Stephanie Morgan


Students’ mistaken beliefs about how much their peers study could be harming their exam performance

GettyImages-882969886.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

A lot of us use what we consider normal behaviour – based on how we think most other people like us behave – to guide our own judgments and decisions. When these perceptions are wide of the mark (known as “pluralistic ignorance”), this can affect our behaviour in detrimental ways. The most famous example concerns students’ widespread overestimation of how much their peers drink alcohol, which influences them to drink more themselves.

Now a team led by Steven Buzinksi at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has investigated whether students’ pluralistic ignorance about how much time their peers spend studying for exams could be having a harmful influence on how much time they devote to study themselves. Reporting their findings in Teaching in Psychology, the team did indeed find evidence of pluralistic ignorance about study behaviour, but it seemed to have some effects directly opposite to what they expected.

Across four studies with hundreds of social psych undergrads, the researchers found that, overall, students tended to underestimate how much time their peers spent studying for an upcoming exam (but there was a spread of perceptions, with some students overestimating the average). Moreover, students’ perceptions of the social norm for studying were correlated with their own study time, suggesting – though not proving – that their decisions about how much to study were influenced by what they felt was normal.

However, when Buzinksi and his colleagues looked to see whether the students’ misconceptions about their peers’ study time were associated with their subsequent exam performance, they found the opposite pattern to what they expected.

The researchers had thought that underestimating typical study time would be associated with choosing to study less, and in turn that this would be associated with poorer exam performance. Instead, they found that it was those students who overestimated their peers’ study time who performed worse in the subsequent exam, and this seemed to be fully explained by their feeling unprepared for the exam (the researchers speculated that such feelings could increase anxiety and self-doubt, thus harming exam performance).

In a final study, one week before an exam, the researchers corrected students’ misconceptions about the average exam study time and this had the hoped-for effect of correcting pluralistic ignorance about normal study behaviour; it also removed any links between beliefs about typical study time and feelings of unpreparedness.

Most promisingly, average exam performance was superior after this intervention, as compared with performance in a similar exam earlier in the semester, suggesting that correcting misconceptions about others’ study behaviour is beneficial (perhaps learning the truth about how much their peers studied gave the students a chance to adjust their own study behaviour, and this may have boosted the confidence of those who would otherwise have overestimated average study time. However this wasn’t tested in the study so remains speculative).

Of course another explanation for the improved performance could just have been due to practice effects through the semester, but it’s notable that such an improvement in the late-semester exam was not observed in earlier years when the study-time-beliefs intervention was not applied.

Future research will be needed to confirm the robustness of these findings, including in more diverse student groups, and to test the casual role of beliefs about study time and feelings of preparedness, for example by directly observing how correcting misconceptions affects students’ study behaviour and their confidence.

For now, Buzinksi and his colleagues recommend it could be beneficial to use class discussions “…to correct potentially detrimental misperceptions”. They added: “Unless we as educators actively intervene, our students will approach their coursework from an understanding based upon flawed perceptions of the classroom norm, and those most at risk may suffer the most from their shared ignorance.”

Insidious Assumptions
How Pluralistic Ignorance of Studying Behavior Relates to Exam Performance

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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A cartography of consciousness – researchers map where subjective feelings are located in the body

Bodily feeling maps, from Nummenmaa et al, 2018

By guest blogger Mo Costandi

“How do you feel?” is a simple and commonly asked question that belies the complex nature of our conscious experiences. The feelings and emotions we experience daily consist of bodily sensations, often accompanied by some kind of thought process, yet we still know very little about exactly how these different aspects relate to one another, or about how such experiences are organised in the brain.  

Now, reporting their results in PNAS, a team of researchers in Finland, led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa of the University of Turku, has produced detailed maps of what they call the “human feeling space”, showing how each of dozens of these subjective feelings is associated with a unique set of bodily sensations.

In 2014, Nummenmaa and his colleagues published bodily maps of emotions showing the distinct bodily sensations associated with six basic emotions, such as anger, fear, happiness and sadness, and seven complex emotional states, such as anxiety, love, pride, and shame. 

Building on this earlier work, for their new research they recruited 1,026 participants and asked them to complete an online survey designed to assess how they perceive 100 “core” subjective feelings, compiled from the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, ranging from homeostatic states such as hunger and thirst, to emotional states such as anger and pleasure, and cognitive functions such as imagining and remembering. 

The participants were shown a list of the 100 core feelings on the computer screen, and asked to drag and drop each one into a box, placing similar feelings close to each other (try it for yourself). They also had to rate each feeling according to how much it is experienced in the body, how much of it is psychological, how pleasant it feels, and how much control they think they have over it. 

Their descriptions of the core feelings clustered into five distinct groups, based on similarity: Positive emotions, such as happiness and togetherness; negative emotions, such as fear and shame; thought processes, such as hearing and memorising; homeostatic sensations, such as hunger and thirst; and sensations associated with illness, such as coughing and sneezing. 

In another online experiment, Nummenmaa and his colleagues asked the participants to indicate exactly where in the body they felt each state, by colouring in a blank body shape, allowing them to map the bodily sensations associated with the each of the 100 core feelings.

The researchers then pooled these data to create “bodily sensation maps” for each of the core feelings (see image, above). For example, the participants localised the feeling of anger to the head, chest, and hands; feelings of hunger and thirst to the stomach and throat, respectively; and the feelings of ‘being conscious’, imagining, and remembering entirely to the head.

The maps showed that, despite the similarities, each core feeling was associated with a unique set of bodily sensations. For example, participants reported perceiving anger mostly in the head and hands, anxiety mostly in the chest; and sadness in the chest and head. Although similar feelings produced similar body maps, the intensity and precise distribution of bodily sensations associated with each was unique.

That both anger and fear were associated with intense bodily sensations in the head and chest adds to past work showing that both these emotions involve remarkably similar physiological changes to the body, and further explains why we usually have to depend on context to help us interpret the emotional meaning of our sensations.

The new results provide yet more evidence for the emerging idea that the body plays a crucial role in cognitive and emotional processes – something which has, until very recently, been overlooked. “In other words,” says study co-author Riita Hari, “the human mind is strongly embodied.” 

Maps of subjective feelings

Post written by Mo Costandi (@Mocost) for the BPS Research Digest. Mo trained as a developmental neurobiologist and now works as a freelance writer specialising in neuroscience. He wrote the Neurophilosophy blog, hosted by The Guardian, and is the author of 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know, and Neuroplasticity.

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“My-side bias” makes it difficult for us to see the logic in arguments we disagree with

Screenshot 2018-10-09 09.28.52By Christian Jarrett

In what feels like an increasingly polarised world, trying to convince the “other side” to see things differently often feels futile. Psychology has done a great job outlining some of the reasons why, including showing that, regardless of political leanings, most people are highly motivated to protect their existing views.

However a problem with some of this research is that it is very difficult to concoct opposing real-life arguments of equal validity, so as to make a fair comparison of people’s treatment of arguments they agree and disagree with.

To get around this problem, an elegant new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has tested people’s ability to assess the logic of formal arguments (syllogisms) structured in the exact same way, but that featured wording that either confirmed or contradicted their existing views on abortion. The results provide a striking demonstration of how our powers of reasoning are corrupted by our prior attitudes.

Vladimíra Čavojová at the Slovak Academy of Sciences and her colleagues recruited 387 participants in Slovakia and Poland, mostly university students. The researchers first assessed the students’ views on abortion (a highly topical and contentious issue in both countries), then they presented them with 36 syllogisms – these are formal logical arguments that come in the form of three statements (see examples, below).

Screenshot 2018-10-09 09.31.06.png

The participants’ challenge was to determine whether the third statement of each syllogism followed logically from the first two, always assuming that those initial two premises were true. This was a test of pure logical reasoning – to succeed at the task, one only needs to assess the logic, putting aside one’s prior knowledge or beliefs (to reinforce that this was a test of logic, the participants were instructed to always treat the first two premises of each syllogism as true).

Crucially, while some of the syllogisms were neutral, others featured a final statement germane to the abortion debate, either on the side of pro-life or pro-choice (but remember this was irrelevant to the logical consistency of the syllogisms).

Čavojová and her team found that the participants’ existing attitudes to abortion interfered with their powers of logical reasoning – the size of this effect was modest but statistically significant.

Mainly the participants had trouble accepting as logical those valid syllogisms that contradicted their existing beliefs, and similarly they found it difficult to reject as illogical those invalid syllogisms that conformed with their beliefs. This seemed to be particularly the case for participants with more pro-life attitudes. What’s more, this “my-side bias” was actually greater among participants with prior experience or training in logic (the researchers aren’t sure why, but perhaps prior training in logic gave participants even greater confidence to accept syllogisms that supported their current views – whatever the reason, it shows again what a challenge it is for people to think objectively).

“Our results show why debates about controversial issues often seem so futile,” the researchers said. “Our values can blind us to acknowledging the same logic in our opponent’s arguments if the values underlying these arguments offend our own.”

This is just the latest study that illustrates the difficulty we have in assessing evidence and arguments objectively. Related research that we’ve covered recently has also shown that: our brains treat opinions we agree with as facts; that many of us over-estimate our knowledge; how we’re biased to see our own theories as accurate; and that when the facts appear to contradict our beliefs, well then we turn to unfalsifiable arguments. These findings and others show that thinking objectively does not come easily to most people.

My point is valid, yours is not: myside bias in reasoning about abortion

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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