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Between You and Me

Four new ideas help crack the mystery of how we relate.

The Shared Brain

Self-regulation once seemed to be a solo project. But "a new line of research is showing how the brain 'outsources' regulatory tasks to others," explains Mario Mikulincer, editor of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. To conserve brain resources for tasks like learning, people may lean on close partners, offloading some of the burden of controlling impulses and emotions. An individual may not be able to calm himself, but if a partner can calm him, the end result is similar.

The Science of We

Beyond close partners, a wide social network shapes our thinking. There's now a trend, says Eliot Smith, editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "to broaden our focus beyond the isolated individual." People may like to think that they are the ultimate arbiters of their actions and beliefs, but the evidence shows otherwise. One recent study found that altering the behavior of certain high school students could change the larger group's perception of social norms.

The Outsider Effect

Few experiences are more painful than being excluded and ignored. Over a long period of time, recent research by Kipling Williams and Steve Nida reveals, being ostracized "is a form of social death." It eventually depletes coping resources; people learn to self-ostracize and come to "accept the essential message of their ostracism—that they are completely insignificant." Future research will look at why outcast individuals may be drawn into fringe groups, lured by the chance to finally belong.

The Reality Check

Social theories are often tested in the lab under conditions that may not mirror reality. That's changing, notes Smith, as researchers increasingly turn to "large-scale, real-world interventions with demonstrable and long-lasting effects." One recent example: A field study in a school found that Latino-American students who had been assigned daily affirmations earned higher grades than the control group—an effect that persisted for three years.