Observations

PSPI Article Wins Miller Award

The Psychological Science in the Public Interest report “The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics” (Vol. 8, No. 1) has been awarded the 2009 George A. Miller Award for Outstanding Recent Article in General Psychology by The Society for General Psychology. Congratulations to authors Diane Halpern, Camilla P. Benbow, David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur, Janet Shibley Hyde, and Morton Ann Gernsbacher!

The Link Between Weight and Importance

Weighty. Heavy. What do these words have to do with seriousness and importance? Why do we weigh our options, and why does your opinion carry more weight than mine? New research suggests the intriguing possibility that the abstract concept of importance is grounded in our very real experience of weight. Heavy objects require more energy to move, and they can hurt us more if we move them clumsily. So we learn early on to think and plan more when we’re dealing with heftier things. They require more cognitive as well as muscular effort. In a study appearing in Psychological Science, University of Amsterdam psychologist Nils Jostmann and his colleagues speculated that actually carrying a heavy weight, rather than a light weight, would make people judge issues as more important in various ways. In a series of experiments, volunteers held clipboards, some heavy and some light. While doing so, they were asked to fill out a number of questionnaires. In one study, they were asked to estimate the value of various foreign currencies and, indeed, the researchers found that those with a heavy clipboard saw the money as more valuable and important. They ran the same experiment different ways, always with the same result — the heft of the clipboard made volunteers think more elaborately and more abstractly about a number of issues. “Gravitational pull not only shapes people’s bodies and behavior, but influences their very thoughts,” the authors conclude.

Priming Affiliation Increases Helping Behavior in Infants as Young as 18 Months

Most of us are willing to help a neighbor in need, but there’s no question that we pay a price for our altruism. Not necessarily in money, but in valuable time and energy and with no promise of payback. So why do we engage in prosocial behavior in the first place? In a new study in Psychological Science, Harriet Over and Malinda Carpenter of Germany’s Max Planck Institute found that priming infants with subtle cues to affiliation increases their tendency to be helpful. In their study, the researchers showed a large group of 18-month-olds photographs of household objects, like a teapot or a shoe. The household objects were always the central image and the only thing the researchers talked about with the infants, but in the background were much smaller secondary images intended to prime the infants’ subconscious thinking. For these background images, some of the infants saw two small wooden dolls, facing and almost touching each other. Others saw the dolls facing away from one another, whereas others saw just one doll and still others saw some wooden blocks. After infants saw the images, one of the researchers “accidentally” dropped a bundle of small sticks. Then she waited and took note of which infants spontaneously reached out to help. If the infants didn’t help immediately on their own, the researcher dropped some hints about the sticks and needing help. The children who had been primed for affiliation and group belonging were three times as likely as any of the other infants to spontaneously offer help. If mere social hints can boost children’s helpfulness in the lab, just imagine what a few small changes in kids’ social environments might do to promote selflessness in the real world.

Bilinguals Are Unable to ‘Turn Off’ a Language Completely

With a vast majority of the world speaking more than one language, it is no wonder that psychologists are interested in its effect on cognitive functioning. For instance, how does the human brain switch between languages? Are we able to seamlessly activate one language and disregard knowledge of other languages completely? According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, it appears humans are not actually capable of “turning off” another language entirely. The researchers selected 45 Ghent University students whose native-language was Dutch and secondary language was English. The psychologists asked the students to read several sentences containing either a control word or a cognate, a word that has a similar meaning and form across languages, often descending from the same ancient language. For example, “cold” is a cognate of the German word “kalt,” since they both descended from Middle English. While the students read the sentences, researchers recorded their eye movements and noted where in the sentence their eyes paused. The researchers found that the students spent less time looking at the cognates than at the controls. So in the example sentence “Ben heeft een oude OVEN/LADE gevonden tussen de rommel op zolder” (Ben found an old OVEN/DRAWER among the rubbish in the attic), the bilingual students read over “oven” more quickly than “lade.” It appears, then, that not only is a second language always active, it has a direct impact on reading another language — even when the reader is more proficient in one language than another.

Observer Vol.22, No.8 October, 2009

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