Friday, 20 November 2009

Some science news

In a recent issue of Psychological Science (to which I am subscribed), three of the five research articles were on topics that I thought would be interesting to a general audience.

(I'm afraid the links are only to abstracts - you need to be an APS member or browse from a university which has a subscription in order to see the full article. If you think this is unfair, or contrary to the scientific spirit of open inquiry, I agree. See here or here for some discussion of the issue of open-access academic publishing.)

I should open with a warning: none of these articles is in my field of expertise, so my interpretation of the results and their applicability to life in general may be inaccurate. But I think some extrapolation is warranted.


First, there's an article examining how we decide which side we'll go on when we approach an oncoming pedestrian on the sidewalk. Apparently, we use the direction their looking in as a cue to which side they'll go on, and we choose the other side. Not life-changing, I know, but interesting.

Now for the caveat: this is a single scientific study, and as such was very limited scope. Gaze direction was the only cue they looked at. Body language, social conventions (such as "always pass on the left"), and other factors may also influence how such encounters are resolved.

Nevertheless, next time I'm unsure which side to pass someone on, I'll consciously fix my gaze on one side and go that way, to see if that helps avoid that awkward mambo of mutual indecision.

Affirmation and persuasion

Second, there's one about how self-affirmation affects our attention to persuasive messages. Moderate drinkers who participated in a self-affirmation exercise (in this case, writing about one of their best traits) were more likely than the control group to attend to threatening aspects of an article about the dangers of moderate to heavy drinking.

They did not find the same effect in heavy drinkers. Also, they just measured attention. That is, they did not follow up to see if the affirmation group changed their behaviour as a result of their increased attention.

However, I can remember several times when I've tuned out a message because it seemed mainly to be trying to persuade me out of some belief or activity I was attached to. Perhaps if I were to engage in some sort of affirmation, I would be more able and willing to hear such messages through. If the message contains a good reason to change, then my increased attention might enable me to take that reason on board. If not, then I'll still be free to reject the message - but I'll do it because of the content and not because it's threatening to me.

Self-restraint and Impulsive Behaviour

Third, there's an article examining the connection between perceived self-restraint and actual impulsive behaviour. Briefly, if we think that we have great self-restraint, then we are more likely to put ourselves in situations which will test us, and ultimately we are more likely to engage in impulsive behaviour.

I'm not sure how broadly this can be extrapolated, but the "moral" that I draw from this study is that I should try to avoid overconfidence when it comes to my vices. The most pernicious of these, for me, is a desire to remain connected to the Internet. If I need to pay attention to something else (parenting, say, or dealing with bills), then an open laptop on the table is a bad idea.


I love science. I love cosmology, biology, physics, chemistry - the whole bunch. Every science I've come across has something to inspire awe, wonder, and delight. But nothing beats psychology for churning out knowledge with direct relevance to the way we live our lives.

Deena and I recently bought Richard Wiseman's new book, 59 Seconds, which promises to be a delicious exploration of just this sort of thing. A science-based self-help book. Awesome.

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