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Ten Advances in Psychological Science in 2010

Ten advances in Psychological Science in 2010.

As we reach the end of 2010, the Psychology Today editors asked me (and a few other bloggers) to think about the ten most important papers of the year. I have decided to focus on ten significant advances in the science of psychology rather than individual papers, but spirit is the same.

Top 10 lists can be fun, because they give you a chance to look back over the research that has been done and to highlight trend. Over the course of the year, I wrote about a lot of research that was published in this year, and some of that has ended up on this list. However, the blog format requires not only that a paper be good, but also that it have a hook. That is, there has to be something about the research that people can connect with immediately. Not every advance has obvious relevance to your daily life right now, though some of this research may have important implications in the future. So, a top 10 list gives me a chance to highlight some of those advances as well.

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Here are ten advances in the field from 2010. The order of these is arbitrary and isn't meant as a ranking.

Your beliefs about psychological abilities matter. Carol Dweck and her colleagues have been working for many years to show that that you can think about most psychological abilities as talents that are inborn and unchangeable or as skills that can be acquired and changed over the course of the year. In studies published in 2010, research found that if you believe that your abilities are skills, you are better able to exercise willpower, to learn to trust people who have hurt you in the past, and to confront prejudice.

Advertising affects your choices without your awareness. Melanie Dempsey and Andrew Mitchell published a scary paper in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrating that being exposed to a brand along with other positive items creates positive feelings about the brand. Later, you choose that brand, even if it is objectively worse than others that you could have chosen.

The use of Bayesian Statistics. In a December article in The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer pointed out that some phenomena in the psychology literature are not always repeatable. One reason for this failure to replicate results comes from the kinds of statistics often used in Psychology. We use a procedure called Null Hypothesis Testing that was developed over 100 years ago. More recently, statisticians and psychologists have been working to create a new form of statistical testing based on Bayesian statistics. These methods may help us to avoid publishing studies that are not likely to replicate. John Kruschke published a nice tutorial on how to use these methods.

Distance matters. Over the past several years, Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope have been demonstrating that people think of things more abstractly when they are distant from you in space or time. In 2010, researchers demonstrated that this difference in abstractness affects a variety of aspects of thinking including your beliefs about whether something is true, your beliefs about political candidates, your likelihood of changing your attitudes, and your ability to negotiate successfully.

The brain tells us a lot when you're doing nothing. Cognitive neuroscience has been using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging for two decades to help us to understand what the brain is doing when you are thinking. A lot of early work focused on identifying particular brain areas that are involved in particular tasks. New research has looked at what the brain is doing when you are resting. The areas of the brain that are active together when you are not focusing on anything in particular provide important insights into the ways that areas of the brain are connected together. This technique of studying resting state activity became more prominent in 2010.

Video games. 2010 was a big year for research on the positive and negative effects of video games on behavior. On the positive side, video games with socially positive messages can increase helping behavior.  Video games may also make you faster at doing visual processing. On the negative side, violent video games promote aggressionPeople who believe that video games are a release from stress may be particularly vulnerable to playing violent video games, which may actually increase their aggression.  In addition, kids who live in houses with video game systems tend to do worse in school than those who do not have video game systems.

Exposure to Culture. As the world gets smaller, people have more opportunities to interact with members of other cultures. Lynn Imai and Michele Gelfand demonstrated that having skill at interacting with people from other cultures improves your ability to negotiate. In addition, William Maddux, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky found that living in another culture and adapting to the norms of that culture can make you more creative.

Performance and Stress. Events like the pilot who landed a plane safely in 2009 as well as shooters on college and high school campuses make it clear that we need to know more about how ordinary people perform under stress. A lot of great research on this topic was summarized in Sian Beilock's book Choke.

Money and happiness. We spend a lot of our lives working to make more money, because we believe that having money will bring us happiness. A paper by Travis Carter and Tom Gilovich suggests that money will make you happier if you buy things that give you experiences like vacations and enrichment classes rather than stuff like cars and jewelry. In addition, Chrisopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore found that we tend to compare the amount of money we make to what the people around us make. We are happiest when we earn more than other people in our own social group.

Categories matter. When you categorize things, you generally assume that the members of that category have some inner essence. Saying that someone votes Republication feels different than saying that are a Republican, because when you categorize them, you are communicating that they have inner qualities that make them a member of that category. Andrei Cimpian, Amanda Brandone, and Susan Gelman found that when we hear generic statements about categories like "Robins are red," we believe that almost all members of that category have the property, even though we don't need that much evidence to be willing to use a statement like that. This work has important implications for stereotypes.

And Finally...Limericks. Every list of advances should also list one step back that the field has taken. This year's step back comes from the University of Texas Limerick Committee, which was featured in the December, 2010 issue of the APS Observer.

I hope you learned a lot in 2010. Here's to a great year of Psychological Science in 2011.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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