Stephanie Morgan


Around The World, People Co-operate More Willingly With Others From Their Own Country

By Matthew Warren

Many of the world’s most pressing problems require global co-operation. If we are to combat climate change or contain the spread of devastating diseases, for instance, we need to work across borders and share resources.

So a new study in Nature Communications doesn’t make for encouraging reading. Using a common paradigm for studying co-operation, Angelo Romano from the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and colleagues look at how more than 18,000 participants from 42 different countries co-operate with people from their own nation and elsewhere. They find that in every single country, participants show national parochialism: they co-operate more readily with people from their own country than with others.

Participants completed 12 trials of a prisoner’s dilemma task, each with a different partner who either came from their own country or another country (there were also some trials in which participants weren’t given any information about their partner’s nationality). In each trial, participants were given 10 “monetary units”, and had to decide how many to keep for themselves and how many to give to their partner. Any money they gave away was doubled — and any they received from their partner were doubled too — so in theory the optimal result would be for both parties to co-operate by giving away all of their money. Additionally, on some trials participants were told their decisions would be private, while on others they were told they would be published online.

The team found that people co-operated more (i.e. sent more money to their partner) when their partner came from the same country compared to when they came from a different country. This effect was statistically significant for 39 of the 42 countries, and the remaining three showed a non-significant trend in the same direction. It also didn’t matter whether or not their decisions were going to be made public: participants displayed this “national parochialism” either way. And although the decisions were all about a hypothetical pool of money, a sub-study in which participants actually received a monetary reward produced the same results.

Interestingly, the extent to which participants favoured co-operating with their compatriots over people from other nations was similar across the different countries, and the team didn’t find any evidence that this was related to cultural or political factors. By contrast, they did find that overall levels of co-operation varied by country and were related to particular factors. For instance, co-operation was generally greater in countries with more egalitarian values and those where there are more opportunities to establish new relationships with others.

The results suggest that national parochialism occurs around the world with surprisingly little variation. This is consistent with theories that our tendency to favour the in-group is a universal human behaviour, the authors write. However, they also note that past studies using different methodologies have found cultural differences in in-group favouritism, so further work is needed to understand the exact scenarios in which national parochialism emerges in different countries.

Still, the study shows that at least when it comes to making decisions about sharing goods with others, people are less keen to co-operate with those outside of their own country. While the paper focuses on decisions made at an individual level rather than those made by governments and institutions, the work has clear implications when it comes to understanding the obstacles to co-operating across borders. In fact, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that requires a co-ordinated, global response, yet in most low-income countries the vast majority of people haven’t received a single dose. The barriers to global co-operation are obviously multi-faceted, but national parochialism surely doesn’t help.  

National parochialism is ubiquitous across 42 nations around the world

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Most of us have some insight into our personality traits, but how self-aware are we in the moment?

Screenshot 2018-10-01 13.07.33.png
Correlations between momentary self-views and observed behaviour, from Sun and Vazire, 2018.

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.

It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).

In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.

The study, provisionally titled “Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment?” had two main components. First, 434 Washington University of St. Louis students were texted four times a day for 15 days and asked to rate themselves on four of the Big Five personality characteristics based on how they had felt and behaved during the previous hour: Extraversion, Agreeableness (only “if they reported that they were around others during the target hour”), Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. Of these 434 participants, 311 also wore a recording device paired with an iPod touch that recorded for 30 seconds every nine and a half minutes from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, generating a huge amount of audio data. (Before researchers had full access to the recordings, students were allowed to listen to them and erase anything they didn’t want the researchers to hear, but only 99 files were deleted from a cache that became “152,592 usable recordings from 304 participants.”)

Second, a veritable small army of research assistants – more than a hundred – listened to the recordings and rated the speakers on the same four personality states they had previously rated themselves on. For a subset of the study participants, then, researchers had three useful pieces of information: recordings of them going about their lives, participants’ rating of their own personality states during those periods, and outside observers’ rating of those same states. This allowed the researchers to measure the extent to which self-ratings correlated with other-ratings – that is, did Tom’s view that he was quite extroverted during a given hour match up with how others who heard him on audio interpreted his behaviour during snippets of that period?

And measure they did, generating a pretty cool series of graphs (see above). The more acute the positive, upward slope, the more there was agreement between self- and other-ratings. So as you can see, Extraversion was, by a significant margin, the personality characteristic for which people seemed to have the most accurate self-knowledge. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. For one thing, while intuition isn’t always an accurate guide on such matters, common sense would suggest that people are well aware of the extent to which they are actively and enthusiastically engaging in social activity, and that we’re all pretty good at judging others’ level of extraversion as well. Second, the authors note that this finding is “consistent with a large body of literature demonstrating high self-observer agreement on trait extraversion across a wide range of conditions.” The state with second-highest subject-observer agreement, as the graph shows, was Conscientiousness (again, perhaps because in-the-moment conscientious behaviour is pretty easy for both the self and others to discern).

What about the two other personality states, where there was significantly less subject-observer agreement? The tricky part about interpreting these findings, as the authors point out, is that there are two possible explanations: the first is that the subject really does lack insight into their temporary psychological states and that the external observers’ observations accurately captured this; and the second is that the observer was wrong because they only had access to a limited slice of audio that simply might not be enough to accurately gauge the subject’s state at that moment (remember, the raters had no visual information to go on – no body language, facial expressions, or anything else). 

So when it comes to Agreeableness and that rather flat line – meaning little agreement between subjects and observers – the authors argue that “it is plausible that people have less self-insight into their momentary agreeableness,” because Agreeableness has so much more to do with external, observable behaviours, and with other people’s perceptions of your warmth, than with internal “thoughts and feelings” (meaning that other people might naturally be better judges of this personality state). Neuroticism, on the other hand, is different – it’s a state much more characterised by internal feelings than by outward behaviour. So in that case, Sun and Vazire argue that their findings alone shouldn’t be seen as supporting the idea that people are bad at self-rating their present level of Neuroticism – rather, it’s more likely the audio just didn’t give the observers enough to go on.

As is probably clear, this is a complicated topic, and it seems likely that people are much better at understanding their present personality states in some ways than others. Sun and Vazire’s study was quite ambitious, and it offers a useful path forward for researchers hoping to learn more about an important issue. In the meantime, their general takeaway? “Our findings show that we can probably trust what people say about their momentary levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, and likely neuroticism. However, our findings also call into question people’s awareness of when they are being considerate versus rude.” Useful information – and probably not a surprise to anyone who has dealt with a bullying coworker who doesn’t seem to understand the impression he’s making on his colleagues.

Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment? [This paper is a preprint and the final peer-reviewed version may differ from the version that this report was based on]

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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A brief jog sharpens the mind, boosting attentional control and perceptual speed. Now researchers are figuring out why

giphyBy Christian Jarrett

If you wanted to ensure your mind was in top gear, which do you think would provide the better preparation – 15 minutes of calm relaxation, or a 15 minute jog?

A study involving 101 undergrad students suggests you’d be better off plumping for the latter.

Evidence had already accumulated showing that relatively brief, moderate aerobic exercise – like going for a brisk walk or a jog – has immediate benefits for mental functioning, especially speed and attentional control. A parallel literature has also documented how brief, aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on your mood, including making you feel more energetic, even when you don’t expect it to. In their new paper in Acta Psychologica, Fabian Legrand and his colleagues bridged these findings by looking to see if the emotional effects of exercise might be at least partly responsible for the cognitive benefits.

They asked their participants to rate how energetic and vigorous they were feeling and then to complete two cognitive tests (versions of the Trail Making Test, which involves drawing lines between numbers and letters as fast and as accurately as possible).

Next, they allocated half their student participants to go for a 15 minute group jog around the campus and the others to spend the same time following group relaxation exercises. Finally, two minutes after the jog/relaxation session, the students answered the same questions as before about their feelings of energy, and then they repeated the cognitive tests.

The students who went for a jog, but not the relaxation students, subsequently showed significant improvement on the version of the Trail Making Test that measures mental speed and attentional control (but not the other that taps memory and cognitive switching). Moreover, this improvement in cognition was fully mediated by their increased feelings of energy and vigour, implying – although not proving conclusively – that the jog boosted cognition through its effects on their subjective sense of having more energy (in contrast, the relaxation group actually felt dramatically less energetic).

Among the study limitations was the fact the relaxation session took place inside, while the jog was outside. Notwithstanding this issue and some others, and while recognising the need for more research, Legrand and his team said that their findings “add weight to recent suggestions that increased feelings of energy may mediate the relationship between aerobic exercise and some aspects of cognitive functioning.”

Brief aerobic exercise immediately enhances visual attentional control and perceptual speed. Testing the mediating role of feelings of energy

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

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