited increased levels of [an] inflammatory molecule …which in adults is linked with diabetes, heart disease, and early aging,” wrote Clay Risen in “Quitting Can Be Good For You.” Collecting this data required Miller and Wrosch to track how the young women dealt with setbacks over the course of a year. The findings don’t suggest quitting when the going gets tough, but letting go when something is really out of reach.

In addition to the research from Psychological Science, several other psychological phenomena were listed among the top ideas. A piece entitled “Ambiguity Promotes Liking” summarized research by Michael I. Norton, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. His recent paper in the Journal of Interactive Marketing delved into the world of online dating, revealing that we like people more when we know little about them and can fill in the blanks with positive information. “Faces Decide Elections” described work by Anthony Little, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland. His research showed that certain facial characteristics may influence voters. APS Fellow Gordon Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Albany, was mentioned in “Handshake Sex Appeal” by Rebecca Skloot. Gallup has published research connecting the strength of a man’s handgrip to his reproductive fitness. A somewhat controversial study from Geoffrey Miller and Brent Jordan at the University of New Mexico, covered in “Lap-Dance Science,” found that strippers earned more tips while they were ovulating — and therefore, more fertile. “Women on the pill — who typically don’t ovulate — made significantly less than naturally cycling women,” writes Skloot. In “Neurorealism,” Matthew Hutson described a paper by Deena Weisberg at Yale University, recently published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience purporting that we are more likely to uncritically accept studies if they reference the brain. Hutson draws attention to our tendency to be “like moths, lured by the flickering lights of neuroimaging,” when even bad explanations of human behavior are accompanied by vibrant pictures of brain scans.

This special issue of The New York Times Magazine presented “70 ideas that helped make 2007 what it was,” and it is safe to say that psychological research made 2007 a great year. Here’s to 2008 and to all of the scientific marvels that will emerge from our field.

To read more visit http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2007/12/08/magazine/index.html.

Observer Vol.21, No.1 January, 2008

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