We assume physically attractive people are clever too.

We assume physically attractive people are clever too.

We manage to get through the complications of modern life by using heuristics. These are mental rules of thumb which may or may not be accurate, but which save us time and effort. For example, when we see someone and judge them to be attractive, we also tend to assess them as intelligent, kind, sociable and athletic. Of course, these are all things we cannot actually judge by looking at them, but this doesn’t stop us. It is called the Halo Effect and we all do it all the time.
To properly assess somebody’s intelligence or kindness would be quite difficult and would take some considerable time to do, so we use a shortcut. We look for something we can measure more easily and use that instead: physical attractiveness is most often used because it can be easily assessed at a glance.
Usually someone who is assessed positively for attractiveness is assessed positively on other scales too, but this can occasionally go the other way. If a lady fits the look of a “bimbo” she may be classed as physically attractive but probably unintelligent. Instead of being a result of the halo effect though, this would be straying into the realm of stereotypes.

We form a first impression within one tenth of a second of meeting someone

We form a first impression within one tenth of a second of meeting someone

It is well known that we make first impressions remarkably quickly, but few people realise that it is almost instantaneous. Willis and Todorov showed some participants pictures of faces for only one tenth of a second and others for as long as they wished. The participants then had to rate the people pictured on a range of traits such as attractiveness and trustworthiness.
The way participants rated any given face correlated well. This suggests that we all agree on what constitutes, for example, aggressiveness or competence in a face. For instance, someone with a high forehead and a long nose tend assessed as wise (this is possibly a result of confusing age with wisdom).
What also emerged from the study was that faces were rated similarly whether they were seen for one tenth of a second or several seconds. This suggests that the judgement is made within the first tenth of a second of seeing someone.
So it seems that you make a first impression of someone within the first tenth of a second of seeing them. Being able to study someone’s face for longer tends not to change your impression, but simply increases your confidence that your initial assessment was correct.

Mental tiredness can obstruct the important benefits of watching TV

Mental tiredness can obstruct the important benefits of watching TV

Mental, physical and emotional effort can result in us being “ego depleted”, which means we are running low on the resource needed for those kinds of effort. In this state we are less likely to benefit from the relaxation of watching TV.
Watching TV and playing video games may feel like a bit of lazy time-out to us sometimes, but can actually be very useful in aiding recovery from stress according to some studies. On the other hand, some studies show the opposite.
Leonard Reinecke et al looked into why some people benefitted from media usage and some didn’t. They found that people’s own appraisal of their media usage affected whether they benefitted or not. It seems that if someone is ego-depleted they are more likely to feel that watching TV is a waste of time and that they are putting off more important things that they should be doing. This prevented them from relaxing properly and reaping the down-time benefits of watching TV or playing games.
Those who were not ego-depleted were less likely to feel worried about wasting time and were able to gain the full benefits of the relaxation.
This, of course, causes an awkward situation: those who most need the relaxation of watching TV (those who are ego-depleted) are least likely to get it.
I should add that these findings in some ways go against other research into subjects like ego depletion. For example, ego depletion generally makes people less likely to feel guilty, so it is unclear why they felt guilty in this case.

Parole judges should snack regularly.

Parole judges should snack regularly.

Parole judges should snack regularly – as should anyone who makes important decisions.
One of the problems with being ego-depleted (when the combined resource for mental, emotional and physical effort has been drained) is the difficulty in putting effort into decision making. In this state of ego-depletion you are more likely to fall back on whatever the default option is, rather than investigating all the possibilities and carefully choosing the best one.
Danziger et al studied the timings and decisions of parole judges. Their job was to decide whether a prisoner should be granted parole or not, with the default position being that they should not – that is, they were to be granted parole only if there was a good reason. At the start of the day about 65% of prisoners were granted parole. This gradually went down until, for a period of time before lunch, almost no prisoners would be given it. After lunch the rate went back up to 65% and gradually declined once more. The longer it had been since the judges took a break and food, the more likely they were to defer to the easy option – the default judgement of no parole.
Eating snacks can help to keep the blood sugar level up, resulting in better decision making.
If you make important decisions, make sure your brain is rested and fed enough. You should take regular short breaks and eat something to restore the glucose levels in your blood. Becoming ego-depleted from exertion without rest and fuel means you risk settling for the easy option rather than choosing the correct course of action.

Going to the gym may make you less likely to perform a favour.

Going to the gym may make you less likely to perform a favour.

Feelings of guilt are important drivers of prosocial behaviour. If we feel guilty about something, we are more likely to do a favour for someone else.
Ego depletion is a state in which our combined resource for emotional, physical and mental effort has been drained by exertion in one of those areas, and has not had time to recover.
If someone is in a state of ego depletion they are less able to feel guilty and are therefore less likely to participate in prosocial behaviour – that is, behaviour which helps other people or society in general. Therefore, if you have had a hard session in the gym you are likely to be ego-depleted and are therefore less likely to perform a favour for someone else.
Begue and Bushman tested this hypothesis by getting their participants to watch a horrible film, but half of them had to suppress their emotions (one way of producing a state of ego-depletion). All the participants then took part in a game in which they saw other people being punished for the participants’ errors. This was designed to induce feelings of guilt. Finally, the participants were given the opportunity to donate, anonymously, to a charity. The people who had been told to suppress their emotions felt less guilty than the others, and were less likely to donate to the charity.

A hard session at the gym decreases your ability to resist temptation.

A hard session at the gym decreases your ability to resist temptation.

Physical, emotional and mental effort all seem to draw from the same attentional resource. This pool of attention is limited and a period of effort in any of these forms runs down this resource. It’s exhaustion leaves us in a state known as ego-depletion. In this state we are less able to concentrate well at physical, emotional or mental tasks. We are also less able to exert will power when faced a tempting offer.
Baumeister et al conducted several experiments in which people had to make themselves eat radishes instead of chocolates, suppress their emotions or make difficult calculations and so on. They then had to perform another task requiring will power or concentration. The emotionally, mentally or physically tired people would perform the second task less well than those who had not had to do the first one. For example, if they had been thinking hard about a mathematics problem, they would then be more likely to choose a chocolate cake to eat than a salad.
The psychologists’ conclusion was that “the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.”
So, next time you come out of the gym after a hard session, beware of advertisements. You are far more likely to succumb to temptation than you were before you went in.

Inattention Blindness: You don’t even see a lot of what you are looking at.

Inattention Blindness: You don’t even see a lot of what you are looking at.

If you are reading this online, first follow this link and watch the video, then come back.
You would think that if you are looking in a particular direction then you see whatever is there, as long as it is light enough. Unfortunately not. Inattention blindness is the term given to the fact that we miss some things that we are looking directly at, simply because our attention is focused on something else. Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris brought this phenomenon to the public with their basketball video, but it has been shown in other experiments too. The more focused your attention and concentration are, the more likely you are not to notice something unexpected.
The most obvious real-world situation where inattention blindness can have serious consequences is driving. You are fine if you are driving along a clear road in the daylight, which requires very little attention, whilst holding a conversation with a passenger. However, trying to negotiate a difficult, busy junction at night makes you pause the conversation because all of your attention is required for the driving. Your passenger realises this and shuts up so you can concentrate.
Scholl et al had their participants watch a screen and count the number of times various grey shapes bounced off the sides of the monitor. After a while a bright red shape moved across the screen and 30% of the participants didn’t notice it. That was classic inattentional blindness. Then the experimenters repeated the experiment with people who also had to carry on a conversation on a hands-free phone. The number who didn’t even see the bright red shape went up to 90%!
Someone on the other end of a phone call doesn’t know you are coming up to a tricky junction and that the conversation should be paused. They continue speaking, you feel you should continue to listen to them and respond appropriately. You are now so concentrated on trying to negotiate a tricky junction, whilst attending to the conversation, that you are far more likely (90% in that experiment!) not to notice the unexpected (a cyclist perhaps).
You may protest that you have never failed to notice anything before, but think about it. Unless you actually crashed into something, how would you know?

Multitasking is a myth – so don’t even think about it!

Multitasking is a myth – so don’t even think about it!

When I state that multitasking is a myth, I am not talking about chatting to a friend on the phone whilst you stir a pot with one hand and close a cupboard door with your foot. I mean mental multitasking: we cannot pay proper attention to more than one thing at a time. The brain can only process one stream of information at a time. What we tend to do when we think we are multitasking (watching the football whilst reading a book, perhaps), is flick between the two. And each time we switch our focus from one thing to the other we have an “attentional blink”, which is a brief period when we are focused on nothing at all. If we try to multi-task a lot these attentional blinks can add up to quite a large block of wasted time.

You may protest that you are very good at multitasking, but just because you think you are does not make it so. Trying to focus on two separate things is asking one piece of apparatus (the “paying attention” part of the brain) to do two things at once. It is akin to trying to whistle and talk at the same time with just the one mouth.

I’m afraid the news gets worse. A study at Stanford University in 2009, conducted by Clifford Ness, split the participants into those who did regular “media multitasking” (watching TV whilst checking emails and Facebook, and so on) and those who didn’t. They were given a series of tasks and the regular multitaskers consistently made more mistakes. It appeared that they could not stop themselves from trying to monitor irrelevant information in their field of view; they could not focus properly on the task in hand.

Washing your hands makes you less likely to do someone a favour

Washing your hands makes you less likely to do someone a favour

If we feel guilty about something, washing our hands can help to assuage that guilt. It seems that physical washing cleanses us of our moral transgressions. This is known by psychologists as the Lady Macbeth Effect because of the way Macbeth’s wife, in the Shakespeare play, tries to scrub the imaginary blood off her hands.
It is possible that the effect is due to the prevalence of washing in religious rituals, or perhaps it is the other way round: maybe religious rituals include washing because of its effect on the psyche.
Many experiments have shown the power of the Lady Macbeth Effect, particularly several conducted by Zhong and Liljenquist.
One experiment had participants recall behaviour about which they felt ashamed. Half were then asked to wash their hands whilst the other half did not. All were asked, as they left the building thinking the experiment was over, to do a favour for a stranger. Those who had not washed their hands were much more likely to agree to the request because they had not washed their guilt away, and still felt they had to do something to atone.
Another experiment had participants tell a malicious lie either over the phone (using their mouths) or by email (using their hands). Those who had lied with their mouths later showed a preference for mouthwash over hand sanitizer, and those who had lied with their hands preferred hand sanitizer over mouthwash. The method of absolution thereby matched the sin.

If you have old age in the back of your mind, you may behave older

If you have old age in the back of your mind, you may behave older

Social psychologists love studying the effects of “priming”. This is where they subtly activate schemata we have in our minds without us noticing they have been activated. A schema is like a post-it note in our heads with our beliefs about a concept. For example, our schema for older people might be that they are wrinkled, grey-haired people who move slowly and may use walking aids. A psychologist may activate this schema in you by giving you verbal tasks to perform with some words thrown in which could be linked to old age.
Having a schema activated makes you quicker to recognise associated objects and words. Your schema for bananas might be activated by your being exposed to the words fruit, curved, yellow and so on, carefully placed amongst plenty of irrelevant ones. You will then more quickly recognise the word banana. You would also more quickly recognise (when reading or hearing) words and concepts you associate with bananas: perhaps fruit in general, monkeys, or even the jungle.
Having a schema activated can also make you behave in that way. For example, having rudeness activated made people more likely to interrupt an on-going conversation to ask a question. Bargh, Chen and Burrows found that people with their schema for old age activated subsequently walked more slowly.
Because, in the USA, people stereotypically go to Florida to retire, this effect became known as The Florida Effect.

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