New Research in Psychological Science

Social Concepts Simplify Complex Reinforcement Learning
Leor M. Hackel and David A. Kalkstein

People often generalize rewarding experiences with individuals (“Lisa”) to abstract social roles (“mentors”). Hackel and Kalkstein propose that by quickly recognizing roles described by familiar concepts such as “helper” and associating these concepts directly with reward, people may more easily learn to generalize to other instances of the concept. Across four experiments, the researchers found that social concepts ease complex learning (people generalize more and at faster speed) and that people attach reward directly to abstract roles. Although effortful reasoning lets people navigate novel roles, these findings suggest that conceptual knowledge simplifies how people navigate familiar roles. 

Peripheral Visual Information Halves Attentional Choice Biases
Brenden Eum, Stephanie Dolbier, and Antonio Rangel  

When consumers make shopping decisions, does their behavior depend on whether items are displayed in closed proximity (so that alternative options can be seen in the periphery) or whether they are shown one at a time? This question helps us understand how point-of-sale marketing in the growing domain of e-commerce might be influencing decisions differently than in traditional retail settings. We find that when only one option is shown at a time, consumers are more biased towards selecting the option that attracts more attention, compared to when all options are shown at the same time. These results suggest that peripheral visual information plays a critical role in facilitating good decision-making, and suggest a potential mechanism for future use in nudges. 

Are People Generous When the Financial Stakes Are High?
Ryan Dwyer, William Brady, Chris Anderson, and Elizabeth Dunn

To what extent are humans generous or selfish when making major financial decisions in the real world? Despite decades of research, this fundamental question about human behavior has remained unanswered. In a one-of-a-kind experiment, 200 adults from seven countries received a gift of $10,000 each from a pair of wealthy donors, with almost no strings attached. On average, the recipients spent over $6,400 on purchases that benefited others, including nearly $1,700 in donations to charity. Participants spent similar amounts on others regardless of whether they were instructed to keep their spending decisions private or to share their decision-making publicly on Twitter. By using a diverse sample, real-world decisions, and large stakes, this study provides the clearest evidence to date that humans are generous when making consequential financial decisions. 

Self-Relevance Predicts the Aesthetic Appeal of Real and Synthetic Artworks Generated via Neural Style Transfer
Edward Vessel, Laura Pasqualette, Cem Uran, Sarah Koldehoff, Giacomo Bignardi, and Martin Vinck

Experiences with art can be transformative. Yet even for our everyday experience, aesthetic factors strongly influence behavior, mood and productivity, and the ability to predict people’s tastes is central to the business model of many successful companies. We used a machine-learning algorithm called ‘style-transfer’ to generate novel artworks with custom-tailored content that reflected individuals’ self-construct: their memories, their interests, and their identity. Our results reveal a tight connection between aesthetic appeal and one’s sense of self: For visual artwork, a connection to one’s lived experience is actually more predictive of its impact than any directly measurable feature of the art itself. Given the increasing presence of algorithms that attempt to predict what we like and deliver personalized content on the basis of personal information, it is critical to study the psychological impact of such content and understand its potential for both use and abuse. 

Ego-Boosting Hormone: Self-Reported and Blood-Based Testosterone Are Associated With Higher Narcissism
Marcin Zajenkowski, Gilles E. Gignac, Radosław Rogoza, Jeremiasz Górniak, Oliwia Maciantowicz, Maria Leniarska, Peter K. Jonason, and Konrad S. Jankowski

Understanding narcissism has important implications for researchers and the public. While most studies focus on the structure of narcissism, the origins are still unclear and the research on it is limited. In the current study we examined how aspects of narcissism that have been identified in prior research are associated with testosterone, which is considered a social hormone driving dominance behaviors and motivations. In a sample of men we found that one facet of narcissism – agentic – is associated with elevated rates of testosterone. Additionally, we found that men have some insight into their testosterone rates. Those with higher agentic narcissism positively assessed their testosterone level. These findings reveal the hormonal underpinning of one kind of narcissism but not another, further distinguishing them, and giving insight into where they may orginate and what they may create in the world. 

Perceptual Awareness Occurs Along a Graded Continuum: No Evidence of All-or-None Failures in Continuous Reproduction Tasks
Michael Cohen, Jonathan Keefe, and Timothy Brady  

At any given moment, the human senses (e.g., vision, hearing) are presented with more information than the brain can process. Some of this information ultimately reaches conscious awareness (e.g., the sight of an animal crossing the road in front of you), while other information remains unconscious (e.g., the pothole on the street that you drive right over). How does information transition from unconscious to conscious? Does it enter in a discrete, all-or-nothing manner? Or does it enter along a graded continuum? Here, we used a wide array of paradigms that manipulate perceptual awareness and found that a signal detection-based model, which posits that information reaches consciousness in a graded fashion, easily explains all of these results. Moreover, this model outperforms other models that have been cited to claim information reaches consciousness in a discrete fashion. Thus, we argue that information reaches consciousness along a graded continuum. 

Are Empathic People Better Adjusted? A Test of Competing Models of Empathic Accuracy and Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Facets of Adjustment Using Self- and Peer Reports
Joyce He and Stéphane Côté

The question of how empathic accuracy—or the capacity for reading others’ emotions—relates to positive life and relationship outcomes has been of interest to scholars for decades. This question is important because it informs us of the adaptive functions of this ability and also sheds light on what factors lead to optimal functioning. Moreover, knowing whether empathic accuracy predicts positive outcomes informs the content of training, counselling, and feedback interventions. Our comprehensive study examines the evidence for five competing models of how empathic accuracy relates to satisfaction with life and relationships. We conducted a large-scale study with participants and their informants. We find that “reading” others’ emotions is positively associated with satisfaction with relationships, but merely thinking that one can “read” others (and not the ability itself) positively relates to life satisfaction. 

Learning-Induced Plasticity Enhances the Capacity of Visual Working Memory
Markus Conci, Nuno Busch, Robert Rozek, and Hermann Müller  

It is intuitively plausible that meaningful objects can be remembered better than meaningless objects. For instance, people are typically better at memorizing a picture of a cookie than that of a green square. However, previous visual working memory (VWM) studies have often confounded potential benefits accruing from preexisting (long-term) object knowledge with concurrent variations in perceptual and familiarity-related properties of the to-be-memorized stimuli. Improved short-term retention could thus be owing to increased familiarity or additional perceptual details provided with these objects. To eliminate such confounds and isolate the influence of knowledge, the current study presented observers with, for them, initially meaningless stimuli (Chinese characters), a subset of which was associated with specific meanings (animal pictures or everyday objects) during the experiment. The results revealed that acquiring a meaning association of Chinese characters with real-world objects indeed improved VWM, thus demonstrating that short-term retention can be boosted by associative long-term memory (LTM). 

Perceptual Generalization of Alcohol-Related Value Characterizes Risky Drinkers
Sanghoon Kang, Grace Larrabee, Sanya Nair, and Elizabeth Goldfarb

Across species, memory can be used to guide choices in new situations that resemble original learned experiences. Although this fundamental process of stimulus generalization can be adaptive, a tendency to overgeneralize negative experiences is also a hallmark of psychiatric disorders. Here, we investigated whether risky drinking behavior, associated with imprecise memories and a tendency to widely choose to consume alcohol, is also characterized by increased stimulus generalization. Across two experiments, we tested whether risky drinkers differ from light drinkers in their propensity to generalize alcohol-related outcomes to perceptually similar stimuli. We found that individuals who engage in riskier drinking behavior, despite having comparable learning, indeed overgeneralize both appetitive and aversive outcomes related to alcohol and show a broader tendency to report recognizing alcohol-related images. These results demonstrate a novel real-world correlate of stimulus generalization, highlighting the potential clinical importance of this memory process in the context of addiction. 

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Comprehensive Social Trait Judgments From Faces in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Runnan Cao, Na Zhang, Hongbo Yu, Paula Webster, Lynn Paul, Xin Li, Chujun Lin, and Shuo Wang

Faces are among the most important stimuli that we perceive in everyday life. The spontaneous judgments that people make of others on the basis of faces have been shown to influence consequential real-world decision making. However, existing research heavily relies on neurotypical individuals and highly controlled nondiverse face stimuli. It is important to include different populations and more naturalistic stimuli to advance a more generalizable understanding of how people make these judgments and the biases reflected in them. Here, we comprehensively characterized the similarities and differences in trait judgments from naturalistic faces between neurotypicals and people with autism spectrum disorder, who often have deficits in perceiving faces. Our findings provide new insights into how people mentally represent the relationship between different social trait judgments, why people make different social judgments from faces, and how these judgments may influence a wide range of behavior. 

Changing What You Like: Modifying Contour Properties Shifts Aesthetic Valuations of Scenes
Delaram Farzanfar and Dirk Walther

What makes some pictures more pleasing to our eyes than others? Artists and architects have long known that our brains can be tricked into liking some images and environments over others by using carefully curated combinations of visual features. We are beginning to understand that aspects of aesthetic experiences, such as how much a person likes a particular image, can be shared among people with different backgrounds and interests. We also know that the human visual system uses structural regularities in contour—lines that mark the outline of various shapes in a scene—to help us process information efficiently. In this study, we asked whether these structural regularities can be used to predict how pleasant an image looks on average to a group of adults from around the world. By changing different contour properties in images we could control how much people judged an image to be enjoyable to view. 

Online Interaction Turns the Congeniality Bias Into an Uncongeniality Bias
Jürgen Buder, Anja Zimmermann, Brett Buttliere, Lisa Rabl, Moritz Vogel, and Markus Huff

Many online phenomena, such as attitude polarization or the emergence of echo chambers, rest on the psychological assumption that humans prefer like-minded content and people over counterattitudinal content and people. However, this view does not readily explain the prevalence of heated debate and flaming in social-media settings. We conducted three experiments to show that once social-media users were given an opportunity to interact with others, the preference for like-minded content was eliminated. Rather, users preferentially selected counterattitudinal content for their replies to express their disagreement with others. The tendency to attack dissenting views increased when the overall discussion climate was in favor of a user’s view. This has important implications for understanding social-media phenomena and fighting polarization. 

Self-Esteem and Income Over Time
Wiebke Bleidorn, André Kretzschmar, John Rauthmann, Ulrich Orth, Jaap Denissen, and Christopher Hopwood

Do people feel better about themselves when they make more money, or do people make more money when they feel better about themselves? The link between income and self-esteem is well-established, but the nature of this relationship is far from fully understood. A classic yet unresolved question concerns how changes in self-esteem and income are related over time. Here, we used 4-year longitudinal data to test whether changes in personal earnings lead to changes in self-esteem, and vice versa. Results indicated large effects of income shifts on changes in self-esteem and smaller effects of changes in self-esteem on income shifts. These findings provide important, and hitherto missing, information about how changes in self-esteem and income are related over time and offer critical insights into the functions and consequences of self-esteem. 

Parenting Practices May Buffer the Impact of Adversity on Epigenetic Age Acceleration Among Young Children With Developmental Delays
Alexandra Sullivan, Anne Bozack, Andres Cardenas, Jonathan Comer, Daniel Bagner, Rex Forehand, and Justin Parent  

Exposure to early-life adversity predicts health problems, and parenting interventions may be one way to promote resilience among children exposed to adversity. Biological aging, measured with epigenetic age acceleration, may offer insight into children at risk of poor health who may benefit from intervention. This study used a sample of mostly Latinx families, many of whom endorsed financial hardship. Some of these families participated in a parenting intervention for children with developmental delay and elevated behavior problems, and some received community referrals. Our findings suggest that increases in positive parenting practices and decreases in negative-parenting practices may protect young children with developmental delay from accelerated epigenetic aging associated with early-life adversity. Results underscore that caregivers dealing with hardship can protect their children from the negative effects of stress, particularly when caregivers are provided access to effective interventions designed to enhance parenting. 

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