In brief: Climate change apathy, cooperation on the decline, and more research (2023)

Conservatism and climate change apathy

Research in Emotion suggests that people who are apathetic toward climate change may also be more emotionally unresponsive in other areas of their lives. To test this, researchers conducted three online studies with 633 participants to assess beliefs and emotional processes in those who profess to be political liberals versus those who claim to be conservatives. They found that participants with more blunted emotional responses to climate change tended to be male, conservative, and formally religious. These more impassive participants acknowledged humans’ negative impact on the environment but were less concerned about it and felt more confident that it could be overcome. Participants’ who identified as conservative were apathetic to more than just the environment. They also responded less emotionally to positive (e.g., happy babies and piles of money) and negative (e.g., wounded soldiers and moldy food) images unrelated to the environment. They were also less awed by nature, had a reduced ability to consider issues from others’ points of view, and experienced fewer emotions on a daily basis. DOI: 10.1037/emo0001072

A little kindness goes a long way

Random acts of kindness increase happiness in both givers and receivers, but givers underestimate the joy recipients will experience, suggests research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Across two studies, 121 participants in the United States performed an act of kindness for a fellow participant (e.g., giving away a cup of hot chocolate). The givers consistently reported their act was of less value than the recipients perceived it to be. In a third study, 100 participants received a cupcake, either given to them by a fellow participant or anonymously left for them in the study room. The former reported more happiness than the latter, though a separate group of 100 participants guessed that both groups of recipients would be equally happy. In a final study with 100 participants, the researchers found that kindness was contagious, as recipients of a gift, in turn, shared more money in a game than those who did not receive a gift. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001271

Is cooperation on the decline?

Not according to a large meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin, which points to a gradual increase in cooperation among strangers in the United States since the 1950s. Researchers analyzed the findings of 511 studies about cooperation conducted between 1956 and 2017 involving 63,342 participants. They found no evidence of a decline in cooperation over the 61-year period. Instead, they found a slight, gradual increase in cooperation over time that they attribute to increases in industrialization, income inequality, societal wealth, urbanization level, and percentage of people living alone. The researchers suggested that the associations between cooperation and these societal indicators have come about as more people find themselves living in cities and on their own, forcing them to band together with strangers. DOI: 10.1037/bul0000363

Let’s meet in person

According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, young people may feel happier after meeting up with friends in person rather than virtually. Researchers conducted three surveys between 2017 and 2020 with a total of 3,075 college students in the United States who reported on 87,976 social interactions. They also assessed aspects of participants’ personalities. They found that face-to-face interactions and mixed episodes (in person and virtual) were associated with the highest levels of well-being. These effects were particularly pronounced for individuals with high levels of neuroticism. Virtual communication was related to lower well-being compared with face-to-face interactions, but it was better than not socializing at all. Participants reported higher well-being after interactions with close peers than with family members or casual acquaintances, an effect that was heightened for in-person interactions compared with virtual meetups. DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000422

Sit and enjoy a nice think

New research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that people underestimate how enjoyable it is to just take a break and think. Researchers asked 259 university students in Japan to sit and wait in a quiet room without doing anything. Across six studies, participants enjoyed their experience more than they had predicted. The results held across variations in time spent (i.e., 3 minutes or 20 minutes), environment (i.e., bare room or darkened tent), and the time at which they reported their enjoyment level (i.e., halfway through or at the end). This underappreciation for how pleasant a quiet think can be led participants to choose an alternative task (i.e., checking the news on their phone) over the waiting task, despite post-experience ratings being about equal for both. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001255

Sleepy and selfish

Lack of sleep may make people selfish, according to research in PLOS Biology. In the first of three studies, nearly 80% of 24 participants in the United States reported a decreased desire to help others following a sleepless night compared with a restful night. FMRI scans showed that sleeplessness reduced activity in brain regions involved in social connection. In the second study, 136 participants kept a sleep diary and completed an altruism questionnaire for 4 consecutive days. The results revealed that individuals were more selfish after a poor night’s sleep than after a good one. For the third study, researchers analyzed more than 3 million charitable donations made between 2001 and 2016 in the United States. In weeks when people were robbed of a good night’s sleep caused by the beginning of daylight savings, they donated about 10% less money than they did in the weeks before and after. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001733

High on the environment

Following the consumption of a psychedelic substance, people are more likely to engage in behaviors aimed at protecting the environment, suggests research in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Researchers surveyed 240 online participants with previous experience using lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), magic mushrooms, or dimethyltryptamine (DMT) about psychedelic-related mystical experiences, as well as their personality traits and pro-environmental behavior, such as recycling or using mass transit. They found that those who experienced a genuine mystical state while on a psychedelic substance reported engaging in more pro-environmental behaviors. These participants also had higher levels of agreeableness and openness to experience. DOI: 10.1177/00221678221111024

Literary fiction and rich worldviews

According to research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people who read literary fiction as children and teenagers tend to have more sophisticated views of other people and are more critical of existing social structures as adults, compared with those who read different genres. Researchers surveyed 5,176 participants in the United States about their current and early-life reading habits, as well as several aspects of their personality. They found that, compared with other types of content with standardized plots and characters, participants who read literary fiction early in life held a more complex worldview. These participants had higher attributional complexity and psychological richness. They also were less likely to believe that inequalities in life are unavoidable and that people are unlikely to change. DOI: 10.1177/01461672221106059

Ultraprocessed foods and mental health

Consuming large amounts of highly processed foods is linked to higher risk of anxiety and depression, suggests research in Public Health Nutrition. Researchers measured dietary habits and indicators of anxiety and depression in a nationally representative sample of 10,359 adults age 18 and older in the United States. They found that compared with individuals who consumed the least ultraprocessed foods as a percentage of their overall daily calorie intake, those who consumed the most were more likely to experience mild depression and report more mentally unhealthy days and anxious days. DOI: 10.1017/S1368980022001586

Share news, become an expert

Sharing news articles on social media can make people think they have more knowledge about the articles’ topic than they actually do, indicates research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. In two studies, researchers told 423 students in the United States that they were free to read and share a set of online news articles. Reading and sharing the articles led to increases in both objective and subjective knowledge. Sharing articles even increased subjective knowledge when students didn’t read them. Three additional studies with 521 participants revealed that this effect occurs because sharing articles leads people to internalize the idea that they are experts. In a final study, the researchers assigned 300 Facebook users to read an article about investing and asked just half of them to share it. On a subsequent related task on retirement investing, the sharers took more risk, suggesting that sharing the article made them feel more knowledgeable, which gave them the confidence to make bolder decisions. DOI: 10.1002/jcpy.1321

Take a hike

A study in Molecular Psychiatry indicates that spending time in nature reduces activity in a region of the brain’s amygdala that activates stress. Researchers used fMRI to measure brain activity in the areas involved in processing stress in 63 healthy participants in Germany before and after a 60-minute walk in a forest or a busy downtown area, using a fearful faces task and a social stress task. They found that amygdala activation decreases after walking in nature, whereas it remains stable following a walk in a high-trafficked urban environment. DOI: 10.1038/s41380-022-01720-6

Cocoa may reduce cognitive decline

The molecules contained in cocoa may reduce cognitive decline, suggests a study in Antioxidants. Researchers performed a meta-analysis of 19 studies—9 observational and 10 interventional—involving 97,558 individuals that examined cocoa’s impact on cognitive functions as indicated by neuropsychological tests of global cognition, visual-spatial memory, semantic or episodic memory, and working memory. They found that all cognitive test scores were higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week compared with those who abstained. Some of the studies involved taking blood samples. These studies indicated that the beneficial effects of cocoa flavanols such as epicatechin might be because of indirect mechanisms of vasodilatation that improve peripheral blood flow and blood flow in the brain. Other beneficial effects may arise from cocoa biomolecules’ microbiota-induced gut metabolites. DOI: 10.3390/antiox11071353

Seeking treatment results in less self-harm

Suicide risk among people who engaged in self-harm was 3 times higher if the individuals failed to participate in recommended psychotherapy treatment, indicates a study in JAMA Psychiatry. Researchers analyzed a national cohort of 43,153 Norwegian patients hospitalized following a total of 69,569 incidents of deliberate self-harm between 2008 and 2018. Patients were followed for as long as 11 years. Of the followed patients, 6,762 (15.7%) were referred to psychiatric services after discharge, and 22,008 (51.0%) attended psychiatric treatment within 3 months of release. During follow-up, 911 patients died by suicide. Patients with psychiatric referrals generally had an increased risk of suicide, but the risk was particularly high among patients who received a referral but did not subsequently attend psychiatric treatment. The observed association was more pronounced during the first years of follow-up and in patients with a clear intent of self-harm. DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.1124

No evidence for “chemical imbalance” theory

A comprehensive review of prior research in Molecular Psychiatry finds no evidence for the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression, which states that low serotonin levels cause depression. Researchers conducted an overview of 361 existing individual studies and meta-analyses examining links between serotonin and depression in tens of thousands of participants. They found that serotonin levels were not associated with notable differences between people diagnosed with depression and healthy controls. The researchers speculated that the original positive links between serotonin and depression were likely explained by the use of antidepressants among people diagnosed with depression. Other studies looking at variations in serotonin transporter genes found no differences between people with depression and healthy controls. Additional studies in which researchers artificially lowered serotonin levels in hundreds of participants found that doing so did not induce depression. Finally, the researchers found evidence that study participants who used antidepressants actually had lower levels of serotonin in their blood over the long term, perhaps because of compensatory changes in the brain. DOI: 10.1038/s41380-022-01661-0

Breathing biomarker for Parkinson’s

A study in Nature Medicine reveals that monitoring breathing with a noninvasive device during sleep may be able to detect Parkinson’s disease. Researchers recorded more than 120,000 hours of sleep in 7,687 participants in the United States, including 757 with Parkinson’s. Using an artificial intelligence algorithm to analyze patterns in breathing data, they were able to differentiate between participants with Parkinson’s and those without with an accuracy of 85% to 90%. The results were the same whether breathing signals came from a belt worn around participants’ chests or from radio signals that bounced off their bodies while they slept. The algorithm was also able to indicate disease severity and track its progression over time. The researchers suggest the wireless, noninvasive device could speed up clinical trials, reduce the need for clinical visits among Parkinson’s patients, and enhance early disease detection. DOI: 10.1038/s41591-022-01932-x

Ketamine reduces depression and anxiety

A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology reveals that the anesthetic drug ketamine can relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Researchers examined data from 424 participants with treatment-resistant depression who were administered ketamine in three clinics in the United States between 2017 and 2021. All participants received six ketamine injections over 3 weeks, and patients who responded well received an additional four infusions. Within 6 weeks of beginning infusions, 50% of the participants responded to the treatment, and 20% experienced a remission of depressive symptoms. After 10 infusions, response and remission rates were 72% and 38%, respectively. Half of the participants with suicidal ideation were in remission after 6 weeks, and there was a 30% reduction in anxiety symptoms. Response and remission rates in the initial 6-week phase of treatment were on par with those for transcranial magnetic stimulation, but remission was lower than optimized trials of electroconvulsive therapy. DOI: 10.4088/JCP.21m14336

TBI and behavioral problems in kids

Children who experience a traumatic brain injury (TBI), even a mild one, may have more emotional and behavioral problems than kids who do not, according to a study in NeuroImage. Researchers analyzed MRI and behavioral data collected from 11,876 children ages 9 and 10 in the United States who participated in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. They found that among 199 children with mild TBI, there was a 15% increased incidence of an emotional or behavioral problem compared with those without such an injury. The co-occurrence was the highest in children around 10 years old. Researchers found that among 527 children who experienced a significant blow to the head but did not meet diagnostic criteria for a mild TBI, there was a 7% increased incidence of behavioral and emotional problems. The researchers did not find any changes in brain regions that meaningfully explained the relationship between mild TBI and mental health outcomes. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2022.119626

Masks still foil facial recognition

A study in Psychological Science indicates that more than 2 years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, adults still have problems recognizing people when their faces are covered by masks. Researchers tested a total of 1,732 Canadian participants’ ability to recognize faces obscured by masks at six different time points over 20 months (May 2020 to January 2022). They also studied the progression of this ability in 209 of the participants at two points 12 months apart (January 2021 and January 2022). Both studies revealed a lack of improvement over time in the facial recognition of masked faces. Additional studies verified that the amount of individual experience with masked faces was not associated with the mask effect. DOI: 10.1177/09567976221105459

Contagious infidelity

Research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that people are more likely to consider cheating on their romantic partner after being exposed to stories about others’ cheating behavior. Across three studies, 417 romantically involved Israeli participants were told about other people cheating on their romantic partners. The participants were then prompted to think of or encounter attractive strangers. Researchers recorded their relationship perceptions and reactions during these experiences. They found that following exposure to others’ cheating behavior, the participants rated the attractiveness of alternative partners higher than those not exposed to cheating. Participants confronted with others’ cheating also engaged in more flirtatious behavior than those not confronted. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-022-02392-7

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